Joe Wenderoth - Jolts of violent humor and brainy surrealism: most apt, able, and adventurous ars poetica to be produced for and by Generation X

Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy's (Verse Press, 2000)

«Outrageous, brilliant and tragic, the genre-bending novel Letters to Wendy's was written over the course of a year on comment cards from a Wendy's restaurant. Through the letters, the book traces a year in the life and thoughts of an unnamed narrator obsessed not only by Biggies and Frosties, but also by consumerism, pornography and mortality.»

«What kind of person is inspired by a fast-food restaurant? If this new book is any indication, it's one who is by turns worshipful, disturbing and just plain weird. Conceived as a series of comment cards to a local Wendy's, this unconventional fiction chronicles the life (or lack thereof) of an unnamed narrator who spends his days drinking oversize sodas and contemplating the meaning of the fast-food icon. In his more lucid moments, the narrator imagines Wendy's as a cradle-to-grave institution, supplying IV nourishment for a person's last days in the form of "liquid fries." He also posits that Wendy's would serve well as a site for state-sponsored executions, providing both the correct quality of light and an abundance of refreshments. He's just as likely, however, to devolve into soft-porn daydreams involving the counter help and prepackaged foods. About the narrator himself, we learn very little - no name, no profession, no home address: just an Everyman as fast-food customer. In its best moments, the book delivers some insights into the social mores of people thrown together in a public place of business, people who share the same space and general eating habits but are unwilling to share much else. In short snippets, the narrative can be intriguing; excerpts have appeared on the Web site Nerve.com. But there's no plot to speak of, and spending time with this voyeuristic stranger quickly grows both creepy and tedious.» - Publishers Weekly


«What first comes across as a cute gimmick - a gathering of strange notes written on Wendy's comment cards (Tell us about your visit - WE CARE!), displays a stunning depth that you wouldn't expect. Spanning a time of 13 months, the unnamed scribe of these thoughts and confessions (and yes, sometimes even comments) chronicles the slow demise of mankind's sanity. A sanity that is urged to consume Biggie portions of food and eat baked potatoes that even the Virgin Mary discovers are "dry as fuck."
Wenderoth, a young Minnesota poet whose work has been compared to Philip Larkin and Jack Gilbert, has stretched everything in this book: the use of language, the function of fiction, the context of humor, and the etiquette of philosophy. Some of the entries even read like pornstore smut ("I'd like you to take your fat tongue and run it from my asshole to my clit over and over again," he imagines Wendy saying to him one day). Yet, besides the writer's fascination with sex, there is also a need - based on the ritual of GOING to Wendy's--to feel a belonging, a part of a living scene: "It would bring me to despair to think that I could get a Frosty in my own kitchen. I need believe that a Frosty can only be gotten 'outside' of where I ordinarily dwell. 'To be constantly' in the place of real Frosties - this is unthinkable, somehow unbearable. The fact is: to be a subject of language is to desire an Event, and an Event needs a nothing to move out of, to seem to begin."
The writer's reality predictably gets more skewed as the book tumbles onward, yet the dozens of references to pop culture figures, which I expected, were missing. Instead, the closest things to name-dropping are mentions of Foucault and Artaud. Not even Dave Thomas is mentioned. It seems that the writer indeed exists in his own world, where only his visits to Wendy's and their "attractive" employees are allowed (although once he even admits to thinking that their name tags are untruthful). The other customers seem to fade in and out of his focus. He alternately ponders what it would be like to rub their heads or to be their doctor, and in one scene says: "Standing there waiting for fries, me and this older man. He said to me, 'You'd think they had to grow the potatoes!' I replied, a bit too loud, 'Daddy fucked me!' The man seemed angry - I don't think he understood what I meant. It's as though we were on the same field, playing different games." Later on, the Wendy's muzak even comes under suspicion, the writer claiming to be swayed by what he calls "tranq-bath songs."
I was constantly amazed by this book (portions of which had appeared in Harper's months ago) and the forest of green bookmarks sticking out of its pages are reminders to me of how many times I demanded friends to read parts of it. In fact, despite nothing resembling real closure and many entries that simply left me puzzled, Wenderoth has constructed a creation that kept me enthralled and entertained with its jolts of violent humor and its brainy surrealism: "Today I walked in and they wrapped me in meat. They stitched the meat to me with empty sentences. They smeared the stitches with faces - I don't know whose. They wrapped it all up in my voice, but this never really worked. When I spoke you could only hear the faces smeared into the stitches the color of meat. So I began, without confidence, to try to take off my voice." Letters to Wendy's is an amazing performance of subversion.» - Kevin Sampsell

