If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep
by Joe Wenderoth
81 pages / Wave Books
When I was in high school, and just learning that a poem doesn’t have to be like Robert Frost, I found Letters to Wendy’s, an earlier book by Joe Wenderoth. It changed me. LTW is dirty, funny, critical, and stylistically something I had never seen before. But where LTW was loud, direct, constant in its need to both shock and absorb you, Wenderoth’s most recent book If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep is constantly coming from below to wrap its toothless mouth around your wormlike toes. It doesn’t bite or break, but it suckles and nips until the deep is more terrifying than climbing out naked into the world.
It’s a quiet kind of pressure. The poems are short, sparse, and compacted. The first poem, “Satan is Real,” reads: “I know // you know // how to sing // but who taught you”. This juxtaposition of an intense and strange title with a much more simple and direct-seeming poem is a pretty common tactic throughout the book. This constant heaving upwards from some spare depth is almost oracular in its proclamations. But where the oracle wishes to speak, and where the oracles drives itself to near-madness huffing mountain crack gas and drinking the sweet holy wines, Wenderoth gives himself over to the restrained silence of a monk. I want to say “koan-like,” but that’s a cliche and not right.
More than just the subtle kind of orgiastic desire, the poems take a wholly different route to knowledge. Tiresias was blinded in order to see, but Wenderoth seems to put much more stock in actual vision and the gaze than any ancient seer’s godly portents. Where the oracle is to speak, Wenderoth’s prophecy is to see. For example, the poem “Early Capitalism” on page 9:
they are perfecting the pillow
you are being suffocated
now it sings to you
and shows you pictures
There’s a lot built into this tiny poem. The ambiguity of “they,” their desire for violence, the choice of a pillow, and why the pillow sings and shows pictures are all compounded by the poem’s title. The last stanza is important, though, because it suggests the pillow acts as a television. It doesn’t speak to you, it doesn’t rant or rave, but it sings and shows you pictures, just like a television. It’s almost soothing, as a pillow tends to be, and very visual: in order for the nose and mouth to be fully covered, the eyes have to be as well. But the pillow is killing you, shoved over your face. And more than that, it’s blinding you. In order to see, possibly in order to see past, you have to remove the blinders. In this case, it’s the opposite of that gender-swapping old fart: not blindness but vision, vision of something there and in the world.
When I was in high school and knew almost nothing about poetry, I wore a lot of black. I had a fake stone wrist-cuff that I wore all the time. It is no surprise I glommed onto the Romantics. I loved the drama, the constant introspection. At that time, I was into Romanticism because of the emotional posture of it all. As I’ve gotten older and studied more poetry, though, I have lost a lot of my original love for the Romantics. And yet, every once in a while, I will hear a Coleridge or Keats poem and remember that there are more basic instincts in Romantic poetry that appeal to me no matter how much older or more sophisticated I think I am. Namely, the way sound works in those old poems, and how much I miss it sometimes in contemporary lyrical poetry. That is not to say that there aren’t musical poets right now; there are a lot. But rarely do I see how contemporary hyper-musical poetry meets poetry “of our time” – the poetry obsessed with the new, the strange, the grotesque, the pop.
Which is why I am so thankful for a book like Lisa Jarnot’s A Princes Magic Presto Spell. It begins with a phrase that gets repeated throughout the next thirty-some pages and never loses its fantastic internal beats:
Into the eve of a picnic of trees of the strawberry rugulet rabbit tyrone
The iambic beginnings of the line give way to a slightly more sinister image, but also a more sinister pattern. The rhyme scheme does not change much, but the word lengths expand and where the stressed syllable falls within those words is harder to scan. Because the line gets repeated (although in slightly different forms sometimes) throughout the rest of the collection, it becomes the spell of the title. Its darkness and strangeness (what is rugulet? tyrone?), the mystery of it, makes it incantation, so that each time the reader re-encounters it, it takes on new meaning or becomes more meaningless, depending on what is around it.
