Fred Muratori

Epistolary Friction

Letters to Wendy's by Joe Wenderoth
Verse Press, 2000
$14.00 (paper)

No degree of familiarity with Joe Wenderoth's first two poetry collections will quite prepare readers for Letters to Wendy's. If the gauzy, enigmatic lyrics of Disfortune and If It Is I Speak (both from Wesleyan) at times seemed written on the air by the white cotton glove of a mime, then the prose poems in Letters—or "epistolary fiction," as the Library of Congress subject heading would have it—were scrawled on Wendy's restaurant comment cards, possibly in ketchup, mustard or blood, by the white-knuckled hand of a psychotic loner.

That's one possible characterization of Wenderoth's speaker, a compulsive diarist who submits near-daily missives to his local burger emporium. This character may well have a counterpart in the real world, but just imagine the manager who gathers up the day's mundane requests for cleaner restrooms or less salt on the fries, and finds this suggestion:

December 24, 1996 (Christmas Eve)

If we must put people to death why not at Wendy's. Is
midnight in a prison basement better? Wendy's provides
the two things an execution needs most: plenty of light,
and refreshments. The light allows the condemned to feel
death as an inevitable blending. The refreshments allow
the audience to take in their own hands the tamed
substance and to feel themselves securely on this side of
the blender.

By the last sentence we are no longer in Wendy's as a physical place, but in Wendy's as a polymorphic conceptual construct, one that permits metaphysical interrogation ("Why is there somewhere that is not Wendy's?"), self-analysis ("I seek respite from tolerance, in every sense."), religious experience ("The Virgin Mother appeared to me today. She was holding two baked potatoes with sour cream and chives."), linguistic delirium ("Null successors squirming in the quickness try not to hear the undersinging that predicts them..."), and of course sexual fantasy ("I'd like to spank Wendy's white ass..."). Indeed, Wenderoth may be the first American poet to depict human sexual intercourse with a milkshake. The pieces are generally no more than seven lines long, about what would fit on a 3" by 5" card, a borrowed formal constraint that nevertheless enforces concision and compression; they are something like half-sonnets.

When I first read a selection of Letters in American Poetry Review two years ago, I disrupted the peace of a library reading room by laughing out loud. Their earnest naiveté, when juxtaposed with philosophical argument or outright violence, created an uneasy tension, prompting an almost involuntary reverse reaction akin to that experienced on scary amusement park rides—the sudden, zig-zag jerking into darkness or light:

May 20, 1997

I'd like to have my muscles removed. Resume the inanimate.
Wendy's allows me to extract myself from the retarded
narcissism of animal thrivings. I sit still in a warm booth
and get thought. All movement wants, in the end, is stillness;
the animate is just the failure of movement to get what it
wants—one sleeping body. The road to heaven is paved
with meat: the road to meat is not paved at all.

The inane and the quasi-sublime share the same paragraph with an odd affinity, as if, say, David Spade and Juliet Binoche starred opposite each other in a movie that critics would deem "profoundly moving."

Letters to Wendy's is intentionally subversive and randomly offensive. It is to American letters what South Park is to television drama—a compliment in my book. Its length, though, may be its undoing. The volume contains approximately three hundred pieces, and sooner or later the poet's modus operandi shows too obviously through their skins. A peculiar observation or declaration ("I'd like to have photos of your employees for my home") is developed in the abstract for a few sentences, which are then tersely resolved by some logical or illogical conclusion. They begin to mutter or whine, and the initial voyeuristic interest wanes. Still, Wenderoth's flair for invention and quirky aphorism ("...yearning itself almost imperceptibly binds us into countless discomforts.") finds a fertile medium here. Like any poetry collection—and I believe Letters has more in common with lyric poetry than with prose—it's best read episodically, a few sections at a time, perhaps over a Biggie order of fries and one of those seductive, come-hither shakes.


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