«Imagine, first, 10 BC.
Virgil is dead. Augustus is king. Cicero's severed head is still nailed to the Rostrum, the public lectern in the Forum where his opinions did him in.
In these first few years of Empire, the dominant theme in Roman literature is a consciousness of decline. This is before Petronius and his outspoken Satyricon. Before Apuleius and The Golden Ass. This is before Latin authors snapped out of their fear of the Empire that swallowed them whole. It is 10 BC. Horace at this time is the first court poet of Rome and sees himself surrounded by the degenerate efforts of the present to blandly blend into the past. In this year he sits down to compose 23 farewell letters to his friends, each set into conversational iambic hexameter. "This letter to you," he writes in one, "will therefore be the last of my words that I allow myself to set into print." Within nine months he is dead.
The Epistles, as we have come to know the last of Horace's letters to his friends, include what is considered the very first ars poetica to be written, "Epistle to the Pisones." Lively, entertaining, quick-witted, but stern, the letter begins with the opinion that all great poems should be a unified whole—yet dissolves itself into ramblings. Jumping from ruminations first on poetry, then on family, then history, war, faith, the poem is so ironically audacious in its structure that it expresses, formally at least, more than a little sympathy with the wild, amorphous work of the mad poet who is ridiculed so famously at its end:
As with the man who suffers from a skin disease or jaundice …
sensible people are wary of touching the crazy poet
and keep their distance; children unwiselyfollow and tease him.
Away he goes, head in the air, spouting his verses….
A poem on poetics: it was a highly original achievement in first-century Rome, however ordinary it seems today. Long before Aristotle's Poetics was rediscovered in Turkey in 1535, Horace's "Ars Poetica" was the only definitive guide to the classical literary tradition of criticism, and as such it is the oldest essay on criticism that has been known with continuity from the time of its conception. Where the poem retains its most disarming novelty, however, is in its awkward relationship between argument and form. Horace's "Ars Poetica" may argue for decorum in poetry, but it is joltingly arbitrary in its organization of that claim. And yet almost immediately following Horace's death and the publication of his Epistles, Quintilian declared the work genius, coining the term "ars poetica" especially for it. It is the combination of Quintilian's own return to Ciceronian ideals at this time, his publication of the Institutio Oratoria in which is outlined the proper training expected of a citizen, and the spotlight he casts on the "Ars Poetica" as a primer that finally jolts Roman writers out of the doldrums of the bland literary franchise that had been passing for art under the fist of empire.
IMAGINE, NOW, GENERATION X. If you are having trouble doing so, that is perhaps the point of Joe Wenderoth's new book, Letters to Wendy's, an unclassifiable mix of genre, tone, and intention. "I love you," Wenderoth writes, "even if you don't understand me, even if you burn my attempts to reach you, even if you are no one, nowhere. After all, I warm my hands by the same fires."
At once a love story, cultural critique, and commentary on literary theory, Letters to Wendy's combines Horace's conflicting mix of argument and form to create what has already become an underground Internet favorite, and what is likely to be known eventually as the most apt, able, and adventurous ars poetica to be produced for and by Generation X.
One watches the others order. An aesthetics develops. It's not the worst thing that could happen. Yes, a weariness lurks, often, in the obvious next step—the dream of a school. The only thing worse than endeavoring to create a school is endeavoring to maintain a school. Which is why I like, above all, those customers who, in the middle of their order and quite without warning, change their minds.
Conceived as a year's worth of daily responses on customer comment cards to the Wendy's restaurant chain's claim that "WE CARE!", the collection is comprised of approximately three hundred epistolary prose poems of one hundred words or fewer in length, detailing the speaker's love of chocolate shakes, plastic seats, bowel movements, fellatio, language, and meat. "Today I had a Biggie," Wenderoth writes: Usually I just have a small, and refill. Why pay more? But today I needed a Biggie inside me. Some days, I guess, are like that. Only a Biggie will do. You wake up and you know: today I will get a Biggie and I will put it inside me and I will feel better. One time I saw a guy with three Biggies at once. One wonders not about him but about what it is that holds us back.
Where this book's popular appeal lies, I am thinking, is in its willingness to not hold back: not its embarrassingly bald thoughts; not its uncomfortably familiar feelings; and not even its very, very rough spots. Raised, trained and now writing in the aftermath of American postmodernism, Wenderoth and his generation are the products of a cultural empire that has even managed in recent years to commercialize the aesthetics of irony. Called as well "the cynical generation," as children they watched the space shuttle Challenger explode, reached puberty just as AIDS was spreading to America, and with the help of the Internet earned their first million dollars by the time they were thirty. Then lost it all by 31. It is a generation, in other words, that has known impermanence. Having come of age just as MTV was coming into power, their cultural milestones are more like franchises recycled from earlier generations: punk in the early 1990s; swing in the mid 1990s; Woodstock in the late 1990s. If the core tenet of postmodernism was that there is no single right way to do anything, is it any wonder that, in the squishy nameless days following postmodernism, Wenderoth's generation is seemingly indifferent to everything? That "irony" has evolved into mere insincerity?
"Post-irony," therefore, is what many emerging writers of Wenderoth's generation have been calling their aesthetic of choice—an attempt to satisfy, as one writer has put it, "a desire to see the world directly, without distortion, and without reflecting back on how and from where one is looking." The New Sincerity, as some have been calling it.
In the fast-food world, Wendy's is about as close as one can get to sincerity. It is a restaurant that has somehow fashioned for itself a peculiarly unironic atmosphere of decency. Named after the daughter of founder Dave Thomas, the corporation annually donates an undisclosed but rumored 15 percent of its proceeds to adoption programs. And it has consistently refrained from joining the promotional wars that rage every year between McDonald's and Burger King. (You may have seen this past year's dueling commercials by the Backstreet Boys and 'NSync on behalf of those two fast-food giants.)
Where better, then, for Joe Wenderoth to set up camp for a year during his post-ironic ars poetica experiment? "I wonder what 'beauty' really is," he writes in the first philosophical turn in the book:
I know that the little girl, Wendy, who is pictured on your cups and bags, is beautiful, and so is the green green descent into the valley. Within this descent, I can feel the overpowering order within which I am but a temporary eccentricity. This overpowering, anticipated but absent, is beauty. I'd like to spank Wendy's white ass and fuck her hard.
The abruptness of that transition is Wenderoth's key interest. Here the juxtaposition of those two exaggerated tones—one a brand of thinking that is heavy with theory and the other a crude outburst of red ground emotion—is attempting to prepare the reader for what will be, throughout the book, a conversation—or collision—between these two tones, two worlds. For Wenderoth, language, and therefore poetry, has essentially been stripped of all authentic forms of expression that it might have, once, long ago held—
I was overwhelmed by the chicken sandwich pictured there, but had no words for it. I kept saying, 'there, that one… the man dressed like a woman.' It's hard to get served when one understands the signifier as a process—
but this is not, of course, a new predicament in literature. Instead, the new thing here is Wenderoth's insistence on confronting the deconstructed world that his generation's been reared in, and making it confront the heartbreak of inexpressive language. "Wendy is not a girl," Wenderoth writes at the height of his infatuation with her, "she is a sign…. She is only a girl in the mind of the customer, the lonely hermaphroditic homestead of significance."
One can feel Wenderoth searching in this book for an in, a return to perhaps what Allen Grossman has termed "the lyric shift"—that moment that marks the origin of poetic speech—before irony, before "post-irony," before the franchise of American language. "American poetry has moved, for the most part, away from dwelling in this moment," Wenderoth has written elsewhere:
Many of our esteemed poets have implicitly declared that the origin of poetic speech is not this moment, but is the everyday someone who has always weathered this moment, and who speaks from near it, from after it—not from within or under it. Such an everyday someone, when claiming to speak poetically, is not given to this moment in a creative way but, rather, is using this moment. Such a poet is, ironically, warding off the opportunity for poetic speech to begin…. If one is truly in the need for a poem to begin, one is, in some sense, where nothing has ever been said.
Whether nothing in Letters to Wendy's has ever before been said is difficult for me, alone, to discern: I have not read everything. But the book is an earnest one, an ambitious and charming and bold innovation. Wenderoth's encounter with the Virgin Mother, for example, is priceless ("She was holding two baked potatoes with sour cream and chives"); his "Butt-Fuck Week-End with the Lord" is uproarious; and his unrelenting suggestions that Wendy's loop soundless pornography on monitors in its dining rooms ("just a reassuring view of the signifier itself as it finds its way to its ancient hiding place") are unnerving in their consistently matter-of-fact tone.
The book's conceit is one of irony, certainly—set in a fast-food restaurant, tonally ambiguous, prefaced with a disclaimer that these poems make up a novel ("imaginary figures, possible images, the stuff of collective dreams")—yet Wenderoth's argument within it, we sense, is deeply felt. "Let's say Wendy's is an airplane," he writes, toward the end of the book, "[t]raveling at ten thousand feet":
Let's say there's no landing gear and nowhere to land. And fuel is limited. And one has a general idea of when the fuel is going to run out. Given this knowledge, is travel really the right word? And if not travel, then what? One sees one's life quite differently when one knows it isn't going to land.
It is, in the end, a book about faith. "Some kids drift by, talking," Wenderoth notes one afternoon with awe. "One of them says, 'that sucks dead donkey dicks,' and the other agrees. Imagine." Language, one senses ultimately for Wenderoth, is not dead. It is just, perhaps, on vacation. In its stead is a kiosk on the outskirts of town, selling bad burgers on a monthly lease. "Poetic speech," Wenderoth has written, "betrays this country more deeply than any other country in history…. It is, therefore, increasingly difficult to resist settling for a poetry that arises from near, or after, the painful moment of its origin." Resistance, he insists, is called for. "Reality itself is at stake."
Urging us back toward that moment of origin, Wenderoth's ars poetica, like Horace's very first, is formally incongruous with its rather conventional argument. But I am thinking for the moment that this is all intentional: its avoidance of lines; its classification as fiction; its choice as the publisher's flagship debut, hoping as the press does "to rescue American poetry from the high tower of Post-Romanticism." It is not ironic that Wenderoth's form is not mimetic of his argument. It is—more painfully, more potently—elegiac of what's at stake.» - John D'Agata

«Joe Wenderoth's fourth book of poetry — Letters to Wendy's — is odd by any stretch of the imagination. The book is made up of over 150 short, short pieces written on customer forms from Wendy's restaurants, each dated between July 1, 1996 and August 7, 1997. Yet the collection is original as well as peculiar, and while many of the pieces are duds, a few shine through with a poise and peculiar sincerity about a subject that — and I feel pretty safe in saying this — no one in their right mind has ever considered addressing before.
At its best, these pieces (officially "prose poems," but that's a term ridiculous beyond any need for further discussion) plumb the depths of the fast food experience, something millions of Americans participate in every day yet never think twice about. Wenderoth's speaker (who is, I hope, not Wenderoth himself) is solitary and lonely — one gets the distinct impression that a trip to Wendy's is about the only human contact he gets all day. Writing his inner thoughts out on cards is his only form of therapy. More than that, they ask questions like "why is it wrong to stare at other customers?" — questions that seem asinine until we admit that, yes, we've all probably thought the same thing at some point, if only fleetingly.
The majority of the pieces — each no more than a few sentences, with no consistent form — are offbeat paeans to America's greatest fast-food also-ran. They center on things like Biggie drinks, Wendy's coffee and the chain's employees. Some are pieces of advice ("I think you need painkillers on the menu"), while others are meaningless slices of humor ("Today I bought a small Frosty. This may not seem significant, but the fact is: I'm lactose intolerant"). There are a few expressing longing for Wendy herself ("Wendy is possessed of — or possessed by — a barbaric coquettishness"), and still others, well, read for yourself:
December 8, 1996
To stroke another customer's head. Run my fingers through his hair and whisper to him: "You're going to be all right …" I would be called responsible if he were bleeding to death on the floor, but I would be called inappropriate if I did it when he was in good health. I would be, like all trustworthy prophets, called a nuisance and promptly arrested.
If the Wendy's-centric pieces are those written while the speaker sits alone in the restaurant, eating his Biggie Fries, then the rest — about sex, mostly, but also random things like dwarves and chickens — are the ones written late at night while the speaker sits, still alone, in his messy studio apartment, dreaming of killing a celebrity. Where else could the inspiration for August 16, 1996's entry come from?
My penis, it sounds like confetti. My face is too strong, so forget it. My sleep is burning, so let it. There is just so much to prove since I've come. Too much to prove all alone. Too much to prove since I've come. Too much to prove all alone. And time, time rolls on like a mountain — there's just so much to prove. And I just can't prove it's undue.
Letters to Wendy's is, unfortunately, a lot more fun and interesting to talk about than it is to own. At $14, you wonder, ultimately, if part of the joke isn't on you, the customer, for buying what is basically an uneven (albeit original) collection of missives. It's one of those books they always place up near the register — smaller than most, and with a funky cover — to tempt you into buying just one more book. The kind of book you'll tell everyone you saw, but wouldn't be caught dead buying. Often, this is a bad instinct, as some of those books are pretty good. In this case, your instincts will serve you right.» — Clay Risen

«No degree of familiarity with Joe Wenderoth's first two poetry collections will quite prepare readers for Letters to Wendy's. If the gauzy, enigmatic lyrics of Disfortune and If It Is I Speak (both from Wesleyan) at times seemed written on the air by the white cotton glove of a mime, then the prose poems in Letters — or "epistolary fiction," as the Library of Congress subject heading would have it—were scrawled on Wendy's restaurant comment cards, possibly in ketchup, mustard or blood, by the white-knuckled hand of a psychotic loner.
That's one possible characterization of Wenderoth's speaker, a compulsive diarist who submits near-daily missives to his local burger emporium. This character may well have a counterpart in the real world, but just imagine the manager who gathers up the day's mundane requests for cleaner restrooms or less salt on the fries, and finds this suggestion:
December 24, 1996 (Christmas Eve)
If we must put people to death why not at Wendy's. Is
midnight in a prison basement better? Wendy's provides
the two things an execution needs most: plenty of light,
and refreshments. The light allows the condemned to feel
death as an inevitable blending. The refreshments allow
the audience to take in their own hands the tamed
substance and to feel themselves securely on this side of
the blender.
By the last sentence we are no longer in Wendy's as a physical place, but in Wendy's as a polymorphic conceptual construct, one that permits metaphysical interrogation ("Why is there somewhere that is not Wendy's?"), self-analysis ("I seek respite from tolerance, in every sense."), religious experience ("The Virgin Mother appeared to me today. She was holding two baked potatoes with sour cream and chives."), linguistic delirium ("Null successors squirming in the quickness try not to hear the undersinging that predicts them..."), and of course sexual fantasy ("I'd like to spank Wendy's white ass..."). Indeed, Wenderoth may be the first American poet to depict human sexual intercourse with a milkshake. The pieces are generally no more than seven lines long, about what would fit on a 3" by 5" card, a borrowed formal constraint that nevertheless enforces concision and compression; they are something like half-sonnets.
When I first read a selection of Letters in American Poetry Review two years ago, I disrupted the peace of a library reading room by laughing out loud. Their earnest naiveté, when juxtaposed with philosophical argument or outright violence, created an uneasy tension, prompting an almost involuntary reverse reaction akin to that experienced on scary amusement park rides—the sudden, zig-zag jerking into darkness or light:
May 20, 1997
I'd like to have my muscles removed. Resume the inanimate.
Wendy's allows me to extract myself from the retarded
narcissism of animal thrivings. I sit still in a warm booth
and get thought. All movement wants, in the end, is stillness;
the animate is just the failure of movement to get what it
wants—one sleeping body. The road to heaven is paved
with meat: the road to meat is not paved at all.
The inane and the quasi-sublime share the same paragraph with an odd affinity, as if, say, David Spade and Juliet Binoche starred opposite each other in a movie that critics would deem "profoundly moving."
Letters to Wendy's is intentionally subversive and randomly offensive. It is to American letters what South Park is to television drama—a compliment in my book. Its length, though, may be its undoing. The volume contains approximately three hundred pieces, and sooner or later the poet's modus operandi shows too obviously through their skins. A peculiar observation or declaration ("I'd like to have photos of your employees for my home") is developed in the abstract for a few sentences, which are then tersely resolved by some logical or illogical conclusion. They begin to mutter or whine, and the initial voyeuristic interest wanes. Still, Wenderoth's flair for invention and quirky aphorism ("...yearning itself almost imperceptibly binds us into countless discomforts.") finds a fertile medium here. Like any poetry collection—and I believe Letters has more in common with lyric poetry than with prose—it's best read episodically, a few sections at a time, perhaps over a Biggie order of fries and one of those seductive, come-hither shakes.» - Fred Muratori

«You’re known as a poet, although your most famous work, Letters to Wendy’s, is, at least according to your descriptions, a novel, however poetic the prose pieces that comprise it are. In other interviews, you have described the impulses that directed you to write Letters to Wendy’s in what you call the “post-poetic” mode, one whose speaker is not quite as obliterated as that ‘self’ that often speaks in/from the poetic moment. Your newest book, however, will be a collection of essays. This won’t be a new form for you, but how would you characterize the speaker, mode, and directional impulse(s) of your essays? I assume there are obvious differences between your approach to poetry and prose and your approach to the essay, but are there any similarities or areas that overlap?
- Allen Grossman, in Summa Lyrica, describes the moment from which poetic speech emerges in terms of a disabling of the autonomy of the will. I like that description, and I have used it to describe the difference between the more conventional poems I’ve written and the Letters. When I say the speaker of the Letters is post-poetic, I am saying that his very presence demonstrates that the autonomy of the will has been re-established, even if its re-establishment means to hold on to a sense of the failure it has weathered. The Letters are comical because they reminisce (either in celebration or in grief) the poetic moment; any text that reminisces upon the poetic moment is comical (though not always intentionally, of course). (The height of comedic reminiscence upon the poetic moment is Beckett.) As I wrote the Letters, I was aware, of course, of their comical aspect, but I tried to maintain, at the same time, the seriousness of the poetic moment. It took me awhile to figure out how to achieve this, or even to figure out that this was what interested me and what I wanted to do. I am a fairly witty person and can come up with funny things to say, and part of the Wendy’s project depends on this talent, but ultimately I came to understand that I was trying to do something more than be funny. The key to achieving this ambiguity, I found, was in understanding and making apparent the devotion of the narrator. To what was he devoted? To showing up, to being engaged with his own process, to the specificity that it is possible to expect or to reminisce, to the autonomy of the will. And I came to understand that this devotion is key because it—our devotion to the personae by which we manifest ourselves and make ourselves history—is precisely what is funny and dead serious at the same time. More often than not we laugh at a buffoonery from outside of it, as though there is an outside of it, which we presume ourselves to be the sovereigns of. But if a buffoonery is able to convey that there is nothing outside of buffoonery, no firm ground from which one can laugh at it, then the buffoonery itself is changed, and the sort of knowledge it allows for is changed. It ceases to produce practical knowledge and produces instead a sadder—dare I say a poetic—knowledge. I called Letters To Wendy’s a novel because I wished it was, I guess, at first (ah, to be a novelist!), and I suppose there are ways to define novel so as to include it, but more recently I’ve come to think of the Letters as more poetic than I had originally suspected. This may have to do with the point I’ve made above, but it has to do also with some work I did recently with writing in forms. As I did that work, and as I looked at poems students had written via formal exercises, I came to understand more keenly the real structure of poems, which is always three-parted. In part one, the poem opens up a scene of some sort. In part two, something happens, i.e. that scene is developed/complicated. Part two, while it is a developing and a complicating of the scene, provides the components from which a closure might be constructed. Part three is the achievement of that closure. Thinking about the Letters in this light, I came to realize how squarely they fit this description; their requisite brevity, I now realize, was attractive to me, and I loved writing them because I loved the challenge of having to be concise in 1. making an assertion or establishing a scene; 2. complicating that assertion or scene; 3. finding a satisfactory closure. As for the essays I’ve collected in the new book, for the most part they are a different matter because they have a quite different relationship to the failure of the autonomy of the will. I want to say that they have no relationship to it at all, but it is better to say that they have no emotional relationship to it. They are instead rhetorical, and they progress by way of logics. If they have a poetic aspect, I suspect it’s by way of their subject matter more than by way of their manner of engaging with that matter. But then I have thrown a pretty wide variety of texts into the book—some are quite conventional and earnest, some are quite satirical, and some are I-don’t-know-what. I think the thread that runs through them, the thing that inclines me to call them essays, is above all their intention, which is to make a point. Works of art—at least the most potent of them—do not seek to make a point.
In many of my favorite poems of yours, a speaker is placed in or directed toward a particularly ‘pedestrian’ setting, say a Go-Go Bar, a fast food restaurant, a working class lounge. Plenty of writers and poets frequent and then celebrate (albeit in a patronizing way) such places. And there are, of course, the other kind, say like James Wright or Richard Hugo, to whom a literary relationship to such places signifies a kind of pride in one’s identity stemming from humble origins. But unlike these writers/ poets, your work addresses but never seems to indicate any particular relationship TO such places. That is, not only does the speaker in your work refrain from romanticizing or taking pity on such places and their inhabitants, ‘he’ also makes no direct claims to come from them. It’s as if the speaking ‘self’ is not directed from any one particular group toward such a setting. Is this in keeping with your explanation of the speaker in the poetic moment as “falling through” the security of ‘self,’ the security of someone with a personality, a particular status, a set of tastes and opinions? And if so, why situate such a speaker in these locations rather than, say, a school room? To what extent can the speaking ‘self’ in the poetic moment be extracted from a particular, historically-located ‘self’?
- That was what the Letters To Wendy’s book meant to explore—that last question. And the answers it found varied. Some of the Letters, that is, are more comical, more resonant with the absurdity of the historical particulars, than others. The main thing that distinguishes the speaker of the Letters from the speaker of my poems is desire; the speaker of the Letters is desirous, and is situated wherein his desires are (to some extent, at least) satisfiable. The speaker of the poems—or I would prefer to say the voice of the poems—is not desirous; it speaks from after desire, telling the story of desire’s failure. Thus, the different relation to the scene that you’ve spoken of. I agree that my poems do not evidence a pride in the scene they speak of, or at any rate not the usual sort. I think that all poems are celebratory, but again, not in the usual sense—not in the sense that they mean to distinguish one scene from another. They are celebratory in that the autonomy of the will has been disabled… but this disabling has not achieved silence. They are celebratory in that they speak at all. If the scene of a poem is, at bottom, particular, then that poem has failed to do what good poems are able to do, which is to produce a sense of the site of scenes—the site of all scenes. Thus, when I am describing a go-go bar, I am doing so because that particular scene, for me, evokes the site of scenes—it evokes the scene that does not change, which is to say, the conditions in which our selves must dwell. Diving Into The Wreck is a great poem not because it evidences the identity or the lifestyle of a proud or humble diver; it is great because its metaphor works to describe the site of scenes. If I am drawn in my poems to working class scenes, this is probably because that’s where I’ve happened to live. Also, one might argue that, because the conditions in which we dwell are essentially cruel, it is more likely that poets will turn to scenes of particular cruelties to evoke those conditions.
I once heard you explain, at one of your readings, that Letters to Wendy’s is a novel, mainly because, as you explained, the letters form a kind of progression. I always understood you to mean that the speaker in the novel undergoes this progression. If you still feel this to be the case, could you elaborate on the kind of progression you have or had in mind?
- I do not think that the Letters work in the way that good novels work. If the book works, it works over and over, not by way of narrative developments.
In 1996, you wrote an editorial in The American Poetry Review in which you responded to A. R. Ammons’s claim that ‘poetry is action.’ Your response seemed to argue that poetry is, in fact, the very opposite of action, that it presents itself as a moment of in-action, of hesitation before and questioning of any and all actions. I always understood this to mean that poetry is not activism, that it cannot afford to be limited to any particular kind of activism, political or otherwise. Now, almost nine years later, and given the urgency of the national, political climate, do you still feel that poetry cannot afford to venture towards the realm of action or toward exposition?
- Yeah, I have still seen no evidence to make me believe that a poetry of action can be any good. I don’t see that this is a problem, though. Let’s say someone is attacking you, and you have a knife, a baseball bat, and a small sack of opium. You should use the knife and/or the baseball bat, and you should not lament the fact that you cannot use the small sack of opium at that moment. It has its own usefulness, its own time. I have turned to writing essays more often in these past ten years, I suspect, because of the worsening of the political situation. It may seem obscene to indulge in the arts while certain things are going on in the world, but I think that if we disallow ourselves the dignities of art… we are letting the terrorists—i.e. the current administration—win.» - Interview with Peter Ramos


