ASSEMBLE YOUR CLOWN: Joe Wenderoth’s If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep
a review by marc t. wise

Wave Books 2014
96 pages

It’s not often that a man temporarily without voice insists on socializing. It’s probably not likely that this man, a certain former stripper/mascot/human being at large, seeks out a poet to do his silent socializing with. It’s even less likely that this man would ask the poet a question, by writing on a cocktail napkin at a bar, and that this question would come to be the title of one of the poet’s fine collections. It’s really not likely at all, unless the poet is Joe Wenderoth, whose body of work has continually worked at peeling away our layers of comfort until the only poetic distance possible is the one imposed by our own timidity to really see (and hear) the people in a dingy bar, an “Authentic Irish Pub,” in a small California town.

In a poem titled “The Sacrifice” in Joe Wenderoth’s latest collection, If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep, this bar sets the stage for an examination of the quotidian coupled with a kind of divine grotesque, sandwiched with an inability to understand anything in relation to the Other.

         The karaoke guy’s father had died
         earlier in the day, and suddenly he tells us this,
         and I thought at first there would be a punch line
         but there wasn’t. Just:
         “in a plane crash.”

The regulars take their place in line to rally around their comrade, their friend, who has shown up to work, to play music so they can sing despite this tragedy, a confession to still being alive. One could imagine oneself there that night, in confirmation with the other twenty-five or so patrons, doing whatever they thought necessary (“We cheered”) to show allegiance and understanding, but as Wenderoth reminds us to close the poem:

         there was nothing we could do to support him.

In a body of work that builds off Sherwood Anderson’s grotesque and moves with and through Whitman’s ecstatic joy of the American poetic tongue, Wenderoth holds space with ritualistic power in brief encounters with everything from voice recordings to hummingbirds, from the living to the dead. And don’t let him fool you. None of these instances (to use a word from Stevens’ poem “Theory”) last; whether disastrous or fulfilling, they are moving out of sight even as they come into it, something akin to standing on the shore while watching Orpheus’s singing head float by. Even if we try to follow where the head, where the voice is going, our shore-stuck feet will eventually run into some terrestrial impediment, the inevitable gap, the I-just-don’t-get-it that’s integral to this collection. With this emptiness, Wenderoth evokes Celan’s terminal without, the lost part of our world that we can and will never return to. As Wenderoth writes in “My Coronation:”

         Learning, for instance, is no longer possible.
         Discovery is no longer possible.
         The changes that occur to the setting and the characters
         are nothing but themselves.
         It gets harder and harder for me to give a fuck.
         I no longer fear the way those around me fear.

The poet is in possession of his stage, in full ownership of his role in relation to the world, while reminding us that this is anything but permanent—perhaps a feeling not far off to singing your own spot-on rendition of Hotel California on some Wednesday karaoke night in the Central Valley. Maybe you’ll share a beer with the non-speaking man or the poet afterward, maybe you won’t—the important thing to know is that both encounters are just as likely. And, as Wenderoth reminds us in “At The Crash Site,” it probably doesn’t matter all that much:

         special attention
         is paid
         to nothing.

wise marc t. wise’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, Sleepingfish, and elsewhere. He currently teaches in the Salt Lake City School District.