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How the Potato Chip Was Invented by Daniel M. Shapiro

How the Potato Chip Was Invented by Daniel M. Shapiro

Reviews, Vol. 8.2, June 2014
Sunnyoutside, 2013
ISBN: 978-1934513408
Paperback, 92 pp., $13
Review by Marie Loeffler

“At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialog of two passersby meeting in the crowd…” –from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Anyone familiar with Italo Calvino’s imaginative fiction may appreciate Daniel M. Shapiro’s How the Potato Chip Was Invented. In his first full-length collection, Shapiro condenses speculative tales with a modern and (sometimes) coarser perspective of celebrity lives—or lives influenced by celebrity culture—into whimsical scenarios that mirror reality so closely they could easily morph into urban legends. Shapiro explores notions of fame and character idiosyncrasies with humor and insight, treating a broad range of cultural icons past and present, while depicting, consciously or not, how pop culture at large influences human experience.

Few people ever meet dignitaries at the cinema (VIPs tend to be awarded special protection in the public sphere) but Shapiro turns the improbable into the probable with “Richard M. Nixon Attends Star Wars Premiere, Brea Mann Theatre, 5/25/77.” This poem depicts President Nixon’s attempt to lead a normal life as he mingles with an ordinary crowd: “Hell-bent on seeing the latest space movie, he insists on standing in a line infested with kids.” There’s no mention of the crowd’s fascination with Nixon’s celebrity or infamy, but his usual isolation from mass entertainment becomes evident in his ever-increasing impatience and disdain for the movie, which eventually leads to a fantastic comical aside:

Deeming Skywalker a long-haired sissy, he
waits for a positive, taking in exotic characters that
remind him of trips overseas. Finally, he beams as
Vader tenses up his fist to cut off a minor character’s
breath. He mumbles to Pat: Now that’s something
that could’ve come in handy.

Shapiro’s tone turns reflective in “The Silent Circle,” as he explores economic depression and its possible effects on the silent film industry, how art may be abandoned for material in lean times. He states, “Financial weakness spread Universal: In the 1920s, / the studio laid waste [with fire] to a ghastly lot of Lon Chaney / films because it needed the silver.” As the poem closes, Shapiro’s words melt into a haunting yet beautiful image that brings to mind the cool white light of lithographic film and demonstrates the lasting ramifications of the utility years after Chaney’s films are destroyed:

The silver could be anywhere now, maybe sitting
in a permanent dungeon but perhaps in a ring on
display at the jewelry store around the corner. The
woman who buys it may find herself making an
obscure, fluid gesture, a hand movement she can’t
explain that takes the place of words.

Shapiro’s insightful poem, “Language Acquisition,” seems to resonate a deeper personal meaning for childhood and a moment of maternal and linguistic bonding rooted in film; perhaps the genesis of his love for words, writing, and theatrical imagery:

I crawled beside the black and white while Mom
watched, snickered at words, at how words can fit
where they don’t belong, at how her favorite per-
formers blushed when put on the spot. She propped
me up on her lap to see and hear them say a phrase
at a time, even one word, after which a bell would
ring.

The poem ends with a soulful switch-off moment that fades out like an old tube-television screen: “Mom had read a book about the bells we/associate with rewards until only a sound is left.”

This collection of poems-as-snapshots shows Shapiro’s ability to fuse imagination and cultural knowledge in a style that progresses with a film-like cadence. His colorful portraits, or caricatures of celebrities, stand well alone as tributes to those often larger-than-life figures, past and present, who shaped the cultural landscape of many generations of Americans. Politics, theater, film, visual art, drama, music, and personal recollection flicker by—one slide at a time—like a movie reaching its viewer’s eyes; the relationship of author and reader very well becoming a “dialog of two passersby meeting in the crowd.”

Ten Thousand Car Hood Lakes Shimmering After Rain by Amy Wright

89 by Marius Surleac

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