The idea of storytelling and the questions that surround the idea of narrative – Who has the right to tell a story? What do we sacrifice on the altar of narrative? Etc. – have long been debated by fiction and prose writers. But poets, too, should be burdened with these ideas. In poetry, we often couch a lot of these narrative questions as questions of “voice” or “theme”. But perhaps more poets should be asking themselves about the nature of storytelling as a medium as well. It is certainly an obsession of Caryl Pagel. In her first book, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death (2012), the question of narrative comes out through poems about ghosts and mediums, poems collaged out of disparate texts, and gaps where it seemed the real story should be. Inspired by the work of the Society for Psychical Research, Pagel created poems that are truly haunting through the use of page and line space, found text, and a tone of always looking back. The poems in Experiments are mournful and scary both.
Pagel returns to and expands the theme of haunted storytelling in her new collection, Twice Told. This is a book almost completely about the lacks to be found in a story told. As soon as the tale is filtered through the narrative presence, it dissolves. Every single poem in Twice Told obsesses over the conveying of a story. Details are repeated over and over again, long poems are only made up of a handful of individual words, voices fade out at the end. There is no punctuation, only white space, because nothing here can be held true as a statement.
The other week, while standing outside of a local Italian restaurant my in-laws love (and I have come to love as well, the kitschy murals, the awesomely portioned food, the extraneous wait staff standing around bored-looking), I got into a conversation with my sister in-law about what I think art is. I told her I think art is inherently nonproductive, and that anything productive isn’t art. This is an essay explaining what I meant by that, and is, in a lot of ways, a l’esprit d’escalier essay. The thing you meant to say but couldn’t, because it wasn’t there, because the parking lot was full of noise and tennis balls and your mind seems only to ever work in retrospect.
When I said art was inherently nonproductive, her first response was, what about woodworking and pottery? At the time, I chose to be glib, and say that pretty much all pottery and furniture isn’t art. That’s wrong, unequivocally wrong, but I decided to be glib and nonresponsive at the time. I’m not sure why; maybe because I’m not comfortable talking about art outside of a classroom, maybe I don’t like the Big Question conversations about Art, or maybe it was late and I was hungry.
Looking back at the paragraph above, a lot of it isn’t true. I wasn’t that hungry. It wasn’t that late; the sun was still up. I wasn’t choosing to be glib, either. I just didn’t know what to say. I argued myself into a hole, made a grand statement that sounded good at the time, and when pressed I had nothing substantial to back it up with. Even the idea of l’esprit d’escalier is more or less a lie, because those paragraphs aren’t a great, witty response after the fact, but a desperate and ill-conceived way to make myself feel better. Also, I had to look up that phrase on Wikipedia. It wasn’t a natural thing for me, and I feel pretentious keeping it in this essay.
I was trying to be real. I was trying to say something straight forward, honest, something accurate about myself, but it’s only a few weeks later and I already see it for what it really is: just writing, mediated through aesthetic effect. I’m embarrassed by it. I don’t agree with the argument, and the attempt at total honestly feels forced and weird. Even this paragraph feels totally off. I’m just trying to talk, but the prose is tilted.
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’
– George Oppen
The things Oppen was talking about are no longer the objects around us, but the multitudes of interconnected knowledge portals, chief among them Wikipedia. To read Wikipedia is to know ourselves, and to steal from Wikipedia is to create art.
Although plagiarism in some contexts is considered theft or stealing, the concept does not exist in a legal sense. “Plagiarism” is not mentioned in any current statute, either criminal or civil. Some cases may be treated as unfair competition or a violation of the doctrine of moral rights. The increased availability of intellectual property due to a rise in technology has furthered the debate as to whether copyright offences are criminal. In short, people are asked to use the guideline, “…if you did not write it yourself, you must give credit.”
Wikipedia is an infinitely regressive codex owned by nobody. It constantly falls back into itself through its editorial practice of linking within its own corpus. This makes navigating Wikipedia like entering a labyrinth: each new turn leads you simultaneously away and deeper. If you’re not using Wikipedia to make art, you are 10 year behind the curve.
The lack of ownership of Wikipedia’s language is exactly why it’s such a rich source. According to Nicole Killian in her article The Aesthetics of Index, “. . . faced with an exceptional amount of available information, the problem is not needing to create more of it; instead, we are learning to negotiate the vast quantity that exists.” In an info-glut world packed to the brim with more images, more variations on an image, more meta-references, more text, more cut-ups, more theft, and on into the underworld, genius (to paraphrase Kenneth Goldsmith) is no longer the ability to create but the ability to master the already-existing.
