It Is If I Speak
Wesleyan University Press, $26 (cloth), $12.95 (paper)
A Knot Is Not a Tangle
Krupskaya, $9 (paper)
Joe Wenderoth and Benjamin Friedlander are vaudevillians of the void. Their poetry is the result of an attempt to create something out of the nothingness that they envision in the world they inhabit and, more literally, in the air they breathe. Because emptiness is a perpetual backdrop in their poems, the figures and events that rise throughout create their own psychic echo; because unexpected, the echo is often humorous, even as it gives us back a reflection on ourselves, readers lost in the intricate, catalogic, and analytical world that Wenderoth and Friedlander cast out at us. In a courageous follow-up to Disfortune(1995), Wenderoth populates his poems with austere voices that assert a strange and prophetic authority over us even as they seem naïve, almost nascent. Friedlander’s articulations are immediately more sharp-tongued than Wenderoth’s. Author of several smaller collections, including Anterior Future (1993) and Time Rations (1991), and an editor of prose collections by Charles Olson and Larry Eigner, Friedlander’s frenetic work frequently threatens to shuck its intelligibility as a gesture of freedom from commonly accepted rules of articulation. Fortunately, he never goes through with the threat, and remains luminous, communicative, and angry.
Doubleness is crucial to Wenderoth’s new work; the poems might be taken at face value for amusement, but they bear universal significance that stands half-in and half-out of our sights. The deadpan "Send New Beasts" begins, "These beasts will not do" and then proceeds to a list of complaints: they are too obedient, they are too shy, they demand reasonable behavior from those around them–much like humans. The idea that we could replace either the animal kingdom or the human race with the title’s simple request is, like the ideas behind many of the poems in It Is If I Speak, simultaneously misanthropic and playful. "The Thinking Instructor" describes a class in which the professor slices and re-slices his hands. The notion that thinking can be as painful as a self-inflicted wound gives heft to the rest of the poems in the book, but it also reminds us that the whimsy of the poems here is really only a façade. As with many of the American poets who might be considered "funny," like Tate or Simic, Wenderoth’s biggest laughs have the most serious portents.
When Wenderoth’s dry humor dissipates, it leaves behind a melancholy tinted by loneliness, alienation, and the stir-craziness of speakers trapped inside a Foucaldian social architecture: "I have again spent the whole day destroying the archives / kissing the wall of sun as if I was no one / as if I was just this kiss." Wenderoth’s lonely, alienated archetypal human has been irrevocably dwarfed. At moments, the poems in It Is If I Speak flaunt ennui, as if the world were utterly banal, worthy of no greater reaction than the muscular shift mentioned in "Each Sentence Is Into the Fast": "When none of this interests me I distort my jaw / so that my teeth touch one another in a new way." Despite the haunting auspiciousness of his visions, Wenderoth remains down-to-earth, a cross between Garrison Keillor and Borges. "Restrictions" is a list of requirements for the possession of genitalia. The list he gives describes us all as it reduces humanity to a set of fastidiously numbered characteristics that mixes the possible with the impossible: "said person feels bound to be clean and to settle down amid clean others," "said person wants to live, if by ‘live’ one means resonate with difficulty," "said person is able to stand his or her own aptitude in the realm of procreation." Cumulatively, the voice and vision of these poems suggest an up-to-the-minute Kafka; Wenderoth presents a deadeningly organized world and scrutinizes it for untouched lyricism.
An underlying attentiveness to human quirks and poignancies gives ballast to Wenderoth’s satirical vision. His "Things to Do Today" is a 93-item list of tasks to complete; surprisingly, many of the "tasks" seem more like admonitions for spiritual survival. Numbers 9, 37, and 59 are among the choicest, if all flatly ironic: "gather the weight of not having said and place it upon the prettiest graves"; "prepare the eyes for the oncoming absence of voices"; "insist on the sad waste at the heart of all honest work." These lines are almost formulaically skewed (the terms of the first half of the line shift just slightly to create the punch of the line’s end) and they bear a similar poignancy–as if the weight of silence were like a bouquet for a gravestone of a beloved friend, as if the eyes felt desolation or silence, as if dishonest work were the only work that mattered. Wenderoth has created a series of koans that are not quite koans, truths that are not quite true in one sense but are, in another sense, universal and inarguable.
There is a constant dissolve taking place in Wenderoth’s poems. He appears to evoke emotion only to undercut it before it achieves fruition, and when this method works, it gives the poems a lightness reminiscent of Reverdy, in which an event both happens and doesn’t happen, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Watching it drift out of sight is part of the poem’s pleasure. Most of the sensation of "The Method" is left to the imagination, as the poem is strangely brief:
Take your eyes off of the room.
Do you see?
There is a luxury
one does not recover.
The significance of disappearance, however, can approach the melodramatic, as in "My Life," in which the speaker’s life is figured as a frightened and then domesticated animal which ultimately reveals itself as a threat: "Between My Life and me, / a silence is coming. / Together, we will not get through this." This battle seems too large to be believed entirely. One expects Wenderoth’s speaker not only to survive his face-off with this indefinite silence, but to write about it afterwards as well.
