Early in Death Industrial Complex (Action Books, April 2020), Candice Wuehle writes, “i’m going to speak slowly / in the language of the mise en abyme, of Spiralism.” This collection is a testimony to the unending—the coil, the endless spindle. Combining threads of the occult with themes of America’s obsession with dead women’s bodies, Wuehle forces us to reconcile our curiosities with uncomfortable verities. All the while, she siphons the language that would allow us to defend ourselves from her close scrutiny. Wuehle provides a warning for the readers: “This is a straight story / told crooked.” Even as we learn more about the speaker and Wuehle’s poetics of trauma and the occult, we must remember that we’ll never have the whole truth. Here, learning the truth of the matter requires submerging ourselves in liminal spaces, spaces we glimpse but can never fully enter.
For this collection of haunting poetry, Wuehle writes a multi-planed narrative in the form of ekphrastic poems. Central to this collection’s spiral is Francesca Woodman, an American photographer who leapt to her death at the young age of twenty-two in a period of depression. A testament to Woodman’s photography, Wuehle’s poetry flickers through dusty lenses, blurring in and out of focus as she provides a speculative biography for the young artist, all the while describing in intimate detail Woodman’s photography. Woodman photographed not only others but also her own body in particular. She existed on both sides of the camera. Wuehle writes:
Ignore the idea of observing
from above. Don’t make the girl a specimen
in a godded petri dish. To
understand bacteria, become bacterial.
Wuehle’s work does not simply describe Woodman’s art but also inhabits her mind and her desires. Too often, the bodies of dead women are put on display in television, artwork, and physical description. They become empty signifiers, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps with their own needs and desires. Wuehle critiques this obsession. In Wuehle’s poems, Woodman’s body is not another item on display but is instead a supernatural force, a lost artist, a person.
Wuehle does not leave the woman’s body, though. Just as the photographer’s physical form was often at the center of her work, refracted and bare, Wuehle’s poetry focuses on the speaker’s body alongside her mind, urging readers to consider the many versions of the truth presented. Wuehle’s lines fold in on themselves again and again, repeating fractured information to return us to important parts of Woodman’s consciousness. All the while, the reader wonders what the inhabited body looks like and what liminality prevails in this text.
Within these poems lies a twist on the traditional dichotomy of light and darkness, warped by the speaker’s abilities and inabilities to speak clearly. In the aftermath of the speaker’s death, she finds her voice but must tackle the knowledge that comes with her extra-linear existence, the darkness that arises. When she learns the “10 invisible letters / of the alphabet,” the speaker notes:
Now i can tell
the names of the shadows under
the shadows. You won’t believe
the words i know
because you won’t know
that they are words.
Tied to darkness and shadow is greater knowledge, something beyond what people normally know. Wuehle writes, “Death is a language whose / lexicon is defined by memory, by the crisscrossing / of dark and darker threads.” As a source both traditionally mistrusted and unreliable, memory’s involvement in this collection creates a further distance for the reader to traverse. While the speaker relays undeniable truths about death and women’s bodies, she also remembers her past through her own understanding, and the reader must determine or forego the divide between metaphor and perceived reality.
All these shadows appear in layers of refraction. Alongside the photograph is the mirror—and the mirror is inside the photograph. Reading Wuehle’s poems means looking at a mirror-image of Woodman’s photography. Early in the collection, Wuehle writes, “i want to be really honest / about what a mirror is.” This honesty—this devotion to truthfulness—tells the reader that some of the poetry’s cloudiness dissipates. Returning to Woodman’s body, Wuehle tells readers:
the first thing you see on approach are the letters of the word
a l i v e
carved across each pad of each toe and then again
in reverse across each pad of the opposite toe
so i leave an imprint for the tracker
and the tracker’s camera
In a moment of clarity, Wuehle depicts the primary goal of Woodman’s art: to show an image from multiple perspectives. As the photographer and the subject of her photos, Woodman sees her body through her own eyes. Then she sees her body in a mirror she holds. Then she sees her body through a camera lens. Then she sees the mirror’s image in the photograph. Every image presents different angles, different versions, different stillnesses—all at once.
Perhaps the blurriest camera lens in this collection lands on the speaker: with her ability to inhabit others’ bodies, the speaker often invokes Woodman’s voice from beyond the grave but also speaks through the mouths of those whom she overtakes. In this collection, Wuehle keeps not only Woodman’s art alive but her physicality, as well:
i become the wallpaper,
i become the bark
of the tree and i don’t believe
In these descriptions, the speaker is both the covering and the covered, the skin and the blood-wet organs. Wuehle writes, “The outline / of a body is a good debate—an investment / in being present or, being absent.” Such impossible dichotomies flourish in this collection, a mirror image of how the speaker feels stretched too thin, existing in too many places at once. She’s dead and alive, inside and outside, cold and warm.
Within these dichotomies, an incredible loneliness drenches the poems. Although the speaker inhabits others’ bodies, she often feels vacant. Again, the reader must consider how a dead woman’s body may be an empty signifier, and the dead body must resist. The speaker says, “no one is going to speak for me.” This admission includes both fear and joy: no one will overcome her voice, but no one will speak on her behalf, either. For possibly the first time in life or death, she is in control of her own influence, which creates yet another juxtaposition.
The speaker is obsessed with both perversion and preservation, considering how her body/bodies may relish in both. The speaker claims, “S o me of m e / is a b o d y.” In those gaps between the letters lies the rest, the culmination of what adds to the body to create the speaker. Wuehle’s depiction of the speaker’s desire to explain her body embodies the female grotesque: a woman’s body—a perversion of normative bodyscapes. The speaker says, “i put space / between the letters of my name and my identity / was then entirely composed of light.” This collection asks the reader how art preserves a shadowed moment, and how art can act as perversion. Speaking further to the divide between light and dark, the text shows how language is slippery, how you can hold it up to the light and find cracks in the mortar. Identity becomes fluid. As she learns to use her own voice, the speaker finds freedom to inhabit more than a dead body, more than an emptiness.
Though Woodman’s body may be deceased, Wuehle’s imagination of her post-life allows her to live on, both through this collection and, speculatively, through her inhabitation of other bodies. Inside her chosen capsule, the speaker maintains herself, considering what it means to make the body familiar to oneself versus familiar to others. Wuehle writes, “i wear a velvet dress so i will always / recognize myself.” The speaker needs personal substance to recognize herself, but she knows that others would need her original physicality:
i know being alive is being
okay with disappearing, with vanishing until
other people might not believe me
anymore and appearing again in a form
they won’t recognize.
The speaker must believe in transience, in shapeshifting without permission. If a photograph, or a poem, is a transformation, Wuehle’s poetry transforms the speaker’s body, flattening it on the page while keeping her alive and breathing in the most supernatural and devastating of ways.
As the speaker’s transformational abilities haunt these poems, Wuehle notes how non-normativity creates discomfort. The speaker—Woodman’s existence—becomes both visible and invisible. In becoming wallpaper, tree bark, and “[f]earsome decay,” the speaker says, “i do not exist / where i can be touched.” This transformation represents safety in the unwanted, but when the transformation becomes abject, the act incurs revolt: “they will / let you bleed and bleed as long as what you are / bleeding looks like blood.” The truth of Death Industrial Complex is that it forces the reader to confront their expectations, to see beyond the surface-level normativity that seeps into our consciousness. Instead, Wuehle suggests we look at our own bodies from multiple perspectives, to take photographs and then put stories to the pictures.