Saturday, March 12, 2016

Into the Un-Precise: Selfhood and Discovery in Oliver Bendorf’s "The Spectral Wilderness"

Oliver Bendorf
The Spectral Wilderness

The Kent State University Press

ISBN: 978-1-60635-211-3

Oliver Bendorf 
(photo by Felicity Thompson,


By Anthony Fife

Arising from the need to self-identify, as is the case with so many poems in The Spectral Wilderness, is the attempt to reflect outwardly to the world any inner revelations of selfhood.  The visual evolution of our singular identity, then, is a poetic mapping of our progress from messy point A, to messy point B.  While the measuring is carried out (and herein lies the tricky part) there is unlimited time for vision and revision.  New trajectories are evaluated, explored, and accepted or rejected.  That element which allows poetry to act as the perfect conduit for such complex mapping, thereby lending artistic order and credibility to the whole endeavor, is its ability to bend and evolve in a way that replicates, in line, the psychic act of discovery itself.  Such is the give and take in this, Oliver Bendorf’s first full-length collection of poems.

In its simplest terms, The Spectral Wilderness (winner of the 2013 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize) is a collection of poems that revolve around the biological and cultural transition from woman to man.  This transition is the edifice upon which the entire book is built.  So much of the power found in this collection is a bi-product of the resistance to change, and the animosity a person must overcome when change is what they most desire, yet consistence is the lifeblood of existence.  In his introduction to the book, Mark Doty points out that the journey isn’t necessarily characterized by peace of mind.  There is “an element of fear in it too; if you go retooling the givens of the body, just how much will change?” (viii).  Doty refers here, primarily, to the books first poem, “I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn’t Get Any Larger.”  Bendorf writes, “But she decided we need to trace them in case I/ turn out to be wrong.  Every morning she wakes me/ with a sheet of paper” (lines 1-2).  The unnamed “she” is framed as the engine that powers the project, but it’s not long in the poem before he whose hands might grow is far more interested and filled with far more anxiety about the change that may or may not take place. 

     [W]e hung them on the wall chronologically.  When I
     study them, they look back at me like busted
     headlights.  I wear my lab coat around the house to
     make sure they know who’s observing whom.  If we
     can ensure records, if we can be diligent in our
     testing.  I wrap my fingers around her wrist.  Nothing
     feels smaller yet.  Not her, not the kettle nor the key.
     If my hands do grow, they should also be the kind
     that can start a fire with just a deer in the road. (6-14)

It is not easy to give up the recognizable parts of ourselves, even in the name of progress.  Our newer, better self must be comprised of much of the matter belonging to the self we seek to leave behind.  This is, perhaps, a paradox, but questions of identity are never easily resolved.  This is especially the case when, as in the above poem, we have more than ourselves to answer to.

“She” is a necessary reminder that, to slightly amend the old adage, no transitioning man is an island.  We must all discover ourselves for ourselves, certainly, but the journey is a shared one.  The closer we are to any given person, or so it seems, the greater the potential for conflict and pain.  Case-in-point, the mother/child relationship in the poem “Patrón.”

     Patrón’s mother
     wished she could
     be proud,
     bring his cookies
     to her church
     friends.  Brag a little.

     Patricia, she said.

     It’s Patrón, he said.

     Right Patrón
     you know
     your aunt’s been
     asking about you
     what am I supposed
     to tell her?

     Tell her
     how I am now
     says Patrón.

     Dishes breaking
     on the end of the line.

     Mother?” (lines 50-69)

We are beholden to those (a mother in this case) who were instrumental in bringing us into the world, but by inviting us into the world are they offering us our own autonomous place in it?  A place where we could grow to be a free agent, separate from our parents though still sharing so very much?  At least for Patrón’s mother, and perhaps to a lesser degree “she” in “I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn’t Get Any Larger,” old habits die hard.  Unconditional love is not always one and the same with unconditional acceptance.  Resignation, too, is not acceptance.  Such trials are, of course, not restricted merely to the home.

Culture pressures to conform are so pervasive that, at least in the case of the characters in some of the poems in this collection, escape is sometimes essential.  One is forced, as “Outing, Iowa” suggests, to “take the highway north from town, past the crowded diner with the neon sign” (1-2), until you largely transcend time and place, far beyond where cornrows “flipbook past your car” (6-7).  In “No Billboards in Vermont,” too, the characters seeks refuge where life is cleaner, simpler, despite its hardships.  A place harsh enough in its expectations that society, the all-oppressing, is stripped away and one is forced to exist beyond labels.