Just as translucently as Wenderoth, Friedlander addresses tough subjects like war, death, fetishism, and identity and considers what it means to write about these subjects. His conclusions simultaneously discombobulate and enlighten us. In his previous books, this productive self-consciousness made his poems taut, like small bursts of concentrated thought. In this volume, Friedlander is more freewheeling with his frames of reference but no less rigorous. Within its pages lie a list of unused titles, several letters from intangible entities, one note taped to a refrigerator entitled "This Is Just To Say" in an homage to Williams (and, at this point, to Kenneth Koch too), a letter of apology from the United States Postal Service, and a collection of poems by a part of Friedlander’s id that calls itself "B.F." and assumes a separate biography. Throughout, Friedlander mixes a healthy cynicism about American sociopolitical conditions with a refreshing and wholesome attention to ersatz details.
The letter from the Postal Service that opens the book typifies Friedlander’s penchant for unearthing items with ancillary roles in daily life and giving them poetic significance. Like Warhol, Friedlander wants to show that these items survive our preoccupation–which made us ignore them in the first place. Friedlander’s little instancings are invariably linked to politicized intellectual backdrops, suggestions of society’s suppression of individual talent that are less interesting than the metaphysical truth the poems could conceivably propound. "While every effort is made to handle all mail in a safe and secure manner, pieces are sometimes damaged due to machine malfunction," intones the letter from the postal service; this invites us to compare mail to received artworks, "machine malfunction" to personal idiosyncrasies that define style, and so forth. By describing the efforts of an individual this way, the language of government subsumes what could have stood in opposition to it–and in the benign form of a letter of apology. Friedlander’s opener, like any good example of a found poem, suggests that there is no such thing as a coincidence, that everything has relevance in one sense or another. We need only dig for it. One finds a similar unearthing in a list of unused titles. Although this form is not necessarily turned on its ear here, we can find titles imbued with soul nestled among more flip items in the list: "Put In My Place," "Wiping My Feet," "How I Destroyed Certain of My Talents," and "Crying Wolf."
Friedlander flirts with a divorce of word from meaning, but a lingering sense of coherence and articulation gives many of his poems a neatness and resolution that evoke the Formalists–although Friedlander’s poems generally reach conclusions that have implications for the rest of his craft, rather than for the poem that houses them. At the heart of the volume, in a poem called "Emergency Measure," Friedlander chants: "Like a scalpel comes the word, / like an appendectomy scar, the sense," later adding, "The dangerous p- / Art is the an- / Aesthetic, but some en- / Joy that the best." To favor the anesthetic part of the "surgery" of poetry would be to consider meaning ultimately uncertain. Friedlander wisely recognizes the plausibility of such an outlook, offering us lines like "where stunted giants / man the glands / of horse-drawn cares of state" and "how much is that Garfield in the window," which suggest that expected relationships between words in a sentence may be little more than expectations.
Still, many of the poems in the book make perfect sense, even if the sense they make is illogical. At the end of a poem called "Poetry," Friedlander suggests that poets and readers "go sneeze your recipe / across the heavens." "The Typesetter’s Poem" places a sage instinct in the mouth of a typesetter:
My purpose here
is neither rude
thought. If you
are only moved
to turn the page,
my work was not
If a poem does not compel us to turn the page, to change our minds, or to turn a phrase of our own, then the typesetter’s work, it is suggested, was indeed worth nothing.
The final section of A Knot Is Not a Tangle is a collection of poems by a pseudonymous author that proves to be a thought-provoking tease-out of the nature of identity. The testament and commentary of one Kimberly Filbee (possibly a sly reference to noted British Cold War undercover agent Kim Philby, meant to suggest that all critics are spies on the minds of the authors they study) states that Ben Friedlander received a packet of poems by "B.F." (for "Bernie Fox") in the mail one day, in an envelope that bore no return address, only a San Francisco postmark. Filbee explicates the work at length, calling the work "charming as only gnomic utterance can be." However, the commentator also suspects a hoax, calling the packet "a trail of breadcrumbs leading nowhere." What of the poems themselves? The series of three line fragments, each punctuated with ellipses, are often perplexing riffs on clichés or popular sayings such as the following: "the wind dies down / that measures the will / bent like a tree in your presence…." The fragments share a flirtatious relationship to substance, which Filbee as much as says in the afterword; just as they are about to mean something, they veer away, leaving readers with a set of disassembled phrases. They read like clips from Friedlander’s cutting room floor, presented pseudonymously for filing purposes: not as tightly resolved as the other poems in the book, but possessed of their own disjunctive energy.
Disjunctive energy, indeed, is the trademark of both poets. Wenderoth stands outside his subjects and issues surprising lab reports on the human race, which he observes clinically but closely. Friedlander is similarly articulate, almost archly so, but he tries to offer other possibilities for the relationship between words on the page and in the mind. Both poets, regardless of any affectations of silliness, have a firm grounding in the best species of common sense: that which edifies, but does not restrain.