Tuesday, September 11, 2007

JOE WENDEROTH—NO REAL LIGHT



It is no secret that Joe Wenderoth has become a rock star since the release of Letters To Wendy’s, and like so many rock stars he has discovered the mystical power of the hit-making machine, and he has ushered this power into the poetry world with No Real Light his latest effort from Wave Books in Seattle, organizers of the Poetry Bus Tour.

No Real Light uses the formula that so many record albums/discs of the past have used; that is, it starts off with a mega-hit and ends with a mega-hit, but in between there is largely filler that resembles neither the first piece nor the last piece in style or intensity.

The two hits to which I refer have both been published in the July/August 2007 American Poetry Review. One is ”The Weight of What is Thrown” and the other is ”Where I Stand With Regard to the Game"

Both pieces, I feel, are Wenderoth at his aphoristic best. The pieces repeatedly extend themselves to nearly deliver a deep truth, and then they back away from delivering this truth and veer off into other territory, disarming the reader from having to grapple with anything like “the big idea.” At the outset of the piece, the ocean rolls over the stones until they are smooth. The stones submit to the ocean’s rule. This seems to be the main focus. Wenderoth equates this weight of the ocean with the weight of meaning in the next section. The stones are words. The stones are weapons. With this kind of windup, a reader might expect Wenderoth to deliver the essence of what he is saying, but Wenderoth does not oblige so easily. He digresses again into comparing the languages (made of words/stones) to types of beaches, specifically to those Normandy beaches named at D-Day. Then Wenderoth leads the reader back to the idea of the thrown weight making these stones, how it is not intentionally thrown; nevertheless, it is thrown by a great force, a No One, a nothingness [here Wenderoth is seen with his old sidekick nihilism]. In the end, Wenderoth reminds that when language is hurled at an individual it is really a vague and weighty presence which is hurling these words. Perhaps Wenderoth is trying to indicate (though not forcefully) that a more compelling and specific kind of insult is a shot to the groin.

In each section a reader might anticipate Wenderoth commenting on the unstable foundation of a word’s meaning, or the porousness of language, even the intentionality of language, but he opts not to dwell on these topics. Perhaps he sees them as too academic, or rather, too blandly academic. After setting up the wonderful metaphors of the stones as words and the field of stones on a beach as language, he takes the reader at the end into territory that reminds the reader that there is no individual ownership of words, no singular edifice that can withstand the soft surf of language. One wonders if any individual attempt at meaning then is sure to topple in the midst of such power. So why try?

And in a good portion of the book Wenderoth intends to not try. The “filler” as I referred to it is a bunch of short pieces that owe much to Paul Celan and Wallace Stevens. They are vague meanderings where intention is thrown off, rolled over, one might say by the tide of words. These poems are the little rivulets and eddies that develop as the surf returns to the sea to prepare for its next down stroke upon the beach. I normally like to watch for these eddies and the games they play with foam, but in No Real Light I found I was distracted by them, nor did I care very much for the imagery or the presumed fractured voice behind the poems that produced the man of many mirrors.

More to the point there was not very much compelling language, little brain-teasing episodes of alliteration, such as one might find in Stevens. Nor are there the breathtaking word sculptures that Celan makes with his compound nouns in German. Moreover, what is even more puzzling about these efforts is the program behind them. I’m not sure if, as a reader, I am supposed to take Wenderoth’s gesture to Celan seriously. Surely, he isn’t throwing off the yoke of his oppressor’s language like Celan. Is he? Perhaps these short pieces are attempts to get out from under the co-opting force of an oppressive culture. These are poems that no one is going to find a market for, damnit! They are singular, alone, not intimidated by a Derridean sense of the force of signification. Are these pieces the little round stones that are being thrown by the weight of the English language? I guess so, but if so, that seems to signal a lot of disdain for the language rather than pleasure taken in it. As "language surfaces," these rocks don’t shimmer; they sink when they’re thrown into water.

The other reason I bring up the issue of the program of these poems is because I have had the opportunity to see Wenderoth read many of these kinds of pieces live. He often dims the light and reads the poems by flashlight. The audience often sits politely and patiently trying to fathom what Wenderoth is getting at, when he might get back to some of the more salacious bits. Due to this reaction, I suspect that not just myself has a hard time figuring out what these poems are trying to do. I guess I am supposed to sit there struck dumb by my own wonder. However, often I am torn between letting the weight of what is thrown roll over me and smack me in the face and between getting the hell out of the way of the weight of what is thrown. Then I could go downstairs, get another cup of tea and brace myself for reading a few more before my mind goes numb and I have to go to bed.

