Book Review: This is Not…the End of the World
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
This is a fantastic book—challenging, musical, art-filled, and fun. I’ve been reading it since September, when it first arrived. It’s dedicated to musicians who died too soon, and it celebrates songs from the MTV music-video era. We didn’t have cable or MTV when I was growing up, but I enjoyed music videos when I saw them at other people’s houses. Though I was tickled to recognize many of the song titles in the table of contents for (This is Not a) Mixtape for the End of the World by Daniel M. Shapiro, a book of wonderful prose poems, I worried that I’d be too ignorant of the popular music/MTV scene to “get it.” So when I saw a chance to attend a Zoom talk by the poet, with snippets of MTV videos, I did, happily! And then I realized I’d need to let the book sit long enough to come back to it with first and second impressions sifted into third impressions, like baking powder and salt sifted into flour. So, post-holiday baking, here I am at the end of year, if not the end of the world!
The book begins, in “I Found Someone,” with the fairy tale of life as lived in song lyrics: “Once upon a time there was time. People would live each day in cliché, believing breaking up mattered, cheating mattered.” And so on. But the speaker of the poem knows that there is trouble in life bigger than youth’s desires and disappointments and the romantic crisis of the song’s plot. And how terribly true that is in 2020, and in reality in general. “I Found Someone,” the song, was written by Michael Bolton for Laura Branigan, but it was a bigger hit when Cher recorded it and made the music video. Shapiro blends all this together with the sadder-but- wiser listener’s reaction to, and rejection of, any Cher-like easy happy ending, “as if your remake mattered more than the original.”
“Talk of the Town” definitely describes the music video done by The Pretenders, with black and white platforms and spots of red, arranged by “the powers” who tell the band “to remove the color from your skin.” Creepy, right? “Only the drummer’s outfit matters, red to draw the eye, to make beats look like blood in the binary light.” But when I retrieve my first impression and mix it with my third reading, I still feel a summer of protests and ongoing systemic racism slicing us up when a “director positions you and the others on matrices, tells you not to worry about the order of operations that shift whites to blacks, blacks to whites.” I know this can’t be there, but still it is, somehow, in the manipulation of the band and the injustice of the world. I “feel blades dig in,” just as Chrissie Hynde must, singing in the manipulated matrix, watching the finished music video. I know I can’t believe someone who says “you’ll block out whatever seems traumatic. You won’t even remember none of this was your fault.” Because it is. I’m not blaming Shapiro; I’m blaming me.
So this is what keeps happening: 1) The poems work as prose poems, in a dreamlike, surreal way, though with wonderfully simple language and short sentences. 2) They work as interactions with music videos, which will give special delight to those who know those music videos, bands, song history, biographical details, et cetera. 3) And they work in some mysterious other way, mixing with contemporary America and its quirks and woes, delights and routines, glories and shames. Shapiro has found the strangely perfect form. Describing the “plot” of a music video is a lot like describing the “plot” of a dream; it made sense while it was happening but not exactly in the retelling. And still, it makes a kind of sense.
Stop Making Sense is an album by Talking Heads, the soundtrack to a concert film! I should stop (worrying about) making sense! All I can say is this is a wonderful book that readers can experience in multiple ways—as prose poems that exist in themselves, speaking in word and image to get at the essence of things; as funny little glosses on music videos; and as amazing mixes of all of the above, also mixing the intellectual with the visceral. (This is Not a) Mixtape for the End of the World [I hope], nor the end of the world, but it has been the perfect book for the lingering, timeless fall, in the year 2020, and for the end of this year…and the beginning of whatever comes next!