«CALGARY. It's often bizarre, sometimes nonsensical and always funny - Bruce McCulloch is obviously involved.
Fans of McCulloch's work in the seminal Canadian sketch comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, will enjoy his turn in One Yellow Rabbit's latest production, Letters To Wendy's.
The one-hour show - which premiered Tuesday at the Big Secret Theatre - is an irreverent and eccentric comedy featuring McCulloch and OYR artistic director Blake Brooker as the unified voice of an obsessed fast food customer.
Based on the cult book by Joe Wenderoth -- who will have a signing session following Saturday and Sunday's performances - Letters To Wendy's is essentially a year in the life of a regular patron.
Clad in identical black pants, grey shirts and ties, The Joes (Brooker and McCulloch) volley about sardonic, rude, hilarious and downright nutty dialogue gleaned from suggestions on fictional Wendy's customer comment cards.
McCulloch and Brooker's adaptation is fleshed out by Tracy Ryan, who dons the copper-top pig tails of that famous face that smiles down on millions of customers each day.
Ryan explains some of the background behind the Wendy's chain and its founder, the late Dave Thomas. She also acts as a focal point for Brooker and McCulloch's love, rage and philosophical meanderings.
Meanwhile, Brad Payne, in goth get-up, provides much of the show's laughs, playing the universal teenage fast food employee (sarcastically dubbed "Register Boy" by The Joes.)
There's some point made about consumerism in modern society, but its hidden beneath a blanket of esoteric prose - "The Virgin Mother appeared to me today. She was holding two baked potatoes with sour cream and chives" - and outlandish visuals.
At one point, Wendy gives birth to the above-mentioned baked potato (it's not as gross as it sounds) while another moment has McCulloch mixing up a hamburger, a chocolate drink and a ketchup packet in a blender and drinking the concoction (it is as gross as it sounds.)
Throw in breakdancing, Enya and references to pot-smoking fast food mascots and you've got yourself one of the most original theatre offerings Calgary has seen in a while.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a craving for a Frosty.» - Lisa Wilton

Read an excerpt:
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3692/is_199905/ai_n8833653/

Joe Wenderoth, The Holy Spirit of Life: Essays Written for John Ashcroft's Secret Self (Wave Books, 2005)

"The bold and surprising imagination of Joe Wenderoth is everywhere present in these essays moving fluidly between aesthetics, obscenity, America, censorship, and the craft of poetry. Fans of his previous work know he is one of those rare figures who travels between pop culture, poetry, and cultural critique, and all will be thrilled to find his uncompromising and inimitable sensibility on brilliant display."

