If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep by Joe Wenderoth

Reviewed By

“I write poems from day-dream,” says Joe Wenderoth, in a previous collection of essays, “which is the state or mood which obliterates the kind of sense that registers specific locale.” Illocal, he terms it. In Wenderoth’s newest collection of poems, If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep, there is this strong sense – morbid, even – of illocality. Like a doorframe between waking and sleeping, between living and dying, between sincerity and absurdity, these illocal moments fill his fourth book of poems, and yet, in their liminality, the poems leave me at a threshold as well, between feeling utterly compelled and sometimes cold.

The off-beat, the detoured, the unexamined – marginal spaces have primarily made up the landscape of Wenderoth’s previous work, from settings like the “Troll Inn” in Mount Horeb, WI to a go-go bar (a picture of which, ostensibly, fills the cover of The Holy Spirit of Life). The most notable of these no-places is the fastfood interior of Letters to Wendy’s, where, in a chronological series of lyric comment cards (“TELL US ABOUT YOUR VISIT – WE CARE!”), the disturbed writer invokes the locale for some existential, slapstick, and macabre thoughts. Certainly, these marginal spaces exist in the physical world, but they truly glow as centers of meditation on the mentally marginal – that is, sexualizing the sterile, sainting the sinful, or pondering the hopelessly banal.

While not exactly illocal, Wenderoth’s penchant for not-quite spaces continues in If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep…: “24 Hour Fitness,” “Access Hollywood,” “Nine-Piece Flameless Glitter Village With Timer” (a tchotchke set sold on QVC). His titles reflect the daily diversion masked as destination. When these uncomfortable spaces contain an unvoiced anxiety pushed to the margin, they are gripping, as in “Titty-Bar”:

—(If Only) the gentle bear of time
could swallow us (whole)
into a kind of cartoon silence

In three lines, the “titty-bar” becomes a sacred place for the speaker to not be. Wenderoth contains the poem within a parentheses of grammar and of the mind. It voices the kinds of thoughts on mortality that scurry through the walls of the brain on an ordinary day, that beg, in the end, for

(a kind of crude and inadequate tourniquet

for the mind)—

The dissonance rings through the white space on the page.

His disagreeing tones between title and poem widen the margin, and, at times, it’s difficult to cross. “Like a Poop Sandwich In Heaven” begins with an erudite thought – “that the impossible depends / upon grammar” – and end with an architecture far from juvenile:

smeared in
to the sound
of laughter
and fucking
in the rooms

of the condemned

dream

structure

Wenderoth positions the reader in these awkward doorways. Is he expounding on metaphysics, or making a crude joke? Probably both.

Other times the margin is purely mental, a liminal space between stasis and change. “My Coronation,” itself a threshold act, presents a certain life crisis:

I very recently came into complete possession of where I am.
I was like: “oh … I see …”
Trouble is:
having complete possession of where I am
diminishes the potential of my dramatic arc.

The speaker has glimpsed the full panorama of his life, only to realize that it might have been sunnier as a narrow Polaroid.

It’s a physical comedy.
The Professor.
I don’t know what to say.

This autumnal character, “The Professor,” is worth lingering over. He re-appears throughout in various colorful avatars: “discarded action figures,” a grandmother, a man pissing in a sports bar while contemplating the “dumb clutching/at the darkness/of/all remembering,” and, once more, a Professor. They all play the tragicomic, Vanye-esque role of someone “failing,” either in health or career, but never the mind. “Manufacturing Consent” begins

some things are expected of me
all syllabi must be sent to Secretary X
for instance
by such and such a date

The Professor forgets to send the syllabus, repeatedly reminded by the administration, until his logic extends beyond reason and arrives at this junction:

well
there is a point where they give up asking
a point where they consent to live on
with an imperfect archive
maybe we shouldn’t talk about it.

In one sense, I appreciate the goofiness, which seems to lean toward some sort of existential aim. In another sense, I feel as if the speaker has pathetically given up. Wenderoth has dragged the marginal into the light, and, here, it’s lost some of its mysterious quality. The banal is revealed only as the banal. Am I meant to feel pity when, elsewhere, the voice states “It gets harder and harder for me to give a fuck”?

As in “My Coronation,” Wenderoth favors the extended metaphor . The conceit for a “Hummingbird feeder” – the poem flits nicely across the page – captures a main street image to serve a back-alley ars poetica:

a trap
for what
you’ve seen and heard
but never noticed

A snail reflects on the “whorl of the shell” and his minute place in the world, wondering “Outside of this deception/what could there be?” These brief conceits have the airy touch of a haiku.

A kind of procedural language poem creeps into “Assembling Your Clown” and “How To Visit Europe On a Budget,” which makes an otherwise intriguing book feel lacking. In “Assembling Your Clown,” Wenderoth begins

Notice first that your clown is made up almost entirely
of ligaments, cartilage, bursae, menisci.

Constructing the clown reveals “the sadness of the clown’s bowed head” until the speaker finally instructs that

As he begins to take shape, it will be noticed
that he is clinging desperately to the kitchen table.
This is absolutely normal.
Indeed, if it is not difficult to remove your clown
from the table on which it has been assembled,
you have probably done something wrong.
Probably a clown like that is going to disappoint someone.

Here, any real world context has been removed for me, somewhat in keeping with this sense of mental marginalia, but has also forced a gap big enough so that any reader may be unwilling to cross at all. These poems are easy to pass by.

More significant is a sense of self-pity that ends “Darkness,” a prose piece in which the speaker imagines a real-time film of his life playing in a movie theater. “Darkness” is one of several poems that make a marked formal departure from the others, showing Wenderoth’s exuberance toward the unconventional. The now-sixty-year-old character in “Darkness” could slip from boring sleep into emergency open-heart surgery at any time, and reassures the reader

But do not fear. The darkness of the theater is especially restful when its star is torn open but lingering on. The theater would be packed, if every night of my life I had been torn open but lingering on.

The piece harnesses the liminal state – “torn open but lingering on” – to close on a moving echo.

Wenderoth compresses this relentless “lingering on” into the word “unsubsided,” repeated three times throughout the book. An elderly grandmother continues to animate herself for the camera because “she must audition for her part/in the stories the unsubsided will tell.” It lures the speaker, as he “settles in to watch/the unsubsided remain.” Drawn to the world of the unsubsided, these complex moments are at odds with the times when it feels the speaker has given up. Here, life continues and refuses to lessen.


Eric Dean Wilson’s essays and criticism have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, BOMBlog, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He’s the Assistant Editor at Archipelago Books and lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →