Letters to Wendy’s is simply one of the funniest, most irreverent books I’ve ever read. I’ve been a fan of Joe Wenderoth’s work over the past two years, ever since Ross Martin, an editor an Nerve, told me, “You have to see these Wendy poems we just published…” I am very intrigued by the notion of a poem-a-day, which is how these gems were written, over the span of two years (1996-1997), and if you can believe the author, they were actually first composed on Wendy’s “TELL US ABOUT YOUR VISIT” cards. The title of the poems are dates, as in David Lehman’s The Daily Mirror. But unlike The Daily Mirror, which is populated with friends and civil lunches and parties, the narrator of Letters to Wendy’s is a cheeseburger-chomping voyeuristic lowlife who visits Wendy’s each day, alone.
But maybe I am mistaken (not about the voyeuristic lowlife part, but) — maybe Nerve’s Ross Martin said, “You have to see these Wendy short-shorts we just published,” for when I finished Letters to Wendy’s, I was surprised to see “Fiction” slapped on the upper-right-hand corner of the back cover. I immediately thought of Nin Andrew’s Book of Orgasms, also first published as “fiction” by Asylum Press, and reprinted by Cleveland State University Poetry Center last year.
from “December 31, 1996 (NEW YEAR’S EVE)”
Eschewing everything, I’ve assumed it best to break
my lines like prose. I’ve assumed a visit a full thing — a
thing demanding as many words as possible….
Although I think prose poems and microfiction are basically kissin’ cousins, Joe Wenderoth’s work does feel more like poetry to me — like a modern (or rather post-modern) Baudelaire, full of sardonic social commentary. In any case, Wenderoth certainly is pushing the boundaries of genre-blurring. Are these pages simply prose in chapters? Prose in poetry’s drag? They also seem to be straddling some wide-open space between poetry and pornography. Are these pages full of porn? Kiddie porn? Wendy porn? (Would this account for the austere navy blue stock and the rather delicate gold lettering on the cover?)
Another wonderful surprise is a CD of the work, spoken by actor James Urbaniak (who played Simon Grim, the bus driver/poet in Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool and Harry in Sweet and Lowdown). Urbaniak delivers the poems in slow deliberate deadpan, reminiscent, actually, of a Hal Sirowitz reading, if Hal Sirowitz were rated X. Don’t be misled by the work reprinted in the March 2001 Harpers (which explains Wenderoth’s form as a novel in prose poems)—Harpers printed the tamer entries — many of the entries are much more depraved. Urbaniak reads the poems/chapters one after the other, without dates, like so many greasy but delicious bitefuls.
from “July 17, 1996”
…I imagined Wendy was in my car with me. She said,
“I’d like you to take your fat tongue and run it from
my asshole to my clit and over again.” I said, “I’d like
you to punch me in the face.”
At first, you can’t believe what you’re hearing or what you’re reading, but there it is. And it’s very funny, once you get over the shock. Wenderoth in “January 29, 1997” writes, “Could it be that everything that is is just a funny after-taste? That brings us to the terrible question of what is funny…” Wenderoth perhaps knows that his poems aren’t for everyone and delights in being the outsider. The “writer” of these letters imagines the Wendy’s employees as porn stars, watches porn during breakfast at home, and writes in September 24, 1996, “I love to watch a dick slamming in and out of a cunt or an asshole. The only way t.v. could enhance Wendy’s is if it was confined to showing non-stop hardcore pornography without sound….”
George P. Elliot once defined pornography as “the representation of directly or indirectly erotic acts with an intrusive vividness which offends decency without aesthetic justification.” Elliot’s definition is slippery, since who can say for sure when a poet is justified anesthetically?
But I think his definition can be used as a window into Letters to Wendy’s. Wenderoth does write with “intrusive vividness,” like one chewing with his mouth open, but I think Wenderoth’s aim is social satire. Elliot goes on to write, “Even the breast of a healthy woman is revolting when inspected too closely, as Swift knew when he had tiny Gulliver revolted by every blemish on the breast of the Brobdingnagian wet nurse suckling the baby.” So is there a bit of Jonathan Swift in Joe Wenderoth? I think so.
from “August 5, 1996”
…I like to eat the flesh of certain animals three times each
day and to lick the flesh of my own animal. It seems
careless to say, but then saying in itself is a kind of sudden
ignorance of where everything is coming…
from “August 18, 1996″
We’ve become a throw-away society! they gasp. Well,
could this be because we’ve discovered, finally, that we’re
a throw-away organism…living in a throw-away land?
