top of page

The Spectral Wilderness by Oliver Bendorf

Oliver Bendorf writes in the poem “Ghost Dog,” “I miss things sometimes that I cannot locate in the heart.” Art is a form of preservation. Poems in The Spectral Wilderness observe, interrogate, and record the subtle shifts in mind, body, and relationships through the process of transitioning from female to male, presented in mythic language.

In “Outing, Iowa” a speaker asserts: “If you’ve ever doubted the body can transform completely, take the highway north from town,” to what used to be a body of water: “The land where I was born was born an ocean, and that ocean born of ice.” Scientific proof of change, altered chemistry, new permanence. One of the landmarks in the poem are Effigy Mounds, “sacred piles of earth we’ve managed to preserve, and all that’s buried underneath,” leading to the assertion of the disappearing identity:

what we used to be matters. Here’s a brachiopod, here’s me twirling in a gauzy blue dress in the afternoon sun. Trace these fossils with your tongue and place them in my hands, which will never be any larger. Lay your ear against an iceberg while there’s time and sing to me its trickle.

Anxious to make a record of any change, the speaker in the opening sonnet, “I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn’t Get Any Larger” hangs the tracings of his hands on the wall, “they look back at me like busted headlights,” hollow, and providing no illumination. The speaker dons a lab coat, “to make sure they know who’s observing whom,” and gets comfortable with the idea, “If my hands do grow, they should also be the kind / that can start a fire with just a deer in the road.” The moment is slightly surreal, as the reader can’t be sure if the animal is fuel, or an assistant.

The poems often use surrealism to explore deconstruction and reconstruction of identity. Bendorf’s prose poem “The Manliest Mattress” begins simply enough, the speaker goes to the mattress store where “They sell me a wooden box in mattress dimensions.” It seems like a great buy, then on the third day the speaker can’t rise, “But before they can respond, everyone I know falls through the sky below me.” Death is present, then instead of resurrection, recreation: “I disassemble the wooden box and lay out the pieces in front of me like a miniature lumberyard. I start learning how to build something.”

Science and nature play a large role throughout the book, a dialogue bouncing inside the narratives. Often the mythos is presented as a journey: an epic, tinged with fairytale; acknowledged in “Blue Boy,” – “It’s a classic story shape. The hero leaves home….” The twist of a fairy tale interjects, “Don’t turn into a man. If you must turn into something, turn into a wolf.” Impossible transformation or possible?

Bendorf’s long poem “Patrón” follows “Blue Boy” in the book, and works as a response. “Patrón” blends epic with fairytale:

They dance


in a room

of salty tears.

All the better

to dip you with

he says.

The form juxtaposes the fairy tale phrasing; it’s disrupted by heavy enjambment. Each line is only a few syllables and the narrative effectively floats down the page, reminiscent of Eileen Myles, also of small ripples. Whimsical mementos of daily life fill in the story:

Between his

fingers he lets

sprinkles fall

in the shape

of how his

voice used to

sound when

he laughed.

Patrón confronts the unknown future, “The sidewalk bends / toward darkness / like the shoulder / of a man,” and confronts the nature of identity:

Fish learn