All That Shines Under the Hollywood Sign by Iris Berry, reviewed by Marc Olmsted • Empty Mirror

All That Shines Under the Hollywood Sign by Iris Berry, with illustrations by Scott Archer / Punk Hostage Press / 978-1940213057 / November 11, 2019 / 21 pages

All That Shines Under the Hollywood Sign - Iris BerryYou’ve heard this: Hollywood is a state of mind. Hollywood & Vine is not the center of the so-called Industry, or can such a physical locale even be said to exist. For Iris Berry, Hollywood’s mind zone is at least physically present from where ever you see that famous HOLLYWOOD sign. Fair enough.

Knowing Iris’s work well, I looked forward to her new Business Relationships (that says quite a bit in itself), All That Shines Under the Hollywood Sign. I know her mostly as a prose writer. I also already know some of these poems. In that sense, it’s a shame that these are not chronologically arranged, because Iris has been through quite a bit and thus far emerged triumphant.

A younger Iris believes in things an older Iris does not. Hopefully, we can all say that. She has been quite upfront about her past struggles with the needle. Hollywood itself can be another bottoming out. You’re hopefully alive at the end of that bottom, where haiku moments are more precious than a magazine cover.

From “That Perfect Leopard Coat”:

…my mother gave it away
with all my Barbie dolls
stuffed animals
and Dr. Seuss collection
high on Pharmaceutical speed
while “cleaning house”
at 3 in the morning.

It doesn’t take living in Los Angeles to understand its cruelty or its allure. People who have the full-blown arrival of the American Dream kill themselves or die young by accidents that are not even the result of stupidity, but a mean world that never forgets after countless lifetimes (even in the same body, as in Iris’s case). It is a place where many “…broke promises/because someone else/had a better deal” as Ms. Berry admits.

Iris BerryIris Berry

There is an indirect Objectivist aspect to Berry’s work that I particularly like, and its lineage can be traced from William Carlos Williams’ friendship with Ernest Hemingway to Hemingway’s influence on Charles Bukowski. By the time it finds Bukowski, we see a mix of image and editorial language, or more simply put, show and tell. This continues in Iris’s work. The editorial is a harder form to pull off well. As with Bukowski himself, Iris doesn’t always hit the target, but she has enough going for her that she’s way better than many of those influenced by Bukowski, mainly because of her humor and her continual grounding in snapshot reality. And, of course, her viewpoint as a woman.

From “Christmas in Van Nuys
at Ralph’s Market at Midnight”:

The lights are cruel
at Ralph’s Market
in Van Nuys at midnight.
Apparently, it’s Christmas
according to the aisles
at Ralph’s Market.
But if I had to guess
by the customers
I’d say it was Halloween…

Scott Archer’s expert draftsman drawings are far better than photos to capture this town as a backdrop to an R. Crumb comic. I arrived in L.A. at age 7 and left at 17—twice returning to live again. Once, out of poverty, once out of ambition. These two categories may sum up all of its denizens. I ran around as a teenager on those very 1969 streets you see lovingly recreated in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I was the son of a character actor who quite frankly was on his way down. Eventually, San Francisco lured me away, where it was easier to not be “a contender instead of a bum.” Now I call that safe space Portland.

If you willingly stay in Los Angeles, or Hollywood, or whatever you want to call it (since you will soon learn that everything is Hollywood), it has promised you something. It has probably even delivered to some partial degree, enough to cultivate a habit. Iris definitely knows a thing or two about habits. Whether it was kinder to Iris than it was to me depends on one’s definition. It definitely addicted her. Now she writes free of most of those addictions, but the final glamor of Hollywood only gives up when it gives up on you. If you’re lucky. More than ten years her senior, I know a thing or two about that loss. I ask her to be even more vulnerable in her work, and I’m sure she will.

But there is no question that Hollywood still has its noir patina, its punk rock denizens, and its stunning steel and concrete architecture. It has far more culture than its detractors like to think. It still needs its lovers, however unrequited. Iris remains one of them, as do I (if now a safe distance from its Kiss Me Deadly radioactive glow). May she write long of that hideous strength.

From “Shooting for the Stars in Kevlar”:

As we
dry our eyes
while no one’s looking
in dark theaters
waiting for the next
movie to start.

Business Relationships Book