"Wenderoth's Letters to Wendy's (2000)- irreverent, witty prose poems written on comment cards from the eponymous burger chain-racked up unheard-of sales and made the young writer a poetry-world celebrity. Wenderoth's first post-Wendy's publication collects equally irreverent, equally biting and sometimes frankly sexual efforts in prose, along with a few poems and photographs: it shows his wit, and his desire to shock, undimmed. Individual essays explore the semiotics of Mayberry RFD and the phenomenology of Wile E. Coyote; reinterpret a poem of Sappho's to describe a seizure; rewrite a poem by Robert Hass so that it describes junkies in Cleveland; invent new drinking games; and advise academic colleagues, "Be glad that in truth you are... not in control of what comes into your mouth." "An Eye for an Eye for an Eye" proposes updates on the TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, among them "Drug-Users' Eye for the Corporate Zombie." Wenderoth also reproduces correspondence with magazine editors regarding another essay (also printed here) whose portrayal of a promiscuous female Jesus led the editors to kill the piece. Though some pieces suffer as their occasions pass, most remain disorientingly smart, and funny." - Publishers Weekly

"Joe Wenderoth is a relentless antagonist to the dominant inanities of culture and politics. There are some who would like to dismiss him at every turn: he is too foul-mouthed, too self-absorbed, too sarcastic, too silly, too reckless. But as soon as one begins to think Wenderoth’s mind is permanently stuck in chakra two, he reels off inspired, compressed vignettes about seemingly minor or preposterous issues (citizens on television’s Mayberry and drinking games such as “The Lumberjack’s Melancholy Pussy”) that reveal desperate humanity in all manners of action. In his new book, The Holy Spirit of Life, Wenderoth imbues these essays with such concerned philosophical purpose (and drama) that the reader is led to believe in their deeper significance, and the tension between his earnest rhetorical choices and somewhat seriocomic tones and content leaves us laughing disturbingly. When he proposes that it is time to make Martin Luther King Jr. white so that the white population can love him, one finds oneself caught between the absurdity of the proposition and the terror that our culture might be so fundamentally racist and irrational that this just might make sense. This is Wenderoth at his best, championing ridiculous possibilities of change that deride this country’s culpabilities and hypocrisies, not to mention pursuing an argument ad absurdum: “Wasn’t it King who insisted that one should be judged without concern for the color of one’s skin? Poetic justice, then, to refashion him white, if only as a demonstration of the irrelevance of skin color.” The book also includes 24 photographs of Wenderoth at various stages in his life, including one on a park bench with a disarming Ronald McDonald, a wedding photo, and a four-part x-ray of his colon. As in his previous book, Letters to Wendy’s (2000), Wenderoth proves himself one of our country’s most daring satirists—no one is more willing to follow issues through to the rawest conclusions, or to show the slick world the other side of its smile." —James Wagner

