Kevin Bertolero

Reading as a Process of Reconditioning: Revealing The Spectral Wilderness

A review of The Spectral Wilderness by Oliver Bendorf (Kent State University Press, 2014)

Okay, so I’m just going to be honest with you— I’ve tried starting this review about twenty separate times, but I’ve been struggling to find a good opening line, so now, on my twenty-first attempt, I am going to begin this review by telling you that I do not know how to start this review. My inability to come up with a solid opening line that will draw you in and keep your attention is partially due to the fact that I’m nervous. I’m nervous that this review will simply not do justice to the awesomeness that fills the pages of The Spectral Wilderness. Bendorf has composed an unparalleled collection of poems that I believe wonderfully (and accurately, so far as I understand it) reflects the trans/queer experience as no other poet has been able to capture it before. 


I have never recommended a book as honestly and as frequently to my friends and colleagues as I have with Oliver Bendorf’s debut collection. I have been a fan of his work for several years now, and this collection was well worth the wait. The Spectral Wilderness is a collection of poems that really makes one think about what it means to be a queer individual, what masculinity is supposed to look like, and how we change and grow to meet these seemingly impossible (and unqualified) standards. But what’s beautiful about Bendorf’s debut is that the further into the collection you read, the more you start to realize that the construction of our identities isn’t something that can be measured, and by the end, they seem to disappear entirely. 

I think that these poems fill a void that has been absent in American poetry for far too long, and Bendorf fills that gap. Mark Doty writes in the book’s Foreword, “it’s a come nearer to a realm of experiences little explored in American poetry, the lives of those who are engaged in the complex project of transforming their own gender.” The collection, it seems, is a metamorphosis for Bendorf, as he writes with the voice of a man new to the world. He takes the mundane and allows it to become magical. He continues to build himself and change with every line. In the poem, “Make Believe,” Bendorf writes, The first time I took a razor to my face / I forgot what I was made of. Having / made believe all I could, I made believe / a little further, pulling the open blade / around the corner of my lips, watching / a few desolate strands fall to the sink / like soldiers in a porcelain trench, / or as with invisible ink drew myself / a mustache I could get behind. This is the “self” that Bendorf builds throughout his poems. He is (re)constructing what it means to be “Oliver,” and the character that was his former self is transforming on the page. He is pushing the boundaries and experimenting with language so as to reflect the process of change and growth. 

Included below is another one of the collection’s stand-out poems, “I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn’t Get Any Larger.” Bendorf writes, 

But she’s decided we need to trace them in case I
turn out to be wrong. Every morning she wakes me
with a sheet of paper. In the beginning, she stowed
all the tracings in a folder, until one day I said I’d like
to at least see where this is going, and from that point on
we hung them on the wall chronologically. When I
study them, they look back at me like busted
headlights. I wear my lab coat around the house to
make sure they know who’s observing whom. If we
can ensure records, if we can be diligent in our
testing. I wrap my fingers around her wrist. Nothing
feels smaller yet. Not her, not the kettle nor the key.
If my hands do grow, they should also be the kind
that can start a fire with just a deer in the road. 

Bendorf writes in a way that allows to reader to see why we should be questioning the world in which we live. In an interview with Ninthletter regarding the poem, Bendorf discussed the ways in which the magical qualities of the poem aren’t necessarily magical to him, but rather they represent his reality—that is, the (sur)reality of being trans. Bendorf says of the poem, “To me, this poem doesn't actually take on gender so much as the experience of being inside a body at the brink of change. And who isn't inside one of those? We all go through transformations in our body, big and small, and we all watch people we love go through these transformations, be it puberty, illness, aging, pregnancy, a new haircut, someone's kids growing up too fast. When I wrote this poem, I was most interested in the ways we react to, and interact with, those transformations, whether we're excited or scared as hell or uncertain or decide we're going to trace hands to feel better.” 

I think that with this collection, Bendorf has accomplished something that many poets work towards, but which very few actually achieve. He has captured the experience of being queer in a way that mirrors reality. If there is another poet out there who has done a better job of reflecting the life of a person in transition, I have yet to come across them. The consistency with which Bendorf writes, and his masterful control over the language is self-evident. These poems are crafted with honesty and they explore a point of view not often considered in American society. 

Nearly all of the poems in this collection consider what it means to be ______________. You can fill in that spot with anything you wish —what it means to be gay, to be an athlete, to be shy, to be overweight, to be lonely—and these poems still make sense and they still apply, even if the reader does’t have any personal connection to a trans identity. Because it isn’t the type of identity that matters to Bendorf, and that is why this collection is so incredible. These poems, while written for a certain type of identity, reflect everybody and are universal. Everybody has some experience being something, and it is that experience of simply being that Bendorf has beautifully captured. 


Kevin Bertolero studies English Literature, Philosophy, and Art History at Potsdam College. He is the author of a collection of poems, From the Estuary to the Offing (Ghost City Press, 2015), he is the poetry editor for Mixtape Methodology, editor-in-chief of North Country Literary Magazine, and he is the founder of Ghost City Press. He tweets @KevinBertolero.