Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Stars, Stardust, Black Holes

The Dresser read Liz Marlow’s beautifully rendered chapbook from Slapering Hol Press They Become Stars in one sitting and shortly thereafter heard Marlow read some of these difficult Holocaust portraits mostly focused on a complicatedly vile Jewish man named Chaim Rumkowski. Then the Dresser had to let the work sit to achieve some distance as she believes poet Liz Marlow was able to do in writing this work, such that there is little passion expressed, and certainly no compassion. How could it be otherwise?

Historically, Rumkowski was a Jew who headed the Jewish Council of Elders (Judenrat) in the Łódź Ghetto of Poland. Like other Jews, he was forced into this position which obligated him to make life and death decisions about the people under his control. Fully embracing the Nazi motto of Auschwitz—Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free), he seized Jewish businesses and put people to work, which kept some of them alive for a longer period of time. However, he was seen as a collaborator who went beyond human decency, including convincing families to give up their children ten years and younger and their elderly 65 and older so that the rest could live. Before the Nazis came to power, Rumkowski ran an orphanage.

The chapbook opens in Rumkowski’s voice as he describes a boy sitting alone avoiding other children in an orphanage. In the following excerpt from “Chaim Rumkowski on Hunger, 1938,” before understanding that Rumkowski was a pedophile, the Dresser felt confused about the title addressing hunger. The boy draws a circle on the ground with a stick and Rumkowski wonders if the child is making a map to find his way home. Nothing in the poem suggests the boy is hungry.

If I  were to reach
out to him,
would his skin
be soft like freshly
laundered shirts
or dry and cracked
like the earth?
In another life, he could
be mine.

It is only after reading the next several poems where we see that Rumkowski is molesting little girls that the Dresser, on second reflection, understood that the first poem refers to Rumkowski’s appetite for vulnerable children. It’s his hunger, not the child’s. The horror magnifies at the last two lines which is not a sentiment of tenderness from Rumkowski, but rather the realization that this boy is in a public space and the predator has no good way of getting his hands on the child.

The title of the chapbook is particularly apt though it will ambush the reader who knows nothing about Rumkowski. Of course, the author is not suggesting that anyone in her work will become famous, though Rumkowski did go down in infamy. The reader is immersed in the importance of they, the Jews, becoming stars in “Chaim Rumkowski Leads a Jewish Council Meeting on the Body.” What follows are the opening stanzas.

Three men and one woman
sit at a table discussing
how to save the body.
Rumkowski says, To save the body,
we must cut off the limbs.

                         The woman, a mother, says,
                         The limbs you speak of
                         are the body.
                         Though we wear stars,
                        we are not starfish.
                        When we cut off limbs,
                        they will not grow back.

Here is the closing stanza:

                       The woman counters,
                       The body is who will live days
                       so countless that they birth
                       more days. Days more than the stars
                       we wear on our jackets.
                      Without the body, there is no life,
                      not even a constellation to fill darkness;
                      there is no universe. There is nothing.

While the Dresser is bothered about the reference to a constellation (which indicates a group of stars) as opposed to a single star, the poem hugely testifies to Rumkowski’s abject cruelty. The 10-word title of this poem bears the explanatory  epigraph “Days before the transport of 15,700 children to Chelmno Extermination Camp, September 1942.”

Marlow invests a great deal in the imagery and metaphor of the star as a representation of the targeted Jews. In “Heinrich Himmler and Arthur Nebe Discuss Humane Killing,” one of the few poems in which Rumkowski plays no role, the author reveals Himmler vomiting after he was sprayed with blood and body bits the first time he witnessed a mass shooting of Jews.

When Himmler felt
as he had never felt
           anything else
                      while leaning
toward the grave pit’s edge,
                        while watching
limbs shape themselves
             into Stars,
                         he knew
debris bursting
             from him
was too much for his

Limbs shaping themselves into Stars is clearly meant to tie Himmler to Rumkowski in this poem that documents how the Nazi extermination plan moved from firing squads to gassing. Yes, the hunted Jews of Poland and Europe became stars and then stardust or more accurately black holes.

As mentioned, the chapbook is distinctively produced, using high quality black paper as the cover, silver end papers, and silky interior stock. The front cover has a glued photograph in a cutout window—“Children of the Holocaust” by Lynn H. Butler which overlays an archival image of a place where atrocities occurred within the composition from The Children of Izieu: A Human Tragedy by Serge Klarsfeld. The image makes the children ghostly figures encircling a series of majestic columns. Inside the chapbook, the cover page imprints a negative of the exterior photograph. Slapering Hol Press is known for its exceptional print quality productions and They Become Stars is no exception.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Spinster for Hire by Julia Story

The Dresser acknowledges that the following review is based on a book published by The Word Works.

As the cover art—Gertrude Abercrombie’s “Reverie,” a nighttime painting of a lone woman seated in an arid landscape—suggests, spinster for hire by Julia Story is a book about loneliness and terrifying isolation. Story presents an unimpeded flow—there are no communal groupings of these poems into sections—of frightening beings, things, and events: “a skull with light in it,” “a derelict hotel,” The Hulk, belief in demonic possession, “a long psychedelic rape scene,” “violent sleeping mammals.”  Cues abound that Story is working in a Twilight Zone, a surreal environment where, for example, the toads of her toad circus are all found dead in a window well the day after the event. Did she kill them? Or did she feel responsible for their deaths?