It was like joining
a cult & discover-
ing they all believed
– from “I Found You You Were a River”
A few months ago, when Evan, Drew, and I debated Tyler Gobble’s Other People’s Poems and the idea of voice in poetry, I stated some of my confusion over the difference between voice and other writerly tics – mainly, a writer’s obsessions of language and subject matter:
I wonder how much of what we consider to be voice is actually this subjective obsession mixed with a choice of style (which, somehow, is often considered a separate entity from voice)….So this leads me to think that when we say ‘voice,’ what we really mean is ‘style + personal obsession.’ But even that feels tricky to me in some ways.
I am still trying to work through this idea of voice, of how we define it and why we assign specific voices to authors based on a whole myriad of reasons, some of which essentially just boil down to a “feeling” we get while reading an author’s work. I remain unsatisfied with the idea that we can use the word “voice” and leave it at that, as if saying an author has a “strong voice” is enough. I tell my students they have developed voices in their writing, but that does not mean much beyond the fact that I can distinguish their papers from one another.
Perhaps I struggle with the concept of voice because it feels too permeable, too porous to whatever whim a writer might be on at any given time. Or maybe the problem is that we use “voice” as a way of sticking a writer to something throughout their entire career. Clearly, that work is so-and-so’s, we say. Even over time, we still talk about how their voice stays the same, how it changes in little ways but is still identifiable. And what poet wants to be so easy, so tamable, as that? Luckily, every once in a while, a book comes along to challenge ideas of voice, to show me that the porousness is what makes a writer’s work unique: a book like Russ Woods’s Wolf Doctors. The type of work Woods does in Wolf Doctors challenges the perception of voice as a thing we can mold too easily. Voice here feels more uncontrolled, a little wild, in its inability to be strapped down to one thing only. It’s poetry that feels electric, surprising:
“…It was one of the crazier parties I’ve had. Three crows drowned. I wrapped their tiny bodies in soft white cloth & threw them a funeral (aka new ghost party). I thought I would never stop crying.”
– from “Forever Party”
Drew Kalbach’s Spooky Plan is spooky—an uncanny directive working in and out of time. The speaker operates the paradoxical technology of the lyric like a drone pilot, virtuosic and remote; immobilized, isolated, instrumentalized, and lethal. Meanwhile, the lyric lines toggle between literally ancient modes of address—graffiti transcribed from the walls of Pompeii—and the ultra-purposeful/ultra-random language of SPAM-bots. What is the strange—spooky—texture that knits up in the oscillation between these poles? Spooky action at a distance? The illusion of consciousness and intimacy that makes the universe, and the lyric, and the Internet function, while each is in fact a mass of dazzling, unparaphrasable relays? What wonders is the Sublime sitting on, somewhere over the paywall? Spooky Plan sez, “Drop down and get your worship on.” Bow down. Bow-wow.
–Joyelle McSweeney, author of Percussion Grenade
In his wonderful first book, Spooky Plan, Drew Kalbach manages to write short lyrics that are somehow incredibly punchy even as they pile up the refuse of centuries together with defecations, nocturnal emissions and other bodily fluids/media. “You are coming to blow me but not until later. I learned this while I was alive”: time spasms and drags, while “the baby girls” “grind and booty shake” and “put me under.” The dance of this menacing, hilarious, sexy (in possible an illegal way) group provides if not a narrative then something like a volatile pattern to the otherwise formless excrement of the narrator’s “post-continuity” visions of the body and sexuality. With this book, Kalbach joins a growing group of younger poets – poets like Jennifer Tamayo, Trisha Low, Monica McLure – who are changing American poets with their irreverent lyricism, performativity and media obsessions: “goodbye giggling in the carwreck”!
– Johannes Göransson, author of Haute Surveillance
These are the dreams for the commercials in post-surveillance capitalism. Kalbach’s poems are real guns, real volts, real gifts, and they’re usually about how we live today—even as we’re afraid to admit it. His poems are in community (ethereal and ethernet) while recovering isolation (in sickbeds and video games). His visions defer to an ethos, but it’s a post-integrity kind, where the body’s fallen into corporations and hostile takeovers and hostage situations, and the tremendous cost crushes thoughts into what you’d expect: flickering sadness, blinkered rage, but best—this roving curiosity for finding a better way to be electric and dead and still wanting one more try at the slots. You can’t “glitch it back together,” Kalbach has noted elsewhere. But the attempt is a funny, bracing instrument, and it’s exquisite.
