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.