by Catherine Wagner
Fence Books 2009
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Davis
“Impression of a deluxe life.”
Both a public document and a relaxed collection of intimate poetry fusing arguments, personal writing exercises, confusions, clarifications and candid declarations, Catherine Wagner’s My New Job wears many faces: a seductive smile, a snide sideways glare, a big-toothed grin, a downward glance, an open-jawed stare:
Just in every rathole, just trying to learn everything at once
I was learning everything at once
The poet–sometimes sexual and raw, occasionally impotent and anti-social–shares her moods without regret. Feelings are recognized, made fun of, accepted and even resented. Bittersweet yet rich, this job is one that is fulfilling and yet doesn’t bring on the guilt that comes with eating too much or talking out of turn.
There is something ineffable that occurs when you discover poetry that makes you realize that you as a self, you as part of an unspoken or spoken multitude of men and women, that you are a fragile yet colossal creature in a world of creatures—either known or unknown—somehow capable and strong enough to continue. This is how Wagner affects her readers.
I remember reading her second book Macular Hole (2004) in my early twenties and then later being pushed to locate her first collection, Miss America (2001). I remember thinking that I had never read a book of contemporary poetry like Macular Hole ever, dissecting bold lines like:
Hatred and doom
Took it torquing jealous into my gut. I flamed
& I came kindness.
I hoped I was kind and good and fretted
my tongue with pink & raw serrations.
I imitated nobody in
I was alone.
I dream of an end like a fount to this night
Run thinner and thinner and then it’s all light
Macerated in signal
I admit that Macular Hole remains my all-time-favorite by Wagner. Re-reading Wagner’s texts reminds me that I, too, still possess my own odd set of lusts, loves and aversions—some readily justified, some embarrassingly far from explicable. For me, Catherine Wagner did not exist before Macular Hole, for this book was the way in which she entered my life as a wide-eyed college grad, giving NYC a spin, gathering impressions in search of my own.
Wagner hardly ever relays identical feelings; across her oeuvre, the poet’s mood courageously morphs, though her books unconsciously refer to one another in an obscure conversation. For example, her fixations and connections between holes and voids and sex and natural life cycles (e.g. Macular Hole, sections from My New Job entitled “Hole in the Ground” and “Roaring Spring,” poems with titles such as “I’m total I’m all I’m absorbed in this meatcake,” “I don’t believe in bodiless” and “Big Bang”). Her tactics careen between trench warfare and cosmic bliss—she links life and death, absence and presence, speech and living in multiple sweeps.
So, let’s discuss fucking—or love-making, or sex, or whatever explicative phrase some might use in reference to the act. My New Job, like its poetic predecessors, does not shy away from the visceral and physical aspects of sexuality. Wagner writes in Miss America:
Scout and Rumor suck me off
We will flower inside you like a dog at your trails
I am sorry
Just a gigolo
Friendly and forsaken
It is hotter to wear a bra
Or let my boobs stick to my chest
Melanin, melatonin, metonym, melanoma
Or in Macular Hole:
I have recently masturbated and hair-sparklings
descend before me to reward me
Or in My New Job:
Fallacious = fellatio + delicious
but is delicious
cut grass and oysters
Beachy head, if unpleasant
against the rear throat
the gag reflex you learn to control
in high school
Terrify all comers.
