Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Holy Spirit of Life: Essays Written for John Ashcroft’s Secret Self by Joe Wenderoth

Verse Press, 2005

Reviewed by Adam Golaski

"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 but eventually rejected, “…due to an editor’s fear of controversy.” (Did 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, 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.


JOE WENDEROTH grew up near Baltimore. Wesleyan University Press has published his first two books of poems: Disfortune (1995), and It Is If I Speak (2000). Shortline Editions published a chapbook, The Endearment (1999), and Verse Press published Letters to Wendys (2000). He is Associate Professor English at the University of California, Davis, where he lives with his wife and daughter.


ADAM GOLASKI is one-half of Flim Forum, an independant press for the publication of contemporary poetry. He also edits New Genre, a literary journal devoted to science and horror fiction. His work has been published in a number of journals including McSweeney's, LVNG, American Letters & Commentary, Supernatural Tales, word/for word and Lit. His short story "Weird Furka" appeared in the Ash-Tree Press anthology, Acquainted with the Night.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Tougher Disguises Press: Circulation Flowers by Chuck Stebelton and Telling the Future Off by Stephanie Young

Tougher Disguises, 2005

Reviewed by Geraldine Kim

Tougher Disguises Press, publishing poetry since 2002, is consistently erupting with fresh texts whose concerns range from flarf (Deer Head Nation by K. Silem Mohammad) to radio frequencies (The Frequencies by Noah Eli Gordon). Now based in San Diego, TDP has sung beyond its own octaves again with its two recent books, Circulation Flowers by Chuck Stebelton and Telling the Future Off by Stephanie Young. Both texts thrive on the contradiction and the abstraction of the conventional in (divergent yet) similar ways.

The poetry in Circulation Flowers, by Chuck Stebelton (Winner of the Jack Spicer Award,) can be best described as anti- “poems of decorative emptiness… [or against poems that appeal] to the convention” (from Chris Stroffolino’s introduction). In “TROUT LILIES ARE BULBOUS PLANTS,” the anti-decorative/conventional is replaced by the simultaneously transparent/opaque:

       Asiatic dayflower is a commelina.

       This flower grows on wooded slopes

       The fire pink is a catchfly of rocky hillsides.

       Beautiful flowers of the coral gum.

Each space between the lines is a turn, a flash, possibly an image—asking us to empty the flower of its social connotations—and focus on its flower-ness, a privileging of the quality of things over the things themselves—something (non-) imagistic. Through turning the trite into something undiscovered, the flower becomes transparent in its opacity, a contradiction that circulates back and forth with/between itself.

“The trout lily replicates a masked replica” is another line from the poem that supports this idea. Through having the flower replicate the image of itself, the process of emptying the flower from its social/conventional space transforms the flower into something more and more like a mess of molecules under an X-ray microscope—a “masked” abstraction whose process, while apparently transparent, challenges the reader with its foreign landscape.

Almost every poem in Circulation Flowers seems to share this same concern but does not necessarily deal with flowers. In “POEM (TU FU)” the subject in question is the poem itself:

       In this couplet the subjects, flowers and birds, come third
       in the line, while the following couplet compound fires

       and letters from home come at the beginning of the line.

The lines themselves are abstractions in need of focusing/concretion—this project confounds itself since the subject of the first line is “flowers and birds” when it says in the second and third line that “fires / and letters from home” should be in the first line. One can only assume “beginning of the line” refers to the first line. And how can a couplet have three lines? Regardless, neither “fires / and letters from home” nor “flowers and birds” are where they say they should be.

The irrevocability of place in a line asks us the same question of metaphor for flowers—should the metaphor and the flower occupy the same space? But how can two concepts (one imagistic and one mired in social connotation/convention) be singular? Is it possible to separate the conception of a thing from the thing itself? Circulation Flowers says “yes,” “yes,” and “yes” while it shakes its head “no.”

The call for transparency in poetry’s abstractions while being aware of the contradiction in that call is a sentiment shared by Stephanie Young’s book, Telling the Future Off. In “THERE’S LANGUAGE IN HER EYE, HER CHEEK, HER LIP—NAY, HER FOOT SPEAKS,” the last few lines demand command in the concretion of abstraction (in this case, it is the female body):

       …Exacting my labor with the spade
       and research documents passing as freely through a transparent body
       in the voidest space…
       I am the rightful owner, I demand to know the cause of your sorrow
       and appeal to the popular girls, likewise, like Marilyn
       a young woman of an artificial school
       with a message I must deliver in person
       in my loud and authoritative voice

This poem ends without punctuation, without any “sense” of command/authority. This voice that demands ownership of the female image lacks the authority/ownership of its own voice—a contradiction.