Recently, I read Abraham Smith’s latest collection of poems, Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer, and came across Joyelle McSweeney’s afterword there. I found it to be a good, brief summary of what makes Smith’s work so interesting and refreshing. I was particularly struck, though, by a point McSweeney makes in the middle of her mini-essay:
“Abe also carries with him a sense of the world formed during a poor childhood in Ladysmith, WI, which the benefits of an adult perspective have rendered more and more permanently indicative of how the world really works. Life is hard, resources are few, poverty is so flattening as to be also comic, delight is also comically intense and brief, Nature is a sure consolation, and possibly something more, an indicator of another world, adjacent to the human world yet only appearing in the corner of vision, possibly only an error in perception, possibly a lit up celestial park.”
I immediately asked myself whether or not the poverty of Smith’s childhood is actually relevant to a reader of his work. This is a thought I have had many times before, not about Smith’s work in particular, but about the questions we ask of poetry at large. Why do we seem so desirous of authenticity in literature, and in poetry in particular? At too young an age we are taught to read autobiography in poetry (I still remember reading “My Papa’s Waltz” in high school and being told about Roethke’s contentious relationship with his father). And we carry that bias with us as we get older, even as we try to scrub it out with better criticism, better theory. When pieces are written about writers, their backgrounds are often pointed out in relation to their work. I am hardly suggesting that is a bad thing; I have a tendency to bleed my own self out on the page, even when writing about a historical figure or another place, another time. And we all know that the “author is dead” school of criticism is perhaps one of the most laughable literary scholarship developments of all time.
When I started this anthology project, several people asked me what got me interested in working-class poetry and why I wanted to try to correct what I consider old-fashioned readings of working class writing. Instead of talking about my interest in place or materialities or economies of language, I always began by starting with myself. My answers always began with some version of “Well, my family background is working class” or “I identify myself as working class…” Why do I do that? Even if it is the truth, it is still only a small part of where my interest in working-class poetry comes from. And yet, I always feel as if it’s necessary to defend myself before anyone can ask that old question: “What gives you the right to write about this?”
“Because poets and artists, despite marginalization and poverty, will not attack the wealthy, but instead make nice things for them.”
1. [x] is for writers and artists who don’t suck.
2. We seek work that is beautiful, shocking, intense and memorable.
When I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I read JT LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and did not like it very much. Looking back, I think was too young and incredibly naïve, and that combination made it a very bad book to encounter at a time when I was mostly reading early-20th century Americana and John Irving. But things from that book stuck with me, particularly its depiction of desperation and how that desperation could drive a narrator to do things the reader can never, ever experience or even particularly empathize with. So while I still would never consider it a book I have any fondness for, I do think it left an indelible mark on me (even if that mark was mostly one of confusion and alienation).
In January, my friend Alice read Jeff Jackson’s acclaimed 2013 novel Mira Corpora in a single afternoon and promptly recommended it to me. “There are psychic teens in it,” she promised as she lent me her copy. But some residual Heart Is Deceitful fear lingered in me, and the synopses I read of Jackson’s novel reignited that fear. Would this be too miserable for me? Would it be alienating and confusing and painful? I worried that a story about a homeless boy might trigger too many flashbacks to all kinds of similar books that I had encountered and read in those early days of YA’s building prominence, when most of the characters in those books had hardscrabble lives and were written with almost no pretense of style.
But of course, and as usual when it comes to books people recommend to me, I was wrong, wrong. I loved Mira Corpora. It is unlike anything else I have ever read, and the combination of its slightness and absorbing style meant I finished it in just a couple hours. With my teaching and writing duties being so time-consuming lately, most of my reading is done on the sly: I grab a few minutes here and there when I can, meaning I am constantly jumping in and out of narratives, not getting caught up the way I used to when I read. But I forgot how much of that is due to the actual book’s ability to hold my attention. Mira Corpora reminded me that when the story and writing are good, then I will always find a way to get hooked and lose time in the narrative.