I suspect Wenderoth might insist that the poems do not need a program, would even get a big kick at my suggesting something such as this should be the case. Poems exist. What more do you want from language? Yet, I somehow want more from poems than to just take up space. After all, does a poem really exist in a forest of other poems, if there is no one there to read it and enjoy it?

I’m probably being way too harsh. If one approaches these poems for the quality of the mind behind them, then there is a bit of allure. Perhaps my difficulty is that I expect too much of an incisive mind, darting and cutting from here to there, daring to make brave associations, leading the reader all over the page. Wenderoth seems to enjoy hovering like a harmonic overtone over his themes. It reminds me of the feeling of the soft glow of intoxication. He is deliberate, but never completely forthcoming. They are thought teasers if not complete thoughts.

Of course, if you liked these kinds of poems in It Is If I Speak then you will probably enjoy more of them here.

There is one kind of exception to the standard filler poems in No Real Light. Wenderoth employs stripped down narratives of brutality so that the reader may witness the American culture of violence shining back at him/her once again. In the aptly non-descript “Narrative Poem,” the speaker watches TV and takes codeine while narrating the details of his poverty-inscribed life. The final image is of a goldfish that gets torn to pieces by some piranhas and continues to “swim around the tank awhile.” I’m not sure if this is a tale of pathos or perseverance. I don’t get the sense that Wenderoth identifies with either the stricken goldfish or the narrator. All I sense at the end is a kind of Beavis and Butthead laughter towards the stupidity of all the behavior. One snickers at the nasty and the naughty. Yet for all the presumed intention of depicting hard and brutal lives, I got the sense that the poem was a faked reality, a reality drama, fixed to garner a vicious laugh, a schadenfreude delight.

The other poem that is part of the stripped-down-narrative, gratuitous-violence vein is “Twentieth Century Pleasures.” Wenderoth informs in the Notes at the end of the book that he cribbed the plot from a day-time talk show. While this displays his cultural currency, one can’t help wondering, while reading this poem, if one has become a voyeur to violence.

In Benjamin DeMott’s terrific essay in the August 2007 issue of Harper’s entitled “Battling the Hard Man” he characterizes what he calls “the ecstasy of impact.” DeMott illustrates the ecstasy of impact through our fascination with the replay of impact, in sports, in newscasts, in movie trailers, in video games, etc. We watch with fascination the moment of impact, the explosion, separated from everything else, heightened for the greatest dramatic effect. To DeMott, the idolization of the moment of impact represents a kind of pornography of violence. We marvel at it as the appetite for mayhem fills us and invigorates us.

This “ecstasy of impact” typifies what DeMott calls “the hard man.” DeMott describes how the hard man has taken over in him, how he has become “one more overwrought, late-life ego-tripper—self-deceived, lost in his Eigenwelt, thinking and writing in Bud Light, not blood.”

If “Narrative Poem” is the Bud Light, then “Twentieth Century Pleasures” is the blood.

“Twentieth Century Pleasures” speaks of a woman who is brutally murdered by her husband. The woman has two children: one, a girl with Down Syndrome, the other, a deaf-mute boy. The end of the poem focuses on the boy, his hands covered with his mother’s blood. The speaker comments on how the authorities thought the boy was playing in the blood, but the speaker informs the reader that the boy was doing anything but playing.

Certainly the final image is a powerful one. The final commentary though points to the idiocy of the authorities. The final perspective is a wry one, unhinged from the tragedy and drama of the events (except to say that the five-year-old understands very much what has happened). The title is seemingly laced with irony or maybe, if we are to take Wenderoth at face value, it refers to the appetite for mayhem, the ecstasy of impact that DeMott is talking about. Are these really pleasures we indulge in as we see them as forms of entertainment on TV talk shows? More than pulling back the curtain on the entertainment of violence, Wenderoth seems to be perversely reveling in it. He acknowledges that he, perhaps all of us, are creatures prone to the enjoyment of such ugly scenes of impact and their aftermaths. If this is the case, I think he may going too far in this assumption.

I, for one, take great exception to Madison Avenue’s trick of using violence to get us to respond viscerally to whatever is being peddled, be it movies or music or other types of fare. However, more disconcerting is the desire on Wenderoth’s part to reflect the culture back on itself and then flail away at the idiocy of authority at the end of “Twentieth Century Pleasures.” It’s too easy of a rhetorical move, and it’s negligent of the broader subject in the piece. This seems to fall short of the mark for anything that exists as an object of art. Is this what we have come to in the wake of witnessing real human suffering? A few quick ironic laughs and a finger poke in the ribs of authority?

