Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Of the 19 authors whose books I read in judging the Poetry Society of America William Carlos Williams’ award that I thought deserved greater praise & attention, Joe Wenderoth’s name comes last alphabetically, tho that’s no reflection on No Real Light, a book that is full of sparkle. Many of the poems here come across as a post-NY School aesthetics updated to a less urban landscape, e.g.

What Does Death Insure

death insures
that one will never hear
the sound of a small plane
sketched out in the sand
of a windless summer afternoon


Operation Enduring Freedom

like an eagle
into the sun

over frozen fields

bone-fed grasses

or, the poem from which this book takes its title,

King Hiram

there is
            where all this rings true

no real light

Poem after poem here jumps out at you like these, crafted with an exact eye & a strong sense of when to stop. Not that they’re perfect – that first poem would have been considerably stronger had the term “summer” been dropped from its final line – but because they evidence a mind completely awake to the world.

Which is why, when suddenly it dips into the clichés of the School of Quietude, you wonder what’s going on:

Twentieth-Century Pleasures

A woman has two children:
one is seven, a girl with Down syndrome,
and one is five, a deaf-mute boy.
Every day, the woman’s husband beats her
and calls her a lazy whore.
After a few years
the woman moves back into her mother’s house.
She locks the doors when her mother is at work,
but her husband, having promised to kill her,
gets in through a basement window.
When she hears and meets him in the basement,
pleading for her life,
he breaks her spine with a hammer.
As the two children watch from the steps,
he shoots her in the back of the head,
then turns the gun on himself.
The seven-year old, the girl with Down syndrome,
runs four blocks to the police station.
When the police arrive at the house,
the five-year old,
the poet,
a deaf-mute boy,
is kneeling by his mother’s head,
pressing the pool of blood back toward her.
They pull him away and he doesn’t resist.
They think he has been playing there
in a pool of his mother’s blood.
That is truly what they think:
he was playing in a pool of his dead mother’s blood.
Later, with his bloody hands
he says things they cannot understand,
and they know then, at least,
that he was not playing.

Think for a minute how Charles Reznikoff would have handled this same narrative & you can see all the elements of melodramatic overwriting that come into play here, up to & including putting the poet onto a line all its own complete with italics. All we need are violins.

And this is the real issue of No Real Light – it has some of the best writing I’ve come across this year, but it also has more than a few real clunkers like the above. Of the 19 books I was wowed by in the contest (out of an original pool of 150), it easily is the most uneven. If this wasn’t his fourth book & he wasn’t already an associate professor at UC Davis, I’d be inclined to think that Wenderoth was a beginner who didn’t know how to put a manuscript together. That may still be the case, but at this point it’s inexcusable.

Reading Wenderoth’s web page at UC Davis, I get the sense that he may be more interested in poetry that is performable – in the Henry Rollins sense – than in the printed page, which may explain this puzzle. A poem like ”Twentieth-Century Pleasures” just might work very well at a reading to an audience inexperienced in contemporary poetry – those short pieces would likewise – but it does so for all the reasons that make poetry as performance an inherently debased art. The exact same qualities that would make you cringe at an episode of Matlock work very well at pulling forward stock emotions from audiences who aren’t trained to recognize such manipulations. There’s a reason why so many poets who participate in slams are notoriously unread. This might not be slam material, but the dynamics are fundamentally the same.

So Wenderoth is a puzzle. Eighty percent of this book is tremendous, maybe even 85. But I wonder why he doesn’t know to separate out work that simply reveals the gaping weaknesses of a performance-oriented poetics. I can envision, say, a half dozen very good books by him, followed perhaps by one collection of such performance pieces that are as lurid & mawkish as one might imagine. That would be a strange but do-able approach. Wenderoth’s current strategy undercuts much of what is excellent in this book.


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