by bart plantenga
|Sensitive Skin, 2016
Reviewed by Kevin Riordan
This volume comprises a tidy collection of 365 ‘meta-factual’ verbal snapshots of Paris, city of light and low-lifes. It will be joined by a forthcoming companion piece, NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor, set in New York City, out later this year. The author bart plantenga is currently based in Amsterdam and has been an avid participant in international subversive subculture for several decades, whose writing is half of his double barreled approach to making the world more interesting; the other barrel is his career as a disc jockey in an incredibly long running pirate radio program, Wreck this Mess. While the book is not set up as either a novel or a journal, it functions as both, by portraying the misadventures and lives of many Parisians in an observant, mordant prose that finds the rhythm of an epic barroom ballad.
With a fairly even mix of anecdotes of his friends and speculations about strangers, the reader is submerged in a very real place and time lit by a unique point of view. In entry 79, we find his claim that “Every corner, rooftop, fruit wrapped in colorful tissue, every rendered knee exposed is a source of aesthetic arousal. Yes, even the smokestack just out of Gare du Nord had its beauty.” Similarly every small chapter of Paris Scratch is a source of aesthetic contemplation. In all it is a frank attempt to translate the wonders of Parisian street photography into prose, each entry tantalizingly brief yet encapsulating a whole scenario.
The most remarkable thing about plantenga’s writing here is the way it is informed by a life-long embrace of the little giants of bohemian expostulation, from Breton, Bukowski and Baudelaire to his contemporaries in the slamming poetic culture fracas of today. He imbues the everyday sights and sounds of the city with a dignifying appreciation of their cultural significance, as when he says “graffiti is a language that emanates from the belly of the un-empowered, serving simultaneously as wailing wall & publishing house of the dissident neglected.”
As the most surreal of the loose cadre of writers known as the Unbearables, plantenga has been aligned with the push toward more earthy reality in the depiction of the insanity of the modern world, and in this volume he has crystallized a year’s worth of closely watched madness into a smooth elemental piece of poetic journalism.