By Catherine Wagner. (Fence Books, 2009)


If there is a problem that the anthology American Hybrid made clear, it’s that the dark matter of much poetry is to be found in the competing rhetorical registers of a poem, rather than what used to be called “content”—in the lyrical sense, whatever it is that is gumming up the poet’s objectivity. But poets today are not writing from a position of in-built personal drama—at least not of the caliber of poets from Byron to Ginsberg—since these are far from revolutionary times, and many (certainly not all) poets are comfortable, insured teachers. Thus, poets often conjure these animating tensions out of the quandary immediately facing them—how to write itself. Catherine Wagner’s approach to this situation is manifold. As for the poet’s “heightened” sensibility (a big no no in the egalitarian ethos of the AWP community) Wagner counters with a profane vocabulary—Eileen Myles calls My New Job a “dirty adult notebook.” This is one of the many skillful counterpoints of this collection. For all the seeming rootlessness inherent in the many Mallarméan aporias of these four sequences, there are many pointillist references to the specifics of the poet’s body (“Exercises” was written in during sessions of physical therapy) and to the persons in her life (the poet Martin Corless-Smith, her son Ambrose, and others). This is genuinely elliptical writing (to recall, once again, Stephen Burt’s coinage) in that it assumes a lot about poetry in the Modernist tradition, for instance, that fragments and notes of the poet to herself about daily tasks and somatic events, even about how to write a poem and the discipline involved, can be matter for a poem, even if the direct link of the particular to the presumably universal (or at least interesting) is not made. But the personal-epic mode of My New Job (which owes something to Alice Notley, especially in Disobedience) has a counterpoint in occasional scurrilous, profane lyrics (which, itself, owes something to the proto-“gurlesque” Paramour of Stacy Doris):


Penis regis, penis immediate, penis

                  tremendous, penis offend us; penis

ferrule us, penis protrude from us,

                  wrinkly rule us; penis intrudes us.

Penis surrender. Penis precede us,

                   penis resented, penis emended:

penis between us,

                    penis regis.

                                           (from “Song”)


There are also some genuinely odd motifs—the one concerning two homeless people making love is a salient example—that are made even stranger because it’s never quite clear where these images arise from—fancy or perception? The writing is brisk, and Wagner has an incredibly diverse range of tones, meters and conceptual tactics that she bounces around and between effortlessly. Out of a stream of clipped, collaged fragments can arise perfect song:


The wergild I will exact from you        for my thirty days off-balance

Is a sandpapering of your pink cock          by one of my male students.


Fans of the “Gurlesque” might be disappointed that the book is not in fact more “dirty,” more playful, or doesn’t catalogue more of the female objectscape, but it is a difficult virtue of this book that it is never one thing for long. Passages can have the minimalist grandeur of Beckett’s later prose pieces, the metrical dalliance of Raworth’s early poems, or the bawdy ebullience of a poem by Nada Gordon. At the same time, one does want more out of My New Job—this might in fact have been Wagner’s intention, to illuminate via void the meaning of the title—in that it doesn’t settle long enough anywhere, or even within extended observation, to make the type of angular, acidic impact it aspires to.

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