The Spectral Wilderness by Oliver Bendorf
Review by Rachel Sahaidachny
Oliver Bendorf writes in the poem “Ghost Dog,” “I miss things sometimes that I cannot locate in the heart.” Art is a form of preservation. Poems in The Spectral Wilderness observe, interrogate, and record the subtle shifts in mind, body, and relationships through the process of transitioning from female to male, presented in mythic language.
In “Outing, Iowa” a speaker asserts: “If you’ve ever doubted the body can transform completely, take the highway north from town,” to what used to be a body of water: “The land where I was born was born an ocean, and that ocean born of ice.” Scientific proof of change, altered chemistry, new permanence. One of the landmarks in the poem are Effigy Mounds, “sacred piles of earth we’ve managed to preserve, and all that’s buried underneath,” leading to the assertion of the disappearing identity:
what we used to be matters. Here’s a brachiopod, here’s me twirling in a gauzy blue dress in the afternoon sun. Trace these fossils with your tongue and place them in my hands, which will never be any larger. Lay your ear against an iceberg while there’s time and sing to me its trickle.
Anxious to make a record of any change, the speaker in the opening sonnet, “I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn’t Get Any Larger” hangs the tracings of his hands on the wall, “they look back at me like busted headlights,” hollow, and providing no illumination. The speaker dons a lab coat, “to make sure they know who’s observing whom,” and gets comfortable with the idea, “If my hands do grow, they should also be the kind / that can start a fire with just a deer in the road.” The moment is slightly surreal, as the reader can’t be sure if the animal is fuel, or an assistant.
The poems often use surrealism to explore deconstruction and reconstruction of identity. Bendorf’s prose poem “The Manliest Mattress” begins simply enough, the speaker goes to the mattress store where “They sell me a wooden box in mattress dimensions.” It seems like a great buy, then on the third day the speaker can’t rise, “But before they can respond, everyone I know falls through the sky below me.” Death is present, then instead of resurrection, recreation: “I disassemble the wooden box and lay out the pieces in front of me like a miniature lumberyard. I start learning how to build something.”
Science and nature play a large role throughout the book, a dialogue bouncing inside the narratives. Often the mythos is presented as a journey: an epic, tinged with fairytale; acknowledged in “Blue Boy,” – “It’s a classic story shape. The hero leaves home….” The twist of a fairy tale interjects, “Don’t turn into a man. If you must turn into something, turn into a wolf.” Impossible transformation or possible?
Bendorf’s long poem “Patrón” follows “Blue Boy” in the book, and works as a response. “Patrón” blends epic with fairytale:
in a room
of salty tears.
All the better
to dip you with
The form juxtaposes the fairy tale phrasing; it’s disrupted by heavy enjambment. Each line is only a few syllables and the narrative effectively floats down the page, reminiscent of Eileen Myles, also of small ripples. Whimsical mementos of daily life fill in the story:
fingers he lets
in the shape
of how his
voice used to
Patrón confronts the unknown future, “The sidewalk bends / toward darkness / like the shoulder / of a man,” and confronts the nature of identity:
from the water
to be fish
and it’s wind that teaches birds
to be themselves
For Patrón that leaves
fire or maybe earth
hasn’t decided yet.
his old ideas ice cubes
on the tongue
of a Miami brisket.
Poems become surrealist, plowed in a pastoral landscape. Whimsical language continues in “Wagon Jack,” where a doppelganger, with the unusual name of a useful farm tool, accompanies the speaker through cutting moments of identification:
Outside, the goats are banded.
To be boys forever. In the timothy
next to the creek, Wagon Jack grabs
his hands, which are also mine,
and together we feel for new veins.
“Larynx,” begins with a pastoral image: “The husk in my voice from the field / belongs to corn still moving / inside my head,” but the poem follows surrealist intentions as one metaphor morphs into another, weaving the images:
It moves like bone on bone.
It moves like a syringe
drawn out of a hamstring.
It blows like the soft jaws
of a birthday boy,
insistent as thunder. Spray of a whale…
In the end of the poem, the speaker confronts hollowness, “It echoes a like a bat / in an otherwise empty cave.”
The title poem begins section III, and it starts out as a sort of fugue (musical) in its circular dialogue between a you and an I, centering around the line “Meet me in the Spectral Wilderness.” They agree to bring paper and a canoe. The poems in section III give body to the spectral wilderness: a place of white tundra, spiders, cobwebs, and dust. Speaker and partner armed variously with ice skates and crayons.
In “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” the speaker’s identity is ambiguous, “I was a little skating pond.” You and I are traveling, a mile marker is noted: “Road sign says OVID 9 MILES / but you and I never arrive.” Instead the speaker creates new markers: “as we drive across every state line I leave my name on it. South Dakota: Oliver. Montana: Oliver.” The speaker marks every crossing.
In “Second Winter,” metaphor describes cellular memory: “back among the sawdust there is one particulate burdened with / the memory of how a pine grove smelled I know what the dust / feels for the cone and needle,” and the shape of the poem slopes gently towards the middle and out again, just the hint of a curve on one side. With no punctuation the poem slips from one disclosure to another. It confronts the binary, “I was both I was Samson and / Delilah I cut my locks while asleep on my own knee,” also self-destructive impulses, and also fluidity:
[I] have a way of sabotaging my own loveliness
I have a girly-boy limnology look at all these sensitive rivers
I say while pointing to my veins look at all those vacuums of blood
under the skin look at this landscape on the back of our hands dear
This image is sculptural, and the theme of “making” continues. In “Inventory” the speaker’s heart is “white glue in places.” “In the Barber Shop” the speaker says, “Barber, / make me a better man.” To the speaker is seems the barber “weep[s] billows / across the floor like a bowl of dust,” and “his tears grow cobwebs. Spiders / come to rest under his swollen eyes.” Speaker is reminded of childhood, and for a moment begs to take the transformation back, but realizes that all the spectral debris was “the shattered clay around me.”
The final poem “Take Care,” a valediction proclaiming a litany of mistakes, exploring a frailty of insight and belief, has a furious implosion:
Sometimes I mistake the sound of my voice
for a rubber tire on the shoulder of the road.
I mistake my hands for belief all the time.
I keep waking up expecting them to be
someone else’s, but so far they’re only mine
fire for work gloves…
I want a compass.
I need deliverance. Good God, take me,
mistake me back to the soft shoulder,
which I mistake so often for the road itself.
In psychology a fugue is a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment. The poems of The Spectral Wilderness weave making with loss, capturing the ghost.
Rachel Sahaidachny received her MFA from Butler University. She is programs manager for the Indiana Writers Center, and poetry editor of Booth: A Journal, also awarded first prize in the 2014 Wabash Watershed Indiana Poetry Awards. Work is forthcoming from Squaw Valley Review, and others.