Weaving Webs in Meghan Privitello’s Notes on the End of the World

Reviewed By

In his blurb for Meghan Privitello’s audacious, apocalyptic poetry chapbook, sam sax warns the reader that “you were mistaken when you thought you were picking up a book of poems & not a strange new knife.” Equal parts weapon epic, Notes on the End of the World joins a sisterhood of several contemporary apocalypse-inspired poetry collections about survival in a dystopian world. The Table of Contents of this chapbook lists each poem as a numbered entry counting the days leading to a seemingly inevitable, inexplicable apocalypse.

In this world beginning to fall apart, the speaker relays her uncertain impressions of a catastrophic scene: “I could almost believe the world planned for itself to fail.” The simplicity of this line grasps us: Couldn’t we believe it, too? Then Privatello uses litany to overwhelm us with scenery, leaving no room for the familiar, but rather completely drowning us in a new atmosphere, and giving us no choice but to believe it:

The hives are closing their doors.
The neighborhoods are liquidating.
The birds are going out of business…
…The spider crawling across my head
turned out to only be a small idea.

This spider weaves in and out of the collection, surfacing to tie what’s left of the world together, or perhaps to weave a trap for us. We are constantly ducking under and around destabilized images and trying to keep our heads above the syntax of naming and renaming as the speaker asserts her little agency over the world. It’s as if the speaker is working to understand this changing world while also denying herself as heroic, as she does in “Day 2”: “I do not have a totem animal. / I do not have a compass.” But this lack does not matter, as the rules are different here, and indefinable. Rather, we are immersed in a melding of juxtapositions: “We are both rotten and gentle, he says. / We are both animals and children, I say” (9). Emotions and imagery accumulate through the repetition of this dialogue as the storm of the narrative builds.

By “Day 5,” a storm forms as the tension grows. As the word “storm” itself is repeated, the literal image gathers weight, becoming loaded, ethereal, and apocalyptic on additional level. Tensions develop between storm and calm, the bodily and the ethereal, church and technology, the living and the dead, hunger and satiation. As the days continue passing, our speaker comes to terms with the horrifying ironies of this world:

I can’t come to terms with the fact that the astronaut who stood on the moon
and compared the earth to his pregnant wife’s stomach
will die in the same dismal flames as the man who is too large to leave his house
without removing the roof and hiring a crane.

In Notes on the End of the World, time is not linear. Memories of the past intersect with the present. In a flashback to a pre-apocalyptic carnival, we see signs of impending doom:

clowns and sword swallowers lay down,
made dirt angels and hoped their magic
would sprout them wings.

The familiar structure of both civilization and the natural world is collapsing, and yet the speaker never quite admits surprise or fear at her discoveries. Instead, we’re met with the diction of malaise: “Apparently, this is what happens when time announces its ending.” The interjection “apparently” implies an unknowingness or even lack of agency. Perhaps this malaise is a coping mechanism for this state of flux, as the absurd becomes normalized. Our speaker cares for a blind dog, who warns her in an almost Shakespearean way, to “Beware of shallow holes”:

If I take the ice pick out of my ears
I can listen to his reason, understand
how careless I’ve been with my body
and my tools.

Here, we’re forced to reckon with the normalization of absurdity. We must consider whether we trust this speaker, who relies on the words spoken by her blind dog, or question the ease with which she folds incongruities into the everyday. In moments like this, we want the speaker to stand up and make a declaration against this madness, and yet she never does. We’re left feeling complicit, a little sad, and very alone.

Privitello pulls us into this unstable terrain, luring us with skillful syntax and lush description. When we finally look up, we realize we don’t know where we are. The blind dog guides us to a sister’s house, where she and the speaker “lie naked under the pink sun, / convinced that burning is the simplest penance.” An innocent summer scene blisters into decay. Darkness permeates:

Days later, I peel the burnt skin off
her back, keep it in a pile
like old air-mail paper.

Even as we remember our own summer tans gone wrong, we grimace at the mention of flesh burning.

By the end of the chapbook, the poems are addressed to heavenly bodies as our speaker turns to angels, pleading, “Angels, this is your last chance.” As modern readers experiencing a swiftly changing world, we know this strange new helplessness. We feel it in our guts, this knife called the present, but when Privitello reminds us that “This is either how it begins or how it ends,” she holds us close. She turns the knife.

Stacey Balkun is the author of Sweetbitter (Sundress, 2021) and co-editor of Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Poetry. Winner of the 2019 New South Writing Contest as well as Terrain.org’s 10th Annual Contest, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2018, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and several other anthologies and journals. Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches creative writing online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft. Visit her online at www.staceybalkun.com. More from this author →