Oliver Bendorf’s definitely short, possibly bitter, possibly flip lyric formula poem “Title,” up recently at Blackbird, is ostensibly an oddity among a body of work that otherwise loves the lyric unconditionally. I’m putting the hyperlink to “Title” in the second sentence because I wanted to make sure you read the first line before the poem: note the double possibly, note the ostensibly, note the bitter flip short.
I actually want to start with a poem that is not Oliver Bendorf’s, but which I think is helpful to place alongside it—Ted Hughes’ “Take What You Want But Pay For It,” in the tradition of Marvell’s “A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body.” Here’s the first stanza:
Weary of the cries
God spoke to the Soul of Adam
Saying: ‘Give me your body.’ And He
Took Adam’s body and nailed it
To a stake, saying: ‘This great beast
Shall destroy your peace no more.’
The rest of the poem goes on to track the soul’s realization that it doesn’t really want to be separated from the body despite the trouble the body causes it. The soul does eventually get back in, but it’s a messy process that ends ambiguously.
Bendorf’s poem enacts a similar minidrama with what might be called the lyric ‘machinery’ and lyric ‘material.’
“Title” styles itself as a template for a free verse lyric poem about feeling sad which—when filled in correctly—should catapult a speaker from the specificity of her selected ‘yellow object’ into the right to ask questions about ‘how we recover’; to make ‘strange pronouncement[s]’; and to ask abstract rhetorical questions of the cliff-edge silence at the end of a poem. As a template, it suggests that you, dear reader/writer/user, are as adequate a chef of profound and transmissible ideas—given the right recipe, the right cooking equipment, the correctly curated raw ingredients (readily available in your very own life!)—as any lyric poet who sometimes writes about being sad (i.e., any lyric poet).
If you stop here, “Title” is either (a.) an indigestibly cynical, medium-dull commentary on how contemporary lyric poetry tends to sound like a factory product, or (b.) a misguided democratic impulse so twee as to merit running as far and as fast as you can from everything else Oliver Bendorf has ever written or will write.
If you go a little further, you’ll realize that, if it’s supposed to be a template, it really doesn’t work very well.
Here’s my plug-n-play, for example:
I am alone in the warm light that disasters train stations
Fido, daffodil, the scent of roses.
This poem is not a poem about roses
Though sometimes I wish a dried rose preserved also the moment it came with.
Life has lately felt like the fragility of old petals
that you find at the bottom of a box you’ve emptied while alone.
I miss the shape of the light from doorways behind you. I find I am still unable
to carve it into other shapes, how do you learn to.
There are no roses in my yard, only daffodils
I am also unable not to wait.
On the new edition of the map where my yard is invisibly small, there is no longer a reservoir
three miles away,
though the reservoir itself remains, dry. It has been emptied so that it can collect
all the telephone conversations that will never happen.
A reservoir is a fullness in case.
How long is daffodil season? How long is any season? How do you know when it’s over?
Oh, wait. That’s actually not terrible. Not good, but not terrible. In the right hands, Bendorf’s ‘template’ actually might be pretty effective.
And, if you continue yet a bit further—or, perhaps if you had stopped before my series of stoppages began (if you had stopped at the realization that the template itself was lovely and surprising)—I think that “Title” becomes quite compelling as a poem that at once pulls itself apart and inhabits itself. Even as it criticizes the possibility for the formulaic in the generic form for which it proposes itself a template, it can’t help but be achingly and precisely lovely as a full-fledged example of the kind of poem it ‘attempts’ to strip to recipe.
If it is ironic or cynical, it has a habit of forgetting its purpose and slipping into a kind of real beauty. If it is meant to be beautiful, it is from the safety of semi-irony: its teeth are buried deep enough in its own skin to draw blood. Like any good, self-aware poem, it is multistable, it’s ambivalent, it’s a cohabitation of irreconcilable worlds.
Like Ted Hughes’ “Take What You Want But Pay For It,” “Title” is about an act of splitting and the subsequent, irresistible, possibly structural impetus to attempt to reconcile or rejoin: it tries to rend the conjunctive machinery, the enzymatic magic out of the lyric; it tries to etherize the thing upon a table for inspection. It seems to discover instead that the machinery itself is undiminishable; that it turns colorless abstract placeholder terms into specifics. You read the poem and suddenly you’re aware that the written words ‘sensory experience’ are in fact a sensory experience. The poem rewholes itself even in its effort to fracture: it may nail its apparatus to a stake, but the soul wants back in, immediately, puncture wounds and all.
True, the poem may not be sincerely trying to break or dissect the lyric—it is unclear enough about its intentions to be interesting. It pivots between dismissive lines like ‘Now a few things about the local flora’ and lines that lean into their own aesthetic and/or cheerfully do double duty, temporarily occupying a space they also define, and functioning as lean examples of the same: ‘Now a first-person declaration that verbs a noun. / Now a pet name, a yellow object, and a sensory experience.’
It’s as though Bendorf ‘finds’ that the lyric machinery transforms its surroundings into lyric materials, that the two are in fact inseparable: mutually, after Marvell, enslav’d so many ways.