Book Review: LIST FULL: List Poems of Necessary Orderliness. By bart plantenga

A book with a new type of poetry. The poetry of the found list.

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.

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Unique Look Behind the Scenes

“Don’t ever assume things,” my aunt used to say. Just because What the Camera Didn’t See is a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood filming doesn’t mean it’s tawdry or sensationalistic. It’s not in the same category as say, Behind the Candelabra, Scott Thorson’s book about his years with Liberace. For one thing, it’s not ghostwritten. Cinematographer Alec Hirschfeld also happens to be a writer. A good one.

He operated a camera at many famous movies of the past fifty years like Taxi Driver, Goodbye Columbus, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Terminator. He reveals intriguing anecdotes about those (and other) films and his working methods. He also talks about problems that some of these films raised, like how Taxi Driver was physically challenging for the staff, and also psychologically to Hirschfeld. He felt like an outsider with his long hair and alternative lifestyle. (I well remember the time in which such differences mattered.)

As every creative knows, sometimes you take what work you can get. Hirschfeld also filmed some B movies, like The Last American Virgin. He uses his experiences on that film to tell about the changing attitudes toward on-screen nudity. In A movies, such scenes were generally treated with “sensitivity” and only the essential cast and crew members were allowed on set. In B movies, nobody cared, and people freely walked about during the nude scenes, some just to gawk.

He also uses his experiences with the black-produced film Cotton Comes to Harlem to write about the racial attitudes he grew up with, those of a middle-class educated Jewish boy. “If I had ever had a black friend . . . I might have understood how significant it was, in the face of institutional racism, that this film was being made at all.”

Hirschfeld deals candidly with his life. While building a successful career, his past was close behind. One day he discovers that he’d fathered a child in a short-term relationship from long ago. While unintended pregnancy was common in those years, I would’ve liked to have read more about his relationship with this newly-found daughter.

There are flashes of humor in this book. Unlike Tina Fey’s jokey memoir Bossypants, What the Camera Didn’t See features occasional wry observations like this one: when filming Jaws 2, the crew was beset by flocks of interfering butterflies. “Like the shark, they could not be reasoned with. I’ll bet you didn’t know that a whole bunch of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope, or a swarm if you’re not crazy about butterflies. I’m sure the production report said ‘swarm’, since, ‘shooting delayed by kaleidoscope of Monarchs’ is less ominous.”

This book is more than an excellent summer read. You may actually learn something from it.

Brickyard Stories 2.0: A Lynn MA Neighborhood Before and After Urban Renewal, edited by Carl Carlsen

Brickyard stories 2.0: A Lynn MA Neighborhood Before and After Urban Renewal is the most engaging oral history I’ve read about a place since Studs Terkel’s Chicago (1986).

Both books go directly to the source – the citizens – when writing about cities. Carl Carlsen did not depend upon the local historians, nor did he rely on the preconceived notions of contemporary news hacks. He sought out the guy living in the tenement demolished when a car crashed into it and the Black woman who owned her own hair salon and retired in her early 60s. These people, not the pundits, experienced the drudgeries and triumphs of neighborhood living.
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The beauty of a how-to book is not just that it teaches you what you know nothing about, but also that it nudges you back toward something you have known about but never tried.

STOP TYPING!: Write Better with Speech Recognition Speech-to-Text Software! by Keith Connes. $.99 (or free with Kindle Unlimited via Amazon).

Had I read this book six months ago, it would’ve saved me at least six hours of labor. I was writing an article that initially involved recording a phone conversation. I then had to transcribe that conversation with my nimble fingertips. Had I known more about Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, I would have not spent so much time transcribing. Continue reading “STOP TYPING!”

Book about a Beautiful Bridge

Not just a tribute to a beautiful bridge, but a thorough history of it.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge: Spanning Tampa Bay. By Nevin D. Sitler and Richard N. Sitler. Paperback. The History Press.

Ten years ago my wife and I toured Tampa Bay, looking for a place to retire. When we passed over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, we were amazed at the breathtaking ride across this stunning suspension bridge that unites Pinellas County with Manatee County. But my first thought was: “How exotic! We’re not in New England anymore. This is Florida.” Continue reading “Book about a Beautiful Bridge”

A Wry Look at the Indignities of Life

Why not write your autobiography? Don’t. Try this instead.

Keith Connes’ Latest Book

Not Your Everyday Memoir! : Humorous Essays, Lies, Rants, Short Stories and More! by Keith Connes

You’re a writer and you’ve clawed your way to the senior rung of life. But you probably haven’t gotten there without hearing at least one acquaintance suggest: “You have such wonderful stories! Why not write your autobiography?”

