(Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2015)
People often seek comfort in labels and borders. Today, these exist for every aspect of our lives: race, class, gender, personality, intelligence, sexuality. The truth is that none of these are as black and white as they strive to be, and the gray space between often rouses discomfort. The poetry in Oliver Bendorf’s collection, The Spectral Wilderness, lives and breathes in the crevices between identity and existence. From that lens, these poems explore transformation, uncertainty, yearning, and true feeling in a world between seasons, between life and death, between wakefulness and dreaming. Similarly, the writing itself proudly straddles any one label. This collection not only sheds light on a topic often glossed over, but prompts its reader be a new kind of human, one that questions and explores the psyche and the world outside of any previously constructed borders.
The opening poem, “I promised her my hands wouldn’t get any larger” is incredible in both its stunning imagery and heartbreaking reality. The speaker’s girlfriend requires him to trace his hands every day to ensure they do not grow after his gender reassignment surgery. He writes, “we 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.” It is almost as if these handprints are alive! The description ‘busted headlights’ gives them an aggressive quality, like they somehow must be contained. But this represents more than just the size of one’s hands. The speaker’s girlfriend needs affirmation that he physically does the same things, and he complies. Whether this is a matter of uncertainty or curiosity, the scientific approach here captures the absurd nature of how humans cope with change.
The piece ends with the lyrically poignant and hopeful lines, “If my hands do grow, they should also be the kind / that can start a fire with just a deer in the road.”. There are countless images that these seemingly simple lines bring to mind, such as a fire burning through a pile of sticks, the woods, driving, a deer in headlights, the hand tracings as headlights. Even with this flood of imagery, one thing is certain: the speaker is starting a fire. The reader is introduced up front to this speaker and this voice that remains present throughout the collection. It is evident that he questions nature, doubts the self, and observes the world around him. At the same time, he knows that if he can accept change and move forward with certainty, he can accomplish the impossible.
In “The Manliest Mattress”, the speaker is on a quest to purchase the most masculine mattress he can find. He is sold “a wooden box in mattress dimensions”. The new bed feels great at first, but after the third night he cannot stand up and wishes to return the furniture. During a phone call with the salesman, he experiences a moment of enlightenment:
But before they can respond, everyone
I know falls through the sky below me, including the mattress salesman.
I say, “I’m sorry, I take back what I said.” But it’s too late. The line is dead.
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.
Like the first poem, this piece showcases the depth behind Bendorf’s metaphors. Sure, one can consider the obvious association of building with wood and other masculine connotations, but this moment is not necessarily the speaker becoming more ‘manly.’ Here he learns, through this silly and surreal experience, that identity is something he must not only build, but also a structure he must sleep and dream in every night. Identity is not a new subject in contemporary poetry, yet these poems rejuvenate it in a way that is concrete, enchanting, and even inspiring. With the first person point of view in this piece, the reader is able to see through the speaker’s eyes and think as he does. It is no coincidence that the reader will begin to relate to more than just these situations, but also to the emotional core and discovery behind them.
In the final two parts, the perspective in the poems turns outwards to the environment. Bendorf captures snapshots from Oregon to Provincetown, while keeping a steady anchor in his Midwest hometown. Though the poems venture into the local grocery store, barber shop, and bodega, most scenes take place in the wilderness or rugged farmlands. Still, the conflicts and revelations of the earlier poems exist. “Precipice” reads:
I don’t farm for milk. I farm for the front row
seat to things living and dying. The dead bird
like a small wet sock in a cement crack
behind the barn, crawling with hungry worms.
The goats’ voices changing from high whinny
to pubescent music box and then to western
station just below the dial. I farm not for
the countryside but for the tumbling sense inside me
that everything has to transform eventually. My
masculinity is animal at best: bellowing hoot
of a barred owl. The wren dad’s song. Castrated
wethers who will stay boys forever. There are a million
and one ways for me to look, but I only want one.
I teeter at the edge.
Unlike earlier poems in the collection, the connection here is clear; the colorless world described is familiar, and the voice is confident. In the first two stanzas, the living and dying seem to happen chronologically and simultaneously; the descriptions of the bird and the worms couldn’t be more extreme in either house, yet I can imagine both of these moments repeating regularly. What differentiates these observations from those in the opening poem is the fascination with transformation in all beings. Sure, living and dying have their borders, but what happens in-between varies: a goat’s voice can change, the speaker’s voice can too, and sheep might be castrated, forced to “stay boys forever”.
And it is exactly that curious and humorous lens that makes this collection astonishing. In sharing glimpses of his personal transformation and the world he lives in, Bendorf pronounces that people are animals constantly between worlds, sometimes yearning and sometimes just observing. The poems in The Spectral Wilderness, with their remarkable singularity, grand metaphors and discomforting truths, seek comfort within human constructs no matter how futile, but they do not settle. This collection then becomes a limitless body of work, one that proclaims, as in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”, that “Sometimes, home ain’t my / strong suit.”
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Timothy Lindner is an MFA graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University who currently works as a Senior Production Editor on higher ed. textbooks and digital products for John Wiley & Sons, Inc.