Sunday, September 20, 2020

Catherine Wagner, Of Course

Poverty, when defined by income.

Creates only one solution:
working for someone else. So

change the form of the for
for animals and problem-solving

plants. I have borrowed
for the inside of my life

the inside-out of
enslaved people and workers

who made the seen.
What are you going to do without your

underclass, where you going
to go, what are you

going to
do without your

If a nail is unison

entering into unison is violent.
Thus will I cheat

the rich out of my life.

I’m always very excited to see new work from Cincinnati poet Catherine Wagner, which now includes the poetry collection Of Course (Hudson NY: FENCE Books, 2020). The author of Miss America (Fence Books, 2001), Macular Hole (Fence Books, 2004), My New Job (Fence Books, 2009) and Nervous Device (San Francisco CA: City Lights Publishers, 2012), hers is a lyric that can turn on a dime, from sound-driven description to the long pause, from meditation to anxiety to bursts of exposition, from the shaky precision of memory to the precise action of a single word. “The moon has a head but no body,” she writes, to open “The moon has a body,” “So why assume [she] / Is cold why not / Assume drunk / ‘Legless’ / She can keep up pretty good though / With my car in the rural night / Fantasy in which / I am a passenger [.]” Wagner’s work is rife with serious play regarding narrative and expectation, flailing and precise measure, such as in the poem “My Hair Is Getting a Free Blow Dry in the Win,” that includes: “When I dictate   data flies up to satellite // and is instantly returned bioprocess inappropriate / to the size of my body // or making nonsense of the idea that anything is / appropriate or inappropriate to the size of my body // it feels good to have the / satellite bounce words   by a process [.]”

Of Course appears to be a book of poems around the complexities of the body, from depictions of the body to considerations of the body; from the body of a golf course to the reproductive possibilities of jellyfish, from the intimate, human body to those protections and offerings our physical and emotional selves require: sexy and passionate, flawed and vulnerable. “Signs of aging on my human body / are live gifs of the Age.” she writes, as part of the sequence “Impersonal lubricant,” a poem that writes, further on:

Live jellies have no brains,
float blindly

but they can fall asleep, can shed
nerve toxins to defend the colony

and triggered by light
at dawn or dusk

their see-thru pump-domes
simulcast eggs and sperm

into tolerant solution.
Sexual jellies. Some jellyfish

invisible by day
do phosphoresce in darkness.

They could [be] hurt [you]
if you mined them

for the phosphorus
that burns the skin in war.

In a recent piece for LitHub, “On Exploiting the Labor of a Dear Friend, Who is Also a Poet,” Wagner’s friend Rebecca Wolff (the editor/publisher of FENCE Books) offers her own take on Wagner’s work, including this new collection:

In one long poem the city has sex with everything, as in an old Playboy letter producing an exhausted, grateful polis. In one poem Wagner likens herself to the Amazon River after a rain storm, “Piranhas climb up your pee stream / when you pee into it.” This is not the flaccid 90s move of indeterminate lyric self-definition, for Wagner is in relation and recognizing the relations of power, material conditions, and bodies within. She also recognizes language traditions, and subverts them too, not in received subversion but in a specific bodied formal vocabulary of presence in minutia, her close reading of the labor of reading the garden, reading and writing the leaving of the garden to trespass on the golf course, for example.

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