"Letters from the American Poet" is a collection of emails written by an editor at American Poet to Joe Wenderoth regarding a solicited submission. They are the letters of an editor who has no real editorial power, an editor who wishes to support a solicited author, but who must please his/her readership. The editor attempts to work with Wenderoth to edit the submission. Judging by the editor’s letters (Wenderoth does not include the emails he wrote), Wenderoth seems amenable to censoring his work, but not to the extent necessary for publication. Wenderoth’s solicited essay doesn’t run in American Poet.
The essay in question is “The Holy Spirit of Life.” The essay begins:
'The question of irreverence, of course, is the question of reverence. To revere… or to refuse to revere… From the point of view of The Authorities, to refuse to revere is a dangerous thing, a thing to be punished. This kind of thing—the censor as a punisher—is not, however, what I want to talk about in this essay. Looking at the irreverence I am given credit for, I am struck by something more important.'
What Wenderoth is struck by is that “reverence [is] implicit in my alleged irreverences.” Wenderoth proceeds to write an apologia for his poetry, specifically the poem, “Semiotics: Dehiscence Is Never/Always Sought.”
“Semiotics…” features Jesus Christ as a woman “initiating an orgy of sorts” with the apostles, who are shocked to discover that Jesus is a woman. American Poet chose not to run the essay because of Wenderoth’s description of his own poem—at least that’s what the editor from American Poet tells Wenderoth. Reading the essay “The Holy Spirit of Life,” I can’t help but wonder if the editors of American Poet opted not to publish Wenderoth’s essay because it’s such a silly bit of writing.
The essay’s logic: irreverence is reverence for what The Authorities (a term left undefined) find taboo, impolite, not Christian, etc. Wenderoth’s example is the poem “Semiotics….” He writes, “One poem I wrote last year can be traced to the watching of pornography. In the pornography I’ve watched, there is sometimes a woman doubly or triply penetrated. I revere this woman.” What Wenderoth tends to do is to mock: as he says—“I understand the current rules of Conventional Reverence, and I chose to mock them…” he tries, then, to claim to do more than “merely to have mocked them.” He argues, defensively, that he has created a Jesus—a female porn actress Jesus—who is worthy of reverence, who he reveres.
He concludes his essay with a note that his essay was eventually published in Fence and that the poem “Semiotics…” was “enthusiastically accepted for publication” by Nerve.com but eventually rejected, “…due to an editor’s fear of controversy.” (Did Nerve.com give “fear of controversy” as their reason for rejecting the poem? Given the opportunity, I would have rejected the poem based on the mediocrity of Wenderoth’s language.) Wenderoth’s note concludes, “I neglected to archive the small string of email I got from Nerve.com, as they were not imbued with much more than unselfconscious cowardice.” This is petty. Publishing the emails from the editor at American Poet is petty.
To what purpose does Wenderoth include “Letters from the American Poet” in his book? My suspicion is that Wenderoth sees himself as a chastised crusader for free speech, as a writer punished for challenging the status quo, and he wants his readers to see him that way too.
The second part of Wenderoth’s book begins with another note from the author. Wenderoth feels the need to tell his readers how to read his essays—an act of cowardice on his part. He writes:
'...they [the essays] are more explicitly political than the other essays in this book. For me, just residing in Marshall [Minnesota] was a kind of political activism, and perhaps the best kind: largely spontaneous and uncontrived.'
In other words, any political activity on the part of the author was merely a reaction to where he found himself. He didn’t move to Marshall to confront white Christianity with his ballsy ideas, he moved to Marshall “to teach in the English Department at what was then called Southwest State University.” To claim that residing in Marshall was a form of activism is revisionist fantasy.
He berates himself for “drifting in and out of shameful silences” in the face of “capitalist, white supremacist, homophobic, Christian-privileging patriarchy.” When he snapped out of his shameful silences, he wrote little articles for the local and the campus newspaper.
“Bringing Freaks to Campus” is the best of the essays in this section, and in the book. Wenderoth is rightly annoyed that a liberal-arts university is spending money to bring in speakers who present little educational value—a former The Real World participant and a parent who lost a child during the massacre at Columbine. Wenderoth ends this essay with a vague and pitiful attempt to preserve his cool: “Please believe me when I tell you that I am not against freak shows—and not even necessarily against self-righteous superstitious freak shows.”
In “The Souls of White Folk,” he suggests we “transform our image of Martin Luther King Jr.” by producing images of MLK as Caucasian. Wenderoth is ironically suggesting that while white people like MLK, white people would love him if he were re-imaged white. As is typical of Wenderoth’s essays, he fails to go beyond his startling concept, he fails to push deeper. At this point in my reading, I began to suspect that Wenderoth fails to press beyond the superficial because he can’t: as a thinker, there’s nothing more to Wenderoth than the first spark of idea.
The provocatively titled “Twenty-Five Ways to Make Love Without Having Sex” is among the biggest disappointments in the book. Calling this piece of writing an essay is a stretch (it’s a stretch to call many of the pieces in this book essays). “Twenty-Five Ways…” is a list, a list made by a heterosexual male who has a very narrow idea of what sex is, i.e., he believes sex equals penetration of the vagina by a penis. This is evidenced by his inclusion of oral sex (“6. Eat your partner out.”) as not “having sex.” This list also displays a narrow concept of what making love is, i.e., that love-making is physical or involves watching people engaged in sexual intercourse. Call me a romantic or old-fashioned, but I believe making love includes oh-so-much more: serenading, holding hands, etc.
The press-release for The Holy Spirit of Life describes what topics Wenderoth tackles, a list that concludes, “and of course, poetics.” Of course. The third part of Wenderoth’s book is a hodge-podge of materials, some of which discuss poetry. I don’t see a real poetic presented in the book, except that for Wenderoth, poems are like magic elves that sneak up on you when you’re day-dreaming (I paraphrase, of course).
He writes about a Robert Hass poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” a well-known poem that begins with the lines, “All the new thinking is about loss./ In this it resembles all the old thinking.” Wenderoth’s description of and comments on Hass’s poems are tedious reading indeed. He writes,
'When he says that ‘everything dissolves,’ he means that, in ‘thinking,’ or in poetry that is the careful articulation of the coming of a scene that can’t be kept, there is ultimately nothing meaningful—that all meaning, all being, is simply dissolved by such a poetry. 'Thinking’ ‘about loss,’ then, for those of us who always grasp the world in its truly radiant specificity, is a simple waste of time; thinking might even be implied as an irresponsibility, a failure to celebrate our good essence, our being the good keepers of the genuine realm.'
Wenderoth reveals himself as one who glorifies those who do not think, who live only in the world of physical pleasure, immediate gratification and emotion. Wenderoth claims to be a clever animal, farting, fucking, and regurgitating without thought applied to any experience/reaction he has. And yet, if this were true, he would not bother to analyze a poem, he would only let us know if he liked it or didn’t. Which, in fact, he fails to do. Ultimately, his analysis comes across—in the context of this book—as a failed attempt to show intellectual gravitas, as yet another pose to impress his readers.
He then follows this essay with a parody of the Hass poem. This is an unfortunate decision. By locating the parody after a dry swipe at seriousness, Wenderoth gave me the impression that the Hass essay was only a set-up for a gag—a dumb gag. The parody inserts into Hass’s poem drugs where loss was, and mixes in some dirty words “poopy, pussy, peenie…”
Included in this section are several Wenderoth poems, the “Semiotics…” poem, the Hass parody, “Ex-Lover Somewhere,” and “Outside the Hospital.” The last two poems appear within essays; as with “Semiotics…,” he cites these poems as examples of various ideas he’s had—so, though the poems may have stood on their own somewhere, here he explains his poetry. Perhaps his own poetry is the only poetry he is capable of talking about with any intelligence and vibrancy. I find that that the essays in which he discusses his own work read like answers to interview questions: witty enough, but off-the-cuff and without depth.
Wenderoth’s collection of essays, prose nick-knacks and poems reveal the author as insecure and self-righteous, and demonstrates his inability to push an idea beyond superficiality. The Holy Sprit of Life is a book that John Ashcroft would love: he would love it because it purports to be intelligent liberal thought, but is in fact inarticulate and crude. A shot in the foot for those struggling against the ignorance and complicity of so many Americans.
I was baffled by Ben Marcus’s jacket blurb: “Joe Wenderoth is a brilliant writer, original and subversive, sensitive and strange. I read his work with awe and admiration.” I was baffled because Marcus is a much better writer than Wenderoth, and should know better. (To give Marcus the benefit of the doubt, I assume all the quotes Verse Press are using are responses to Letters to Wendy’s, Wenderoth’s previous book from Verse Press, which, while greatly overrated, produced a few real moments of quality.)
Let Ben Marcus’s blurb serve as a segue. There is brilliant, original and subversive work, doing what Wenderoth only wishes he could do. Ben Marcus’s book, The Age of Wire and String is worth reading. Diane Williamson's This is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate is flawed, but is more often than not successful. Brian Evenson’s The Wavering Knife, is also imperfect but powered by a real mind, a thinker who is forging a unique and lonely path. Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti. Anything by Mary Caponegro—who is one of the best fiction writers working today. Her The Star Café shames most contemporary fiction. Read an issue of The New York Review of Books, and you’ll see how shabby Wenderoth’s essay writing is. Read John Taggart’s Songs of Degrees, and you’ll see that essays about poetry can be direct, plainly written, and yet complex and thoughtful. Pick up some good poetry, too: Taggart’s Pastorelles, The Tunnel by Russel Edson, Ali Warren’s chapbook Hounds. Do not waste your time with Joe Wenderoth. In this world, beauty is subversive. Kindness, rare. As is reading and thinking; to be angry is not to be right; to be angry is common. To be crass is not honest. Thinking for oneself is in itself radical behavior." - Adam Golaski
Joe Wenderoth, No Real Light (Wave Books, 2007)

“Joe Wenderoth's brave new poetic talent is like nothing so much as a live wire writing its own epitaph in sparks. [His poems] throb brilliantly with a sense of the 'too much.' ... But in Wenderoth's case the too much is the too little or the too ordinary—a very remarkable discovery to have made so late in the history of poetry. Philip Larkin and a few American poets have approached it, but Wenderoth's instrument is sharper than theirs; he makes quick cuts in the meat of the ordinary, which is the meat of the impossible.”—Cal Bedient

“Luck”
So a screaming woke you
just in time
An animal’s scream, or animals’.
What kind of animal it was
doesn’t matter, and cannot,
in any case, be determined.
The point is you are saved.
Your mouth has been opened.