Don’t. Autobiographies are boring. Continue reading “A Wry Look at the Indignities of Life”

Before There Was Before, Poems by Wendy Drexler

Before There Was Before

“A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom,” Robert Frost famously said. Happily, most of the poems in Wendy Drexler’s Before There Was Before follow Frost’s advice. The ones that don’t simply stay at delight. And some, through their attitudes and themes about the natural world, are distinctly Frostian. Consider her poem “All These Years.” Using lush imagery, she describes the decay of leaves and trees, “bark peeled raw, the tree unhinging.” Then, in a final stanza, she enlists a verbal arabesque that would have stunned old RF: “Haven’t I been careless/expecting better,/or more, or something else, aren’t I always trying/to strip the sky bare?”

Or how about the poem “Relationship Theory,” in which she relates the well-documented symbiosis of alligators “protecting” islands of birds from predators. All they expect in return are a few hatchlings they knock from trees. “Hard to tell, exactly,” Drexler muses, “if protection always comes at such a price . . . and what did I know,/ when I married young/perched out on the end of a pliant and precarious branch?” It’s a deft use of extended metaphor, the way she welds the human condition to details she observes in her world. Even crickets and beetles offer insight through her well-honed imagination. The cricket chirps in the early morning searching for something, like the young family she encounters crying at the bus stop for a father who won’t return, or the dead beetle in her basement whose life she wonders about: “And refused what? And raced where?/Sought what solace scuttling?”

Unlike her first volume, Drive-Ins, Gas Stations, the Bright Motels, not many of these poems are straight-on autobiographical. However, the few that are pack a wallop, as my uncle used to say. “The Book of Apology” begins simply enough, almost prosaically.

The last time I saw my mother I was reading
         on the patio, when she came out,

cinching her bathrobe around her,
        her wrists thin as a wren’s . . . .

Then, Drexler plunges deeply into self-reflection and the springs of guilt well up.

I didn’t really want to understand
        that she had just opened the door 

the dying must pass through to leave us
        And what did I do or say to her then?

The ending, too intense to reproduce here, is guaranteed to provide sufficient gooseflesh for the most hardened reader.

One year before the twentieth century, a modern writer first used what I call the what-next? strategy to end his writings. Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog (1899)” is about an affair between a Russian banker and a young lady he meets while vacationing in Yalta. The lovers, plunged in secrecy and deception, are at a loss about what to do. Here is the last sentence:

And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.

That’s it. This classic what-next? offers no clues. Drexler uses the same technique with characteristic finesse. In “The Birch,” she leaves us with her five-year old self, trying to make sense of her parents splitting up. (Back then they were called “broken homes.”) She finds a children’s book in the closet, one with a picture of a dog, “his front and back legs/outstretched, running hard.” There the poem ends. No resolution, nothing but bleak abandonment and endless running. In “The Whole Spent World Comes Rushing Back” she describes a great blue heron, “in the broth of silt and moldering leaves,” catching a frog.

From the cave of her mouth, the frog flails, kicks,

       flashing white, the belly refusing to surrender,

everything at stake in the long stretch and gape.

There it ends. Did the frog escape? Drexler doesn’t say. She’s lead us into the room of this poem where we wander its intricate walls, and then shown us the door. But unlike the definitive and ironic and kicker endings we expect most poetry to have (and some of hers do), she doesn’t completely close the door. She leaves it open a crack. We can still look back in and, to paraphrase Keats “tease ourselves out of thought.” Therein lies its infuriating charm.

I wish the book were illustrated, as least for the black & white photographs she writes about, like “Photo of Serbian Women, circa 1920” and “Nazi Photograph.” Unlike the famous paintings she also writes about, they seem impervious to Google.

Finally, Before There Was Before contains humor. Quirky humor. The humor that the poet in us relishes. In “Out on the Plaza” Drexler the world traveler forges a sardonic conceit. Street vendors try to sell her a “coin purse​/made from the skin of a stingray.” They proudly declare that it’s

Farm-raised in Italy, the man says
Waterproof, the man says.

The eye needs something to lean on.

The humor advances one step further. In “Squirrel Eating the Milky Way” she conflates the mundane with the vast universe and . . . ah, but this is where I get off. You’ll have to buy the book to taste these creative metaphors.


Flash Fictions Galore: NY Sin Phoney IN FACE FLAT MINOR

This collection of 365 flash fictions seems like an anabasis through Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio (never Paradiso). But not always.

Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor

NY Sin Phoney IN FACE FLAT MINOR. Bart Plantenga, Sensitive Skin Books, 2017. This collection of 365 flash fictions seems like an up-to-date anabasis through Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio (never Paradiso). But not always.

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Best Poems Ever about Illness

Perpetual Care by Susan Eisenberg
Perpetual Care by Susan Eisenberg

Poet Susan Eisenberg has published three previous books, all worth reading, all notable for their lack of pedantry and abstractions affecting so much poetry today. Her poems are immediate, dramatic, and firmly rooted in day-to-day reality. With this fourth volume, she reveals something personal you’d appreciate knowing about. She is unwell: a cancer survivor, she also has lupus, an insidious autoimmune disease you can read all about in Wikipedia. So what does she do? She writes about it. How? Astoundingly well.
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