But Wenderoth does not stop with the titillating use of violence. He goes for titillation itself in “Evening With Shows”

Evening with Shows

Less now,
by these pretended wounds
I go at it,
by these little bits
I stay at home.

Less now,
with more at a time,
lit up,
turned down,
able to breathe.

Less now,
bundled down
into rapid gazes,
cleaned up
with gorgeous shadow,
I have only
not to hold
this.


Whatever else this vague meditation might be about, with “going at it,” “cleaned up” and “I have only not to hold this” thrown into the vat of ricocheting memes, one can get a sense that Wenderoth might be writing a poem about masturbating while watching television. This kind of explicit subject is not foreign to his work. But what of it? [You’ve got to wonder when beating off in front of your TV constitutes a night of research.] Is this a poem about the failure of self-discipline [“I have only this not to hold”]. Is there anything more to be said than Wenderoth has snuck something taboo into his work again, for his admirers to be held entranced at the spectacle of such “outrageous transgression”?

My question is when does “outrageous transgression” begin to border on plain and simple stupidity. I believe I get a glimpse of an answer when I view Wenderoth reading a piece from a performance at my alma mater Eastern Michigan University [Joe Wenderoth reading at Eastern Michigan University] After the requisite reading of samples from Letters to Wendy’s, Wenderoth begins to read “Impediments to Democracy,” which features a dialogue between Mr. Cocksucker and Mr. Cuntlick. They share the details of their work (like good members of the bourgeoisie), the one disparaging the other for the special quality of the cock over the pussy. At the end, the disparaging Mr. Cocksucker tells Mr. Cuntlick how he should be living for the schlong.

Whoa, Joe, is anyone over the age of 22 laughing at this stuff?

I suppose I should champion Wenderoth’s risk-taking sensibility, his daring efforts to bring gratuitous sex and violence into the realm of American poetry. However, too often, this ploy of “riskiness” and “outrage” seems like just another tactic to exploit a very limited share of the poetry market. I cringe a little bit in the face of it, like I do for the promo of next week’s episode of some overly caffeinated FOX drama.

Finally, there is the other hit in this collection: “Where I Stand with Regard to the Game.” This piece is a commentary on the game of social interaction, which seems to be very much related to a mixed martial arts competition. The speaker goes through several transformative stages, each one giving rise to the next through the epiphany that “this [the previous behavior] could not continue. After copious effort is made to enter into the game’s nuances, only to be rebuffed by the neglect of other, the speaker becomes irked. The speaker asks the question of whether one can regain the innocence one had at the beginning of one’s game-playing days, whether one can imagine piecing together a notion of grace from those days. But the speaker is wiser, perhaps more jaded, and this causes the speaker to reject “a graceful approach.” Finally,

There could be no speculation.
There would have to be something new,
something defying description.
There would have to be a
a complete and hopeless destruction
of every grace, every distance.
And that is where I stand.


This is where we enter Locke’s tabula rasa state, a great ideal if ever there were one. But this ideal is the ideal of nothingness, a gentrified nihilism that honors the idea of becoming pre-human, animal—bloodthirsty, driven by libido. It is a desirable state to be in only before one realizes it is impossible. It is the song of the ahistorical being. And while some might characterize Wenderoth as part of the quasi-movement of “The New Brutalists,” who see life as a form of hand-to-hand combat, perhaps a more apt term to describe Wenderoth is as an “abysmalist.” The title of this book No Real Light bears this out. One can enter into the depths with Wenderoth, not of meaning (long ago eschewed as quaint and pointless), but rather into a state of survival within a nearly empty aquifer where there literally is no real light. There the sightless creatures may exist, reacting to brief impulses of electronic stimuli in their environment.

It strikes me as ironic that Wenderoth, who is so reluctant to deliver anything like a big idea in the book (presumably because of his mistrust for anything weighty), would in essence deliver a whopper of an idea—that of Nothingness. The anti-statement is all. Perhaps one might tolerate this stance if there was some sense that an obligatory nihilism is something to be made fun of too. In the end, though, one senses that Wenderoth is deadly serious about the Nothing, the empty set, the null and void. In a young man, one can tolerate such a stance as a bit absurd and informed by a lack of any prolonged engagement with the world. In someone not so young, one suspects that the emperor has no clothes, that the rock star is mouthing the words.

No Real Light is an adventure into the dark and muddled underbelly of the American mind as informed by the nothingness of its mass media. If one sees “being out of one’s mind” as a sacrament or if one aspires to be an adherent of American primitivism, then there is much in No Real Light to look at. Apart from this, however, and apart from its two hits (which you can link to above) there is no real light and no real reason to buy this book or even to read it.

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