"Best-known for his gritty and uproarious prose poetry collection Letters to Wendy's (2000), Wenderoth began his career with two books of gimlet-eyed, world-weary, hard-hitting poetry. Now he returns to verse, favoring (as before) relatively short poems, often 12 lines or fewer, most of which crackle with a bleakness that's part gallows humor, part outrage, and part despair, as in "God's Plan," quoted in full: "First you are caused to careen and/ or stagger/ through situations of indescribable appeal / and mind-breaking vertiginous sadness./ Then you are smothered." Some of these bare-bones lyrics are stunning; others reach for an incisiveness or boldness they don't quite achieve. Longer meditative and narrative poems bookend and appear throughout the volume, offering a more complicated, nuanced version of Wenderoth's sensibility than the short poems do. Whether recollecting past slackerdom ("I moved my pills and little t.v. from city to city") or considering his own or others' maladjustment ("Your soul is a million dollars cash/ and you're playing blackjack/ five dollars a hand."), it's in the longer pieces that Wenderoth is at his most affecting, revealing the adversity and vulnerability behind the cynicism, and delivering some of the most authentically disenchanted poetry to come from Generation X." - Publishers Weekly
Joe Wenderoth, It Is If I Speak (Wesleyan University Press, 2000)

"In the epigraph to Joe Wenderoth's new volume of poetry, a herdsman, exhorted by Oedipus to speak the truth, replies "It is if I speak that I will be destroyed."
Wenderoth's poetry is sparse, nihilistic -- and sometimes witty. Publishers Weekly wrote that, "Like Stevens, Wenderoth has a passion for philosophical ideas; at the same time he follows Williams' dictum: no ideas but in things. The result is poetry that is intellectually charged but whose final fidelity is to the senses." His new book has the dignity of a sincere and ferocious despair. In the narratives of these poems, "owing is all that really happens," and lives are shaped by the refusal to "sink dumbly into tolerance of a spectacle."

"Reducing sentience to slumber, reason to ritual, sight to shadow, the human to the abject and the animal, Wenderoth's exquisite evocations of finely discriminated loss offer moody evasions of concrete statement, electing paradox and abstraction over the death his entombed and enslaved personae fear will follow if they dare speak plain. The 54 poems, most of them brief, are governed by a handful of motifs: the evanescence of meaning and memory, the Orphic dismemberment to which the poet is inevitably destined, the violence native to presence, the mystery underlying human community. "The pattern is only ever of animal success," Wenderoth writes in the opening stanza of "Museum," "the cry of a real gathering/ misheard and losing itself/ toward the idea of a sound/ which was not a blade." The cry usurping utterance, the insistence upon imperfect perception ("misheard"), the shaded abstraction ("the idea of a sound") and the hovering threat of the one concrete noun ("blade") are all habitual devices of the volume, as are the deepening ambiguities repetition brings to the poem's denouement. Two longer poems structured as numbered catalogues, "Restrictions" and "Things to Do Today," strain their short phrases toward surrealistic effects ("collide with the hidden zoo and act surprised by the amount of unnecessary sleep hidden therein") and desperate humor ("said person believes the word `person' signifies, above all, a mobile, vacant, and consistently endangered habitat"), neither of which consistently succeed in lifting the monotony induced by obsessively repeated cognitive tricks. Much praised for his 1995 debut, Disfortune, Wenderoth shows himself in this second volume to be an competent inheritor of a abstraction-wearied symbolist tradition many had given up for dead."

"Wenderoth's work is sparse in form and content, with each poem addressing one central topic and attempting to explore it through a nihilistic lens. Unfortunately, the poems rarely reveal the speaker's passion, and the spareness denies reader response. Although the poems are philosophical in the manner of Wallace Stevens, the awkward juxtaposition of lines obscures rather than enlightens; the reader's desire for coherence is hardly satisfied. Indeed, some of the poems fail to make much sense: "I am gathered/ too late/ to/ have been/ just music." These stanzas, like many in the volume, are just chopped-up prose. Wenderoth does choose the ordinary for his raw material, but the lifelessness of the verses makes the ordinary seem all too banal. Too often, these are poems that suffer from "having nothing to say." - Tim Gavin
Joe Wenderoth, Disfortune: Poems (Wesleyan, 1995)

"This volume introduces a poet and some impressive poems in which he uses tangible imagery to depict the elusiveness of experience. "Detailed History of the Western World'' reads, in its entirety: "where the river gets swift/ my grandfather stops rowing/ turns round/ and with one oar/ sweeps a row-boat full of cats/ into water so black/ you could say/ it was almost anything.'' Two poems pay direct homage to Wallace Stevens, and another pays moving tribute to William Carlos Williams. Like Stevens, Wenderoth has a passion for philosophical ideas; at the same time he follows Williams's dictum: no ideas but in things. The result is poetry that is intellectually charged but whose final fidelity is to the senses. Despite the constant hum of thinking, these tightly compressed poems exhibit an acute awareness of the transience of any given thought." - Publishers Weekly

"At times, Wenderoth's poems sound like a tougher, demotic Stevens: skewed aphorisms aimed precisely at our sense that we can be fully at ease in 'position.' In other poems, his difficulty is more like Paul Celan's. His word-play brings an image - say, trees coming to life in spring -- half into focus, so that it remains both inner and outer, metaphysical and sexual; so that the fullest action is, once again, no action at all. An oddly active 'oblivion' is the sum of all the hurries and indifferences that make Wenderoth's world grimmer than Williams', certainly than Crane's. Yet one can't help feeling that, in a strange way, he approves of it, if only because it brings home the old Buddhist truths - suffering, change, non-selfhood - and thereby opens up a truly democratic compassion." - Alan Williamson

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