Death and rebirth between the lines Dim view: Joe Wenderoth explores the metaphors amid the shadows in his poetry.

January 04, 1996|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Twenty-nine-year-old Joe Wenderoth believes that writing poetry is akin to dying. "Imagine you're in a bright room, and clouds cover the sun," he says. "There's a moment when you're aware that the room has darkened. Poetry comes from this moment. Things as you know them are falling apart."

In his yellow-brick house in Highlandtown, Mr. Wenderoth discusses writing. His boyish blue eyes brighten the serious expression on his face, just as reproductions of Van Gogh's sunflowers and Chagall's lovers brighten the living room where Mr. Wenderoth composes poems.

"Writing poetry is pleasurable as Freud meant it, when he said that the deepest wish is the death wish," Mr. Wenderoth says. "In a sense, a poem begins with a momentary intimation of death. Later, it feels good to write it."

He will read from "Disfortune," his first book of poems, recently published by the Wesleyan University Press, tomorrow at Bibelot and on Saturday at the Raven Bookshop.

His talent was quickly recognized. At 22, he had poems accepted by the prestigious American Poetry Review. Later poems appeared in important journals, such as Prairie Schooner and Triquarterly. One of his poems is displayed at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, along with work by such eminent 20th-century poets as Marianne Moore and Galway Kinnell.

Now, he not only writes; he teaches writing as an instructor of gifted students at Johns Hopkins University.

But teaching is his everyday life. Mr. Wenderoth believes a poet sinks away from his everyday self into a deeper consciousness during the act of writing, allowing a dialogue between the two selves. Mr. Wenderoth calls it "poetic speech."

"In that dialogue, the everyday self berates the soul," he says. One of his poems, "The Talking Bird Refuses To Title His Poem," describes poetic speech: "The ground, / then, is made of voices. / Somehow to leap from the lowest dream / of agility like always / into the pupil-black river / of day -- the pure once / of your own voice. / Just to sing the song that's kept you / quiet / all this time."

Mr. Wenderoth did not write poetry until his second year at Loyola College. Then, says the Baltimore native, "it dawned on me that I wanted to major in English. I didn't want to go deeper into accounting, which was then my major."

Later, in a poetry class taught by poet Karen Fish, Mr. Wenderoth felt drawn to Wallace Stevens, especially his poem "The Snow Man." "The end of the poem drew me with its suggestion that everything we're aware of is built of snow," Mr. Wenderoth says.

Mr. Wenderoth sees the solid yet melting snow as the contradiction inherent in all life. His poems are built around life's contradictions; as the four-word poem "Prayer" puts it: "Fix me, a blast."

After graduating from Loyola in 1988, he entered a master's degree program at New York University and worked at menial jobs, saving his money for tuition.

His poem "Calling Through Bushels Of Dead Crabs: Dream" describes the job in which he sorted dead crabs from live ones. The dead crabs would make ghostly movements when shifted by the living ones, evoking the poet's own ghosts. The poem manifests the dark, nightmarish quality that suffuses much of his work: " the one still / alive at the bottom / knows my hand is there / in the above / in my understanding / meat."

As Mr. Wenderoth began graduate studies, he became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. The illness, he explains, partly accounts for the darkness of his perspective. "It was a living hell, and it shaped me into a poet in a real sense," he says. "At first, I couldn't write. Then, the illness opened up an understanding. I embraced this and learned poetic speech."

His poem "Like Blood From A Deep Cut" recalls: "Like soap-opera deaths, these days are not / believable, but make a week, a summer, / a few years, caught in the only plot, / quickly muted now, repeating. / Every rough stone is smoothed, every push / of this warm river slower, colder. / This has become obvious. / What is not obvious is daytime itself. "

Ailing for three years, Mr. Wenderoth recovered sufficient strength to study at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C. One of his professors there was Baltimore poet Michael Collier, who will read with Mr. Wenderoth at Bibelot.

Another Warren Wilson professor, poet Heather McHugh, calls Mr. Wenderoth "an extraordinary young writer whose work is grounded in philosophical passion." Ms. McHugh suggested that Mr. Wenderoth submit his master's thesis to the Wesleyan University Press, which is widely respected among poets. "The whole idea of getting a book published seemed overwhelming," he says. As to worrying about whether the thesis would be accepted, he says, "I didn't think about it."

Mr. Wenderoth was busy thinking about his writing then, as he is now. "The poetic moment undermines your identity and cracks it," he explains, thus making rebirth -- not death -- the ultimate point: "If you keep letting poetic moments happen, you're continually reforming yourself."

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