If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep, by Joe Wenderoth. Seattle, Washington: Wave Books. 96 pages. $18.00, paper.
When I was an undergraduate, I took an Introduction to Creative Writing class with Brian Henry. I took this class almost on a whim. I had thought about writing before, but I did not know much about contemporary letters, especially about how to write such poetry, fiction, etc. Brian Henry assigned Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s as a textbook, and while I read it, I remember thinking again and again “Poetry can do this?” Letters to Wendy’s is cataloged as fiction, but I understood it as an exemplar of contemporary poetry; indeed, this textbook exposed me to the current state of poetry, its form, its content, what is possible. In a word, Letters to Wendy’s is a seminal book for me, and much of what I value in that book appears in If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep.
When I reminisce about Letters to Wendy’s, its bizarre epistles, wherein, for example, the speaker dips his penis into a Frosty, crowd my imagination, and Wenderoth’s new collection contains equally bizarre episodes. In the poem “Assembling Your Clown,” Wenderoth writes,
Technically, a clown has only one bone—
and that is where your assembly must begin.
After this odd premise, Wenderoth continues some lines later,
As he begins to take shape, it will be noticed
that he is clinging desperately to the kitchen table.
This is absolutely normal.
This odd premise is entertaining in and of itself, but Wenderoth hones that entertainment with the poem’s supposed normalcy. Because the speaker is both aloof, hence the passive voice, and confident, hence the adjective “absolutely,” the premise is doubly odd: The idea of assembling a clown is elevated by the speaker’s acceptance of it. That is where Wenderoth generates the power of his poems, from his speakers.
The poem “How to Visit Europe on a Budget” further demonstrates the bizarre qua normal. In this poem, the speaker dumps a pile of secondhand actions figures into the bathroom sink and masturbates onto them. While he maintains eye contact with himself in the mirror, he slits his forehead with a razor, allowing the blood to drip onto the pile. Then, the poem ends:
I look down into the sink
at the bloody come-splashed staring heap.
It’s so beautiful!
Even so, I’m always glad to get back home.
Not only does this poem travel well, moving the reader from vacation plans, to masturbation, to homecoming, it exemplifies the Wenderoth-style speaker. According to the speaker, this is how to visit Europe on a budget. If there were a separation between the speaker and the advice, such as between a reporter and a news story, the oddity of the advice would diminish. Because the reader encounters this deviant advice firsthand from a deviant speaker, he or she encounters that double oddity again. However, Wenderoth’s speakers are not sideshow freaks for the reader to ridicule. No, they are honest and human.
In the previous poem, the speaker’s relief at getting home grounds him, and such human emotions grace the entire book. For example, the reader meets the vulnerable, hesitant side of the speaker in the poem “Hummingbird Feeder.” In this tender, meditative lyric, the speaker ponders a hummingbird feeder:
a festive artifact
something is lured
When someone attempts something heartfelt, such as saying “I love you” for the first time, he or she fears rejection; likewise, the speaker fears the rejection of this poem and appends a retraction to safeguard his emotions. There is a parenthetical on the right side of the page that reads “(never mind / this poem).” “Hummingbird Feeder,” like many poems in If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep, betrays the speaker’s humanity.
This arrangement of the absurd and the lyric might seem dissonant, but Letters to Wendy’s employs the same organization. After several bizarre epistles, Wenderoth would include a more lyrical epistle to contrast, say, The Pritty Titty Bah-B-Q. Although I cannot recall any specific lyrical epistles, I remember that they created a fine counterpoint, and this, I now assume, made the bizarre epistles all the more memorable. This technique has survived the fourteen years between Letters to Wendy’s and this collection: however, If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep is not just an absurd flight of fancy with lyric moments to keep it grounded. It seems to suggest some dense material. The sparsity of the four-word poem “Metonymy,” for example, invites speculation: “what moves / this poem.” After the reader, eager for an interpretation, reads this poem as a question and then reads the word what as the subject, he or she revisits the title, which, aside from the figure of speech, is a concept from literary theory. More specifically, metonymy is a concept from Roman Jakobson, the influential Russian Formalist and Structuralist. This is not a one-off occurrence; the book brims with allusions to literary theory. For example, the poem “Letter to a Young Poet” could reference Horace’s “Ars Poetica,” an instructive letter to two young poets. The poem “Speech Given to a Machine” could reference Marxist Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The poem “You There” could reference Marxist Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation. The poem “Manifesto” could reference any number of artistic and political declarations, be it the Futurist Manifesto or the Communist Manifesto. And this list only concerns poem titles. The body of the poems house many other allusions to literary theory, such as “It is quite literally / the same grave” from the poem “‘Singing Comes Cheap to Those Who Do Not Pay for It.’” This suggestive couplet seems to toy with Jacques Lacan’s concepts of the Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic. Overall, If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep rewards several readings: one for its content, one for its organization, and one for its allusions. Overall, the book is rewarding.
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Ezekiel Black is a lecturer of English at the University of North Georgia. Before this appointment, he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he received an MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Verse, Sonora Review, GlitterPony, Skein, Invisible Ear, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakwood, Georgia, and edits the audio poetry journal Pismire.