However, contradiction, while conventionally used as proof of the falsity of a statement (reductio ad absurdum), is a point of hope/a justification in this poem (as in Circulation Flowers). The labor is done with a spade/”spayed”-- something that unearths for further fertilization/erases the sex of a female object—allowing it to become something sexually neutral and consequently, a (bodiless) body with power.

Through this spaying, the body becomes abstract, again, but not in the gendered way the female body is abstracted. “It” (both the body and the poem) is bodiless, “the voidest space.” “It” is a black hole, a mathematical singularity that defies conception and observation but commands the movement of its surrounding context through its non-existence.

In “TODAY I WILL BE A MODEL OF CONSISTENCY,” the use of the contradiction as a mode of making the abstract concrete is used again, this time by replacement of semantic terms:

       I know now that I should have tried harder
       to be a body in a car
       who gestures at another body
       in another car
       stripped of artifice, conversation, a raincoat
       which if worn too long during a chemical attack
       will increase the danger of heatstroke.
       I have never seen this clothing
       but believe it is useless
       against anything
       including weather, after all

The car is “stripped” of its “artifice” and is left to become something that could be best described as not-car—something that can be easily replaced by a “conversation, a raincoat”-- which is then rendered un-raincoat since a raincoat’s existence is defined by its function against weather—leaving what (if anything)? The poem ends “to open my head / and water rushed the cavity.” Through its “cavity” or “combination of openings” (line 22), the speaker’s existence is defined by its non-existence.

While both Circulation Flowers and Telling the Future Off have analogous projects in terms of abstracting the abstract to make it concrete and use of the contradiction as justification, Telling the Future Off acts through non/presence while Circulation Flowers focuses closer and closer in the concrete to render it unimaginable (and/or vice versa).


CHUCK STEBELTON is the author of Precious (Answer Tag, 2005). He co-curates the Myopic Poetry Series at Myopic Books in Chicago, and works as Literary Program Manager at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee.


STEPHANIE YOUNG lives in Oakland and performs a wide variety of secretarial and poetic activities. She is the editor of Bay Poetics (Faux Press, 2005) and has published her writing in a number of magazines and collaborative postcard poem chapbooks from Poetry Espresso. Find her online at


GERALDINE KIM was born in 1983 in West Boylston, Massachusetts. A graduate of New York University, she is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction and Poetry at San Francisco State University. Her work has been published in Dicey Brown and Fourteen Hills and her play, Donning Cheadle, was chosen to be produced for the SFSU One-Act Festival and SPT Poet's Theater. Her first book, Povel, was the winner of Fence Books' 2005 Modern Poets Series and was named as one of the top 25 favorite books of 2005 by the Village Voice.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


featuring the poetry of Britta Ameel, Jaye Bartell, Cal Bedient, Adam Clay, Phil Cordelli, Jennifer K. Dick, Greg Glazner, Arielle Greenberg, Kate Greenstreet, Bob Hicok, Janet Holmes, Lisa Jarnot, Kimberly Johnson, Amy King, Katy Lederer, Karen An-Hwei Lee, Jill Magi, Aaron McCollough, Gina Myers, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, John Niekrasz, Carl Phillips, D.A. Powell, Peter Richards, Elizabeth Robinson, Matthew Rohrer, Ken Rumble, Cindy Savett, Leslie Scalapino, Evie Shockley, Stacy Szymaszek, Eileen Tabios, Jon Thompson, Susan Tichy, and Greta Wrolstad

with translations of Phan Nhien Hao and Phan Huyen Thu (by Linh Dinh), Daniil Kharms (by Matvei Yankelevich and Ilya Bernstein), Pablo Neruda (by William O’Daly), Jaime Siles (by Miles Waggener), Virgil (by Kimberly Johnson)

an excerpt from a science fiction novella by Joyelle McSweeney

a long poem/chapbook by Dan Beachy-Quick

an interview with D.A. Powell

critical reviews including Craig Morgan Teicher on Andrea Baker, Adam Clay on Jen Benka, Nathan Bartel on Aase Berg, Jeremy Pataky on Suzanne Buffam, Joshua Corey on Shanna Compton, Haines Eason on Kevin Connolly, Ron Silliman on Forrest Gander, Jen Tynes on Kate Greenstreet, Anthony Hawley on Barbara Guest, Britta Ameel on Christine Hume, Helen Losse on Anne Marie Macari, Marcus Slease on Dan Machlin, Alex Lemon on Ted Mathys, Chris Dombrowski on W.S. Merwin, Chad Blair on Jane Miller, Nabil Kashyap on Ange Mlinko, Sandra Simonds on Geoffrey Nutter, Gina Myers on Jeni Olin, Monica Fambrough on Juliana Spahr, Carly Sachs on Dara Wier

and photographs by, with a tribute to, Greta Wrolstad (1981-2005), a poet, friend, artist, and former poetry editor of CutBank.

Copies are available for USD $10.00. Checks can be made payable to “CutBank” and sent to: CutBank, Attn: Poetry 65 Order, Department of English, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812.