But even as Wagner writes in My New Job, “The fucking isn’t interesting / The fucking is friction / The friction is two surfaces in contact and moving.” My New Job continues to investigate the poet’s rapport with the act. Though we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking that we do not care about this act, that we have more pressing issues on our plate, it is this act that keeps many of us ticking. In My New Job, Wagner equates oral sex on a man as something between an ocean-inspired fantasy, the feeling of ingesting an aphrodisiac-laced spread of hearty meats and the wholesomeness of “the girl next door” actualized as otherwise (“cut grass” being an image, perhaps, from a middle class family’s preened yard or from a haphazard sex scene). For this “girl next door” symbolizes a woman’s journey and investigation into her own needs — experience by experience she conquers, eventually overtaking future lovers with honed expertise. Yet, by making a connection between the word “fallacious” and “fellatio,” Wagner hints that this act can be deceptive; it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Pleasure and self-fulfillment are reliable friends, there to help us overcome whatever malaise we battle. Wagner embraces this “fucking territory,” well-aware of its increasing weight and our unbridled interest in how it affects our respective realities. She writes:
Part of the poem includes:
fucking the penis from
behind it, the point of view of the “man”
his body fucks it, it’s split off from him
around it the woman
My New Job is separated into five diverse sections: “Exercises,” “Hole in the Ground,” “Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large,” “Roaring Spring” and “My New Job.” The first section is exactly what it claims to be: writing exercises (ranging anywhere from the # 1 to #45), but not in any chronological order. “Hole in the Ground” begins with an excerpt from an unnamed folksong:
Like a mole in the ground I would root that mountain down
I wish I was a mole in the ground
This section is the most sexually charged. “Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large” is analytical, including grid-like rationale, sharing observations between the poet and other forces: the poet as poet, the poet as lover and the poet as mother. Wagner shares sentiments that accompany motherhood:
I’ve made myself a recognizable woman
and I bred so:
belly and breasts jut out extraordinary from my ordinary
frame, which does not change, and I am
complimented on this, on my same
sprouting forth, and the excrescence
“lovely excrescence” snipped off to
Or about knowledge:
My understanding is quite limited.
“Roaring Spring” includes 28 sections, which is also the number of days between menstruation periods; one immediately feels a build-up leading up to an unavoidable eruption. The numbered poem takes a brief pause, and an embedded sub-poem, entitled “Roaring Spring,” interrupts between poem #9 and #10 in the sequence. The presence of this sub-poem introduces itself at one of the most sexually potent periods in a woman’s cycle, just days before ovulation. This sub-poem “Roaring Spring” is unlike its numerical counterparts; it directly approaches the subject vs. object relationship in a given heterosexual partnership:
If I am the author of my intentions
For your objecthood
And receiver of
What you mean to me
If you try to get through to me
Who launched your objecthood
Your cock bumps against my cervix
Slow out, slow out, make a vacuum
Pulls towards you
Yet as the poet vocalizes obsessions and writes her mission, it is clear that writing is her mission; she is documenting her search, rarely interested in the same subject matter twice, and if so, not from a copycat perspective. It can be gathered that Wagner’s speaker finds solace or some necessary escape via her specific process. Macular Hole reads:
So I write a moralizing poem
so a poem to feel better.
Do what I want to it.
I knew I would scream if I didn’t write it down because I needed
to be alone reproducing.
The reader senses her attachment to the craft, even if this rare feeling originates from self-love. Someone else’s narcissism often brings bees to the honey, if they aren’t already drowning in their own emissions. Wagner has a specific way of speaking; she breaks down and ultimately responds to her desires and demands—like an eager child arguing to get what she wants without caring about established social dictations. Except: imagine what the world would be like if we listened more to what our children say. Over time, it becomes easier to mute certain voices, and it can be an even more specific talent or misfortune to ignore one’s own voice. Wagner’s speech is free, uninhibited yet aware—she does not ignore but instead breaks down our giant world into digestible figments. Miss America reads:
Shine and shine and shine and shine
where the salt is, which drawer the spoons are in
I am tired of this ugly language
I am tired of this ugly language. If anything, her fatigue with the confines of the English language repeats itself. Wagner adopts the responsibility of unleashing complex word equations, and like a thin balloon almost holding its maximum capacity for air, she pushes and pulls syntax, hoping for a record of expansion and release. Wagner’s thoughts are not easily confined to conventional words and definitions; it seems that the “job” of My New Job is both to bluntly eradicate archaic notions of the woman’s societal role, as well as to give credit where credit is due to significant facets that still hold merit: the awestruck mother, complicated lover, analytical examiner of the unfolding day.
My New Job concludes with its reflective title poem. It is an airy poem, and the reader is given direct entrance into Wagner’s world. Again, her magnetic vortex appears, if only for a short spell, cajoling you, hoping that you will find what you need, enter and remain:
Disappear into a hole
but come back out.
Go in, boys.
Go in and stay there.