What does it mean to be a man?

Those who have spelunked into the caves of gender or queer theory are likely to move toward the ideas of foundational theorist Judith Butler when asked such a question. For many others, the answer may be closer to what a parent (or a television depiction of a parent) taught them about masculinity. Yet the lives we live tend to be a bit more complicated than either of these origins; we tend to hash out masculinity as go along, sometimes in healthy ways, sometimes destructive. Those of us who live as men, particularly queer men of every variety, learn that we often must reexamine and redefine what ‘man’ means.

For me, this is the primary effect of Oliver Bendorf’s The Spectral Wilderness, if not the heart of it. In the 36 poems that make up this first full-length collection from Bendorf (the winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize), readers are offered a complex and authentic account of how life’s routine is transmuted for a man changing and discovering the meaning of change at once.

I hesitate to state the obvious fact that this collection explores the theme of transformation. (After all, the cover illustrates a literal metamorphosis.) This is a common subject in literature broadly, but particularly from writers who are transgender. Bendorf, a talented educator, poet and artist, seems conscious of this throughout the book, but most apparently in the poem “The Doctor Told Me the Shots Would Make Me Spin Silk,” in which he presents a speaker’s medical transition into a spider (while simultaneously sketching a particular masculinity):

“If I didn’t want to ask for directions,
I could leave a trail/
of silk by which to find
my way back….”

The best poems in this collection are those that question established definitions, narratives and norms. From the opening poem, “I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn’t Get Any Larger,” Bendorf colors in the outline of queer life in the poetic tradition of complicating the simple and simplifying the complex. In this poem, and in many throughout the collection, the poet presents a discussion about growth and the observation of growth, a conversation that continues through the final (gorgeous) lines of the book.

Still, I would be selling this collection short to reduce it to a single theme. The poems are as much about transformation as they are about masculinity itself, about love and relationships, about the queer dream of running away to New England and sustaining oneself with hard, honest work. As such, the title of the collection seems to refer to both the literal wilderness and to the navigation of a new masculinity, one without clearly defined borders to be found either in its exploration or on maps. It asks, does the wilderness exist, or is it a construct built by approximations?

What does it mean to be the wilderness?

The Spectral Wilderness
by Oliver Bendorf
The Kent State University Press

Gay Life August 2015


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