By Peter Bates
War. Pestilence. Global warming. Layoffs. Financial ruin. Lawsuits. Bad hookups. There are random forces poised to get you, most of the time when you least expect them. Some of us organize our lives in patterns that create a sort of balance. We forge schedules, we label stuff, we categorize, all to squeeze this mad mad world back in line.
My ex-dentist lined his office with labeled drawers, at least forty of them. In that tiny room chaos didn’t stand a chance. I once dated a woman whose kitchen drawers were filled with twist ties. Organized by length. I suggested she subdivide them by color and she instantly fell in love with me. Lately I’ve started weighing the raisins I put in my morning cereal – 10g for hot cereal, 5g for cold.
bart plantenga, born in Amsterdam, emigrated to the US when he was 6 and after having moved 42 times, is now back in Amsterdam. He’s the author of the novels Beer Mystic and Radio Activity Kills, and the short story collection Wiggling Wishbone. Among his many memoirs are Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. He’s an authority on yodeling, and has written YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi.
His new book LIST FULL: List Poems of Necessary Orderliness, also forges order upon a messy world. Wait, not sure that’s correct. Possibly it satirizes the attempt to forges order on the wobbly world of things.
Here are some examples. “List of Places Lived [1954– ]” starts out directly, almost normally:
“Badhoevedorp, NL: 1954, born where people in airplane industry lived.”
Then come the creative gripes:
“Kew Garden Hills, NY: 1979 bad heat desolate apt
Manhattan, 319 E 13: 1980, dark dingy apt, 1 million roaches”
Of course they only get more expressive.
Each poem is a well-ordered list of some sort. Sometimes just the existence of a list – that Plantenga kept such a list at all – seems outlandish. “The Importance of Noticing Phenomena Through Lists” seems like a not-so-interesting list. It’s just a series of dates. But what do they signify?
“Ten years ago, after the holidays, after the Xmas tree had come down, I began to notice while vacuuming in January, February, March, April … that I was still finding unvacuumed pine needles from the tree in less than obvious spots. I decided to note the date when I spotted the last needle.”
Never have I read of such a list. It is pure list-for-list’s sake. It mocks the very idea of organization. Like Julian Montague’s photo book Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: a Guide to Field Identification, it creates its own obsessive taxonomy, imparting a wacky sense of order to Xmas decoration detritus.
In another poem, he accompanies his mother, who has dementia, to Big Lots discount store. He leaves her alone for a minute and she fills the cart with candy, which Plantegna dutifully lists. He even includes a photograph of the incident.
“Dots, Mike & Ikes, Bottle Caps, Sweet Tarts, Sugar Babies, Sour Patch, Boston Baked Beans, Red Hots, Gobstoppers, Chuckles, Swedish Fish, Jujyfruits, Starbursts, Pop Drops, Sweet Tarts, Crunch, Caramel Creams, Lemonheads, Blow Pops . . .”
It goes on for another page. Once again, it’s not the list itself that’s notable, but Plantenga’s prelude to the incident:
“I had to wrestle them from her desperate clutches with her swearing under her breath as I returned about a dozen boxes to the shelves – her nursing facility didn’t allow sweets. It’s not much of a stretch to say that this aisle was my mother’s version of Amsterdam’s Red Light District.”
There are many categories of list poems in LIST FULL. Many even qualify as new types of objets trouvés.
Lists of other people’s objects:
- “List of Gayle’s Electrical Appliances”
- “Summer things to Do.” This is his wife’s childhood list at 12. She knew in advance it would be needed.
- “Paolo di Prima Packrat Treasure 2018-19.” This is a meticulous/bizarro inventory of a packrat’s attic, his mother-in-law.
Lists of jarring social significance:
- “Weird Last Meals of Americans on Death Row”
- “List Reveals Slumlord Focus of an Artist 1983”
- “List of Absurd Statements by Morgan Stanley Employees 1994”
- “List for Anti-War Radio Show & Anti-Gun Protest at US Embassy Amsterdam 2018″ Wreck [ANTI]War 1213 / Amsterdam / 20.04.18.” This is a list of anti-war musical compositions.
Lists containing Dadaistic images:
- “List of Mystifying Details Ann Arbor 1978”
- “SWEATSHIRT HAIKU [Abridged List]”
- “List From A Lost Surrealist”
Lists of things to do:
- “List To Do ”
- “List of Ex’s Reminders to Herself ”
- “Journals To Subscribe To”
- “7/9 Note” This is a scanned photograph of somebody’s ragged list.
Lists of historic significance:
- “25 Interesting Recipes: [from an old cookbook my mother sometimes consulted]”
- “List of 2016 Gothamist Headlines”
- “The Crazy Corona Cures”
Lists of autobiographic/diaristic entries:
- “List of Christina’s 2005 Calendar Entries”
- “Abridged List Pre-Move Busy 1996 NY-NL”
- “List of Foot Messenger Deliveries”
Lists in the Introduction:
- “List of Famous List Makers”
- “Famous Lists”
- A bibliography of books about lists
- The table of contents itself, a list of the poems in the book
You may find more list poems in each of these categories and possibly more categories, each with its own sturdy reason to exist. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Though this be quirky, yet there is method in ‘t.”
The last page is a scan of the number one list. The quintessential list. The king of all lists. “What is it?” you ask. Alas, I’m not telling you. But I will say this: number one will surprise you.
Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He has exhibited widely in New England and Florida and has published his writing in many literary magazines for the past forty years. He is currently working on two memoirs: a comic memoir about school in the sixties called The Greatest Hits of Junior High: Bullies, Buddies, Girls, and Catholics and a novella-length memoir about a late sixties escapade called Our Sixties Abortion.