     Americana, we who
     doubted whether
     testosterone makes a man
     while we crouched thinning dill
     in the pickle patch.

     We were working, working it out,
     working until every animal was fed.
     No play party or disco ball here,
     just skin, scraped and eaten,
     our muscles gnarled horseradish.
     We were boy
     and a girl when we slept. (9-20)

Escape, though sometimes satisfying, is temporary.  No amount of distance or labor fixes the internal struggle we carry with us.  The struggle is a permanent badge that, though maybe well hidden, manifests sometimes unexpectedly in a multitude of forms.  In “Split It Open Just to Count the Pieces,” for example, the emotions come hard and fast, dense to the point that the poem is a catalog of identities.

     Call me tumblefish, rip-roar, pocket of light,
     haberdash and milkman, velveteen and silverbreath,
     your bitch, your little brother, Ponderosa pine,
     almanac and crabshack and dandelion weed.  Call me
     babyface, kidege — little bird or little plane — thorn of rose
     and loaded gun, a pile of walnut shells. (1-6)

This poem refuses to choose.  It piles on until, beyond its breaking point, everything is the answer, and is equally just in its pretense.  In a book that focuses so minutely upon itself, that wagers everything with nearly every poem, “Split It Open Just to Count the Pieces” is refreshing in that it lets out so much line that character and reader alike are able to linger within it (nearly without judgment), for as long as the need be, before getting back to the real world, and the real world poems that make up the bulk of the collection.

The real world forces decision.  Not only that, but it forces decisions on its own terms.  Within this context it’s no surprise that a person seeking out their better, truer self sometimes feels like they are going through the motions of discovering and being, and sometimes failing.  Poems like “Make Believe,” for example, are in no way a false start or a misstep, but they also aren’t necessarily forward progress.

     Make Believe

     The first time I took razor to my face

     I forgot what I was made of.  Having
     made believe all I could, I made believe

     a little further, pulling the open blade

     around the corners of my lips, watching
     a few desolate strands fall to the sink

     like soldiers in a porcelain trench,

     or as with invisible ink drew myself
     a mustache I could get behind. (1-9)

I suppose we must all practice.  The poems “The Manliest Mattress” and “In the Barber Shop” recount similar overt attempts to be something the character wishes to be but has not yet become. We come not fully formed into the world and, despite the fact that we might develop clear goals, success is, when it comes to identity and other murky matters, never as certain as we thought it would be.  This is a reoccurring theme in the book.  More questions than answers fill the pages, which is why poetry is the perfect medium for such an endeavor.

The Spectral Wilderness is not a unique poetry volume in that it seeks to describe the internal — they all do that — but that the attempt to describe the internal is coupled with an overt attempt to profoundly shift the external, rendering this a collection of rare insight.  Bendorf’s seeking kind of poems require a canvas that can be taxed in unlimited ways, without breaking or fraying.  That’s not to say that fiction or drama aren’t durable, but in the poetic line there is unlimited capacity to reinvent, to reimagine efforts and themes of what might better reach inward toward our essence, better mapping our journey.  “Poetry,” writes Mark Doty, “makes possible a level of intimacy, of seeing into, which I am not sure is possible in any other art” (vii).  Perhaps Oliver Bendorf, who is also a painter, might disagree with Doty’s declaration, but Bendorf definitely did choose poetry to tell his story and inherent in that decision is, conscious or otherwise, a communion of life and form not nearly as powerful in any other genre of written word.  Bendorf’s collection takes us where we need to go, relying upon the interplay of fact and abstraction more readily available in poetry than in anything else but life itself.

Oliver Bendorf teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He is, among other things, a poet, a painter and a cartoonist.  Click the link belong to hear Oliver read from
The Spectral Wilderness.


Anthony Fife lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with his wife, fiction writer Lauren Shows, and their daughter Lucy. Anthony accepted his B.A. and M.A. in English from Morehead State University and his M.F.A in Poetry from Spalding University. Anthony teaches English at Clark State Community College and Sinclair Community College. Anthony’s taste in poetry is broad, but his main interests include personae poems and character sketches; in short, poems that place the focus primarily on one person's shoulders, and don’t let them get away with anything.