…I’m happy to every day get a brand new ornate yellow
cup, drink half my coke, then abandon the thing altogether
from “August 22, 1996”
There used to be a little Ma-and-Pa restaurant across the
road, but it couldn’t keep up…Build Wendy’s everywhere
and all alike — and do not fear: you cannot, you CAN NOT
ever step into the same Wendy’s twice.
from “December 24, 1996 (CHRISTMAS EVE)”
If we must put people to death, why not at Wendy’s
….The refreshments allow the audience to take in their
own hands the tamed substance and to feel themselves
securely on this side of the blender.
from “January 17, 1997”
I’m comforted to think of Wendy’s as a miraculous
heap of meals, and to come to it every day like a vulture
to a battlefield it could not have seen coming.
from “February 5, 1997
I never see deliveries being made. I’m glad….
and from “April 18, 1997”
Nowadays a corporation needs to support a cause
now and then… Wendy’s could launch a “Catheters
For the Birds” campaign. The goal would be to
capture, catheterize, and rehabilitate all natural birds…
Wenderoth is so tongue-in-cheek, so gristle-in-teeth, that Letters to Wendy’s can be read as a fast food send-up, as an animal rights manifesto, as critical of environmental waste. What about all those slaughtered cows? What are those Frosties made of exactly? Is corporate greed so despicable that Wendy’s own father Dave is pimping his daughter to sell burgers? Should Letters to Wendy’s be mandatory reading for members of the Green Party? To keep didacticism in check, Wenderoth has created an often unreliable, sometimes hallucinatory narrator who gets five free refills of Coke while high on whiskey and sudafed (“July 6, 1996”) or visits Wendy’s still reeling from marijuana brownies (“August 26, 1996 ” and “August 27, 1996”) or forgets to shower when he gets good pills (“April 29, 1997”). He even writes “I believe I’m actually going to have to be strapped down…” (“February 18, 1997”). In this way, some Letters to Wendy’s are not unlike the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, which is supposedly the commentary of a madman.
And what about the letter writer’s lust for little Wendy herself? The narrator sees Wendy as a billboard Lolita. What attracts him is “…something about her face and the shape of her hair, the muffled red coherence of a head and torso, and perhaps too her lack of arms and legs…” (“September 21, 1996”). I’m reminded of the title poem of Rick Peabody’s book I’m in Love with the Morton Salt Girl, but while his poem is a tender and nostalgic look at pop culture imagery of little girls, Wenderoth’s letter writer employs a lust that is dark and more than a little creepy:
from July 4, 1996 (Independence Day)
I’d like to spank Wendy’s white ass and fuck her hard….
from September 14, 1996
Last night I dreamt that I pissed on Wendy’s head….
from September 21, 1996
If I had to say what Wendy really was…I think I’d have to say
she was a penis….
from February 7, 1997
Wendy, soon I will kiss you passionately in the cunt and
hold on tight to nothing…..
The absurdity of abusing Wendy who is basically a sign, a billboard, an image on a yellow cup takes a leap to show the absurdity of abuse in general. For some, these poems may be a little harder to laugh at. I attempted to introduce some of Wenderoth’s poems from Nerve last year in a graduate poetry class, and many students were genuinely upset by their graphic nature.
One woman said, “Child abuse is never funny…” which, needless to say, is true, but again if we think in terms of satire, these poems border on both the funny (ha ha) and the funny (extremely strange). I am reminded of the Todd Solondz films Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, dark comedies that both use child abuse as a plot device.
What makes this book quintessentially postmodern and avant garde is the mix of high art with low art. The same letter writer, who watches porno, is also a reader of Foucault.
from “August 18, 1996”
Foucault says knowledge wasn’t made for understanding
but for cutting. For the Wendy’s worker, that’s especially
true. The Wendy’s worker knows — he does not understand —
and his knowledge is alive with results….
from “August 26, 1996”
It’s hard to get served when one understands the
signifier as a process….
from “February 11, 1997”
My desire causes an order and then I wait as it gets
carried over into the real. This carrying over produces
a delicious fact, which the order cannot have
He is also full of classical literary allusions and philosophy.
from “November 11, 1996”
Can you not feel Wendy’s blindness, her exile, as
she looks down at you from the sign? What
terrible thing has she done to deserve exile in
such a barren place? She, like Oedipus, was a child.
Surviving infancy is the true Oedipal crime….
from “November 26, 1996”
Artaud prefigures the experience of being on speed
while standing under a Wendy’s menu when he
writes: “In it we feel a grinding of sluices, a kind
of horrible volcanic shock from which the light
of day has been dissociated….”
from “December 30, 1996”
…Marx wanted to take a sledge hammer to all
registers. He hoped we’d recover our senses
in the long lines that ensued…
In fact, Wenderoth envisions Wendy’s as a place of knowledge.
from “April 8, 1997”
Sometimes I think of a Wendy’s as a library without
books. Without records, magazines, maps, or videos.
Without a rare books room, and without an information
desk. As such, it is the most pleasant library I’ve ever
Wenderoth takes a great idea — a poem a day on a “TELL US ABOUT YOUR VISITCARD” — and pushes it further than most poets/prose writers would dare. Letters to Wendy’s, be it poetry or porn, prose or propaganda, is one of the most innovative books I’ve ever come across, which ups the ante for the literature of the next couple of decades—at least.