Catherine Wagner’s Nervous Device suggests a revision of W.C. Williams’s adage: a poem is a small (or large) machine made of nerves. Wagner has expressed fears about “the wish to appear smart” in this collection, but the book reminds us that thinking can happen physically and sensually, in the nervous systems of bodies or of poems, in the “dear art surface” or the material play of language. This emphasis on poem as body / machine / device, both produced and producing, is characteristic of Wagner’s work: each of her collections to date has taken on the question of economies, poetic and otherwise. Miss America (2001), with its series of poems “for” popular magazines and journals, poses the question of poetry’s place in a cultural economy, Macular Hole (2004) explores the economies of childbearing and motherhood, and My New Job (2009) asks about, among other things, the exchange value of sex. All of these concerns are present in Nervous Device, along with Wagner’s signature combination of anxiety and irony. Yet in this collection the poet’s stance has shifted. In the book’s first poem, “Pressed Go,” Wagner quotes a line from Miss America: “Funny to be moved by exigencies of market to write poems, to deadline, out of time ‘must write poems to fill the huge demand for them.’” The irony of this self-citation is that it’s addressed to Wagner’s editor at City Lights: to some degree, in other words, there is a demand and a market for poems. The pre-establishment of these conditions of exchange lends the work a novel assuredness: rather than discovering or constructing the terms on which poetry is desired and consumed, Wagner toys with them: 


I must maintain

  our separation, boys

so that you will continue

to invest.

I like this stage,

  and would like to

  extend it.


These “boys” of work, folk song, and sex have appeared in previous books, but this passage points toward the newer work’s implicit central term: pleasure. On the one hand, Wagner’s poems in some cases abandon themselves to experiencing and recounting, as in “Pleasure Trip”: “The reading just OK but I made friends with my friends. / Minivan moving, sun exit gold blisses ground.” On the other, there’s a new tense pleasure that results from poetic manipulation:


I see I’m aggressive, weirdly violent,


Won’t mind being otherwise

Tell warm to me.


Goddamn these dactyls,

They crush labile rotica.

Kneejerk dactylic, see.

Needing to pee but I’m 

Pushing this longer—


[…] —friend, there’s a reason


(Really have to pee now)

To let pleasure be.


This passage conflates the body of the speaker and the feet (fingers) of the poem, as does the series of poems called “Rain Cog,” which swirl moisture and machinery, sex and cerebellum around each other. Like bodies, Wagner’s poems are capable of both producing and registering pleasure, and they know it. Also like bodies, finally, poems work in ways that frustrate the relations of consumption and exchange in which they participate: the poem “The Autonomy of Art Has Its Origins in the Concealment of Labor” runs, in its entirety, “My heart beat very hard by itself,” while the passage quoted above is drawn from a poem called “Regarding the Use-Value and Exchange-Value of Orgasms, With a List of Orgasm Analogues.” If the logic is relatively straightforward—poetry can’t and doesn’t hide the fundamental work of sound, thought, language, and song that produces it, but does produce a sort of excess that at least seems an alternative to other ways of assigning value—the result is nevertheless a complexity of affect: “Instead of tearing down the poem,” Wagner writes, “I made more shapely baubs, that pleasure me, hum crystal when touched. All readers: take a union breath, trust me? for I started to know-what-I-was-doing in a poem, the intuition track laid out prior, poem aligns and rolls (if rickety) headlit and through the forest. When instead it should unalign and disembark the trees.” In gorgeous uneasy knots of language and gusty nodes of self-awareness such as this one, Wagner ratchets up tension of sound and sense; the “trust” we grant her is in the resulting pleasure, particularly poetic and particularly intense. More exactly, it’s a snarl of different types of pleasure: the hum of words, the tightness of folksy couplets and shapeliness of self-contained lyrics, invitations to intellectual attention that turn into rebuffs, and hard thinking about pleasure’s exchange value that nevertheless admits the possibility of pleasure’s transcendence of exchange value—finally a snarl to be enjoyed even if it can’t quite be unraveled.

—Lindsay Turner

Joomla SEF URLs by Artio

Buy Lana Turner #9

Issue 9 is HERE!

Order Now

@ltjournal on Twitter