Survival Tips for the Pending Apocalypse: New and Selected Poems
Reviewer: Brian Fanelli
Since the economic crash of 2009, there have been countless stories about the struggles that Americans face to pay their bills and the numerous jobs they must work to survive. There have been manifestos about student debt, the gig economy, and general economic inequality, to the point that it’s led to a resurgence of global populism. Shawn Pavey’s Survival Tips for the Pending Apocalypse: New and Selected Poems speaks to economic anxiety, late-stage capitalism, and the general perils facing America. In this collection, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits growl working-class tunes from a car stereo, while the speaker prays his vehicle will keep running. There are eulogies for some of America’s greats, including Alex Chilton and Lucille Clifton, and a general belief that music and literature can uplift us. Additionally, these poems offer a celebration of the natural world, especially in the fifth and final section, a beautiful contrast to the hyper-consumerism and 9-5 dread depicted in earlier pieces.
The opening poem, “Autobiography: after Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” is a good sample of what’s to come in the collection. In it, the speaker bemoans his job, hyper-capitalism, and general aspects of the middle-class lifestyle. Like Beat poet Ferlinghetti’s great “Pity the Nation,” Pavey’s poem is an honest critique of consumer culture. Yet, at the same time, he also praises various American writers and musicians, including Thomas Wolfe, Donald Hall, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. The speaker repeats the phrase “I am leading a quiet life,” before blending autobiography with broader aspects of American culture, both positive and negative. The ending lines are a good example:
I am leading a quiet life
in my place every day, mowing
the lawn and watching leaves change. I will
be there when the last
leaf falls this year and it
will mean something that I will
write down and scratch out
for being trite. I will
rake the leaves with Donald Hall
and have a talk with whatever happens next
in its dark and tattered robes
and ask it for a favor
just for me,
to take its fucking time.
The poem’s final lines echo threads that run throughout the collection, namely contrast between the natural world and capitalism. There is an acknowledgement of the middle-class lifestyle, including mowing a lawn. There is the nod to Donald Hall, one of the country’s great 20th Century poets, and there is an observation of the natural world, in this case the changing of the seasons and death. It’s an impressive balance.
Several of Pavey’s poems also depict the daily grind and focus on what gets us through the day. In “Turning 45,” the speaker delays entering a “fancy glass building / in a fancy office park” before sitting in a cubicle all day and drinking weak coffee. Instead of punching in right away, he hangs out in his car, listening to Springsteen’s “Jungleland” belt through the stereo. The poem also depicts intense longing for younger years, which causes a type of profound loneliness, especially in the opening stanza:
It’s that feeling you get when you pull into the parking
lot at work in the morning listening to Jungleland just as
Clarence steps out for the saxophone bridge and your
heart just breaks
at the loneliness of it and you can remember
making music when you were younger
getting lost in the joy of it
Yet, despite his gripes about his job and even his coworkers that he’s forced to make nice with, the speaker acknowledges that the feeling referenced in the opening line, that longing to be young again, is also what he shares in common with others, including his coworkers. As the final line of the poem says, “It’s that feeling.” The poem itself only end-stops in the final line, and its form reflects Clarence’s long, expansive solo on that classic Springsteen track. The form is fitting considering the layers of feeling and memory that the speaker ponders.
The book’s later sections, especially the fourth, bemoan the digital world. In “Lament in the Key of 4G,” for instance, a fascinating juxtaposition of natural world imagery and digital noise is quite effective. In the opening stanza, the Heartland’s howling winds is contrasted with concrete and cars, and by the final stanza, the speaker admits that no matter where we go, noise follows footsteps. There will always be driving, spending, and “working and working and working.” It is a rather grim picture, but in the final section, Pavey focuses almost solely on the natural world, perhaps as an act of resistance against the soul-crushing culture that many of the other poems depict.
In the closing “Tempus Fugue,” there are echoes of Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, and Transcendentalist thinkers in general. The poem begins with the narrative of a couple lying on the Morehead planetarium’s lawn, accompanied by the “trumpets of a breeze.” In this moment, they feel connected to everything, bound to all things “here and there / now and forever / then and never.” They transcend space and time, at least briefly, and when the speaker feels his lover’s fingers curl into his hand, it is a moment that matters far more than anything a camera could possibly capture. It is a single connection that holds such resonating power for the couple. The poem ends in prayer-like fashion with a simple “amen.” This meditation is the perfect end to Pavey’s collection, a celebration of real, human connection in a natural setting, a stark contrast to dead-end jobs and digital noise.
Survival Tips for the Pending Apocalypse contains poems about bad days, 9-5 exhaustion, and the ennui that American culture can produce. Yet, all of this is contrasted with poems that praise the power of literature and music, be it the late, great Clarence Clemons belting out a sax solo on a Springsteen record or Tom Waits’ gravelly voice. There are poems that celebrate and honor the natural world, even in the face of environmental catastrophe. Perhaps most importantly, and in the final section especially, Pavey’s work is a reminder to slow down, to listen a little bit longer to that favorite song, or to lay down outside, accompanied by nothing but a breeze and the touch of a lover’s hand, a real human connection.