Indiana Problem (Toad Circus)

The day after my toad circus the toads were all dead, crunchy and silent in their window well. I wanted to draw a doorway to walk through to get to the world of lilacs: purple, contagious green leaves and no movement but the steady invisible breathing of flowers. I knew I had to tell someone what I had done so I first walked to the park and stayed there until dusk, sitting on the glider or in the middle of the rusty and dangerous merry-go-round; I can’t remember which. When it was nearly dark I walked home, certain that they were worried and maybe even out looking for me. When I got there I saw them busy in the kitchen through the window, so I hid in the back yard until it was good and dark, a living thing on a swing set in the gloom, the attic in my head cracking open for the first time and I went in.

Throughout the book’s lyrical flow, numerous poems are marked by the state of Indiana:
Indiana Problem (Alone)
Indiana Problem (Toad Circus)
Indiana Problem (Three Dusks)
Indiana Problem (Three Steaks)
Indiana Bardo
Indiana Problem (Fear, 1983)
Indiana Problem (Mousetrap)
Indiana Problem (Time)
Indiana Problem (A Lost Shuttlecock)
Indiana Problem (Mini Gym)
Indiana Problem (Dollhouse)
Indiana Problem (Covenant)
Indiana Problem (A John Yau)

Recently “Toad Circus” was published in The New Yorker (April 20, 2020) without mention of the Indiana Problem. When asked about the Indiana Problem, Story said these poems, scattered throughout the book, refer to her childhood.

The title poem “Spinster for Hire” tackles the evolution of life on our planet but this is elusive: “Invertebrates //of feeling swim slowly /away from me,” “I had nothing but a framed //photograph of a gibbon…” The speaker of the poem packs her things and moves to a new location. The line that grabs the Dresser’s full attention is “Now I live above the beauty /”. What beauty? Well, the word that comes next in the poem is “parlor.” So here is the spinster now living above a beauty parlor and she continues, “if you look up you can see // me in my window, one spot /of life in our hibernation, //our long orchard of silence.”

This is the book to ponder during the Covid19 isolation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Bully Bride

A good comedic film is much harder to create than a dramatic one. Jonathan Smith, a 2004 graduate of Yale University’s Film Studies, approached The Dresser to review his third feature film Batsh*t Bride for which he wrote the script and directed the film. He states in his press kit, “I wanted simply to make a bright, fun comedy—a little piece of confection—that makes you laugh.” Yes, he bakes a cake that made the Dresser laugh.

The story opens in the spring around April Fools’ Day as Heather, a driven event planner (Meghan Falcone), is making crystal clear that her wedding will be perfect in every detail. After she tries to reorganize what her bridesmaids have planned for her, they tell her she has no sense of humor and is too controlling. So she decides to prove them wrong by pranking her groom Bryce (Josh Covitt) with the announcement that their relationship has lost its spark and she is calling off the wedding. To her surprise, Bryce brightens up and says with great relief that he was thinking the same thing.

The exchange takes place in a restaurant and reminded the Dresser of the iconic scene in When Harry Met Sally as Sally fakes an orgasm and a woman (played by Estelle Reiner) at a neighboring table says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” In Batsh*t Bride, the argument that then ensues between bride and groom incites other diners to complain because they don’t want what’s going down between the young couple, except that Heather, who is full of chutzpah, puts up her hand and won’t allow interruption.

At this point, the Dresser understood what the vulgar film title meant—mad or crazy and that the filmmaker wasn’t trying to invoke some foreign language. However, the Dresser had already associated this bride film with the Israeli movie The Wedding Plan where the bride asks her groom why he seems so unhappy and he answers because he realized he didn’t love her. So he backs out and she, an ageing (in her 30’s) orthodox Jew, decides she will go ahead with the wedding putting her faith in G-d that He will provide a groom.

While Batsh*t Bride doesn’t have the depth or the cultural exoticness of The Wedding Plan, when Heather goes to city hall to get the marriage license, her life of privilege begins to unravel. She bribes two homeless men to help her, which the clerk, of course, sees through. It’s a wacky scene worthy of Lucille Ball. Shockingly, Heather tries to attack the clerk, gets arrested, even tased, and thrown into the drunk tank, which is where, to the Dresser’s taste, the most important and pivotal scene occurs. The drag queen Pandora, whom her friends invited into their limo on the night of Heather’s bachelorette party,  affirms that Heather is a bitch, but asks her if she could also be a good person.

Every time Heather decides to tell her father (Patrick Collins) that the wedding is off, he, Mr. Papadopoulos, surprises her with yet another family member who has made the arduous trip to be with her on her wedding day. While this big fat—possibly Greek— parade of relatives was understandable, it felt overused. However, Meghan Falcone does a great job in the style of Reese Witherspoon of backing away from each relative that prevents her from telling her father what the hard truth is.

The clarity of Jason Merrin’s cinemaphotography, the original bubbly music by Mike Pettry, and the accomplished acting of the entire cast are first rate. It’s a pleasure to see a young filmmaker undaunted by the obstacles raised by a worldwide pandemic. As is the Dresser’s custom, she gives the last word to poetry. John Pauker’s “Screaming Poem” suggests that practice and timing in art is everything and no where could this be truer than in making a comic film like Batsh*t Bride.


In order to make art you have to scream
From time to time.
                                 In order to make art
You have to scream from time to time.

                                                                    To make
Order in art you have to scream from time
To time.

                  To order art you have to scream
From art to order and from time to time.

To make art scream you have to order time.
To make art order time you have to scream.
To make time scream you have to order art.

by John Pauker
from In Solitary and Other Imaginations