Monday, April 03, 2006

That We Come to a Consensus by Noah Eli Gordon and Sara Veglahn

Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005

Reviewed by J'Lyn Chapman

As the grammatical structure of the title That We Come to a Consensus suggests, this collaboration is one fashioned with indefinites, provisional language, and relativity. The subordinate clause of the title is multiplied toward the end of the poem when the speakers—and even this pronouncement is ambiguous—make twenty statements, each missing its antecedent. Yet, exacting language undercuts grammatical vagueness.

             that we are not like fast machines
             that we were crossing streets
             that we exited through the kitchen

The effect of this is a wonderful, lilting imprecision that suggests that the written text performs the consensus of the “we,” and as the first line of the long poem states, the act of writing and of partnership is “to come to understanding.”

Yet, there is an implicit knowledge in the lines that follow that to come to understand is less about agreement than it is about empathy. On one hand, the voice of the poem maintains a level of innocuousness, never falling into distinguishing traits that would differentiate voice. The voice is often conversational and humorous; idiomatic lines are reminiscent of Ashbery’s. And the conversational slips into an alarming tenderness

             …say we meet at the airport
             as an appendix to an apology
             you arriving in a sombrero
             me wearing a white carnation
             a kind of greeting
             this part might be imagined

The voice of the poem has no qualms about its neutrality, and yet, it is simultaneously playful and emotive as in the lines, “I confess to about half of the worst mistakes / it was spring & I was sad.”

On the other hand, this speaker, who uses both pronouns “he” and “she” (note the strange line: “the boy was almost him or herself) and yet never identifies itself as either, is gracious and humble as it works out the seemingly incommensurate facets of the relationship. That there exists incommensurability is one thing, but what is particularly interesting is how the poem negotiates this.

There are two recurring themes throughout the poem: travel and writing. We might even identify writing as the overarching theme that includes travel, for writing in this way is characterized as both that which signifies and that which creates space for movement. For instance, signification allows the individual partners to pose themselves differently, to create the possibility of a new subjectivity

             here’s me in the summertime
             & you in late light

The speaker in these lines points to a possible world outside itself. In the following lines, the speaker posits an alternative way of being and its means call for an initial devastation

             a better way to save face might be to forget entirely
             give up the domestic plunder
             & build your own mannequin
             standard weather calls for more provocative side-trips
             redemptive cloud redemptive lake redemptive avalanche
             nothing as bright as the afternoon sun to stall a crash-landing

Further, there are trains, that semi-rapid transportation, that moving complacency, and hotels, those spaces of feigned domesticity, of temporary keeping. The fiction occurs both in the positing of the speaker and in the self-conscious realization that to write is to burgeon both possibility and containment

             Say I have a hotel catastrophe
             in a fiction the hotel collapses
             boots & rags branded & back tomorrow
             one way to assassinate the newly canonized
             is written from memory
             speaks only English in every other line
             the boy recorded somewhere
             the girl imagining pictures
             these names for partner

It would seem that signification is how partners come to agreement. As the theory of semiotics instructs us – and what we seem to know so explicitly in this poem without any overt appeal to literary theory as such – “agreement” between sign and referent is not produced through exacting mimesis as the following line suggests: “in a fiction I wrote with my left hand.” Rather, slippage produces meaning, all of those possibilities that erupt from utterance: “look at the way I write / your name in this fiction / even I’ve been called a man from behind.”

The form of the poem exacerbates this eruption of meaning by creating a visual parataxis. There are no stanza breaks, no punctuation, and the lines are short so that half of the page is text and the other is space. The poem looks harnessed, but the voice is so persistent and exploratory that there exists a smooth trajectory forward.

This is the trajectory of language to signify, and it is the trajectory of collaboration that endures the distance between otherness to produce an understanding.


NOAH ELI GORDON'S books include The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta Press, 2004), The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises Press, 2003), That We Come To A Consensus (in collaboration with Sara Veglahn, Ugly Duckling Press), and the e-book notes toward the spectacle (Duration Press).


SARA VEGLAHN is the author of two chapbooks: Another Random Heart (Margin to Margin, 2002) and Falling Forward (Braincase Press, 2003), and is co-author of the chapbook That We Come to a Consensus (Ugly Duckling Press 2006), a collaboration with the poet Noah Eli Gordon. Her work has appeared in various journals, including Conjunctions, Fence, 26 Magazine, 580 Split, POM2, Fairy Tale Review, Word for/word, Castagraf, Free Verse and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Denver, where she also teaches English. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2005.


J'LYN CHAPMAN is a Literary Studies PhD student at the University of Denver. She is currently at work on a dissertation on photography and text in the works of W.G. Sebald and a book of poetry about wild bears. Her fancy drawings can be found in A Ghost as King of the Rabbits, a chapbook by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.