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Poet's Sampler: Catherine Wagner

When Boston Review asked me to choose an "emerging" or neglected poet for the Poet's Sampler, I decided I wanted to choose a real newcomer. Catherine Wagner's first full-length book, Miss America, is in the works as I write this. Moreover, her poems themselves strike me as somehow new, unexpected. Paradoxically, all the adjectives that come to mind to describe them (beginning with "new") are contemporary clichés. Can I say this work is edgy, risky, sensual, or (worst of all) innovative? Too often work described as "edgy" is really sententious and predictable. What's called innovative too often consists of decorous abstraction. If that's what you're expecting, I think you'll be surprised. The "voice" of these poems is startling, infectious, scary. We're used to hearing about women who write the (sensual) body but we don't expect to be "upbraided" by "the vein that feeds the tumor." Of course, when we invoke the body, we can't know how it will respond.

Wagner's poems are both colloquial and Baroque, richly associative, with the prolific instability of the biological world, the gigantic "maculate room" where consciousness is a footnote. "I was eating his side who made me" she writes in "My What To Replace My". Imagine a twenty-first century Plath who's stepped out from the shadow of Freud and Daddy. Imagine a secular Bosch of the page, funny and grotesque. The poems speak from the tumor and the womb, any "grotesque growthery." This is often "disturbing" (another of those critical buzzwords) but never moralistic, predictable or dull. Be prepared for extraordinary lateral drift. But how can you be prepared? Wagner's writing plays rough sometimes, but it plays.                                                                                                                           —Rae Armantrout


This page is sponsored by Utah State University Press and the May Swenson Poetry Award.




My What to Replace My

Stand on the concrete sit on the grass.
Whose.
In the name of God and country
give up your name.


In God and country
given up and given.


The hoard of flowers
opened in his side
burrow in
the maculate room
a quiet gigantic fucking


I was eating his side who made me


I burrowed in to invent him further
more and further in
grammatically to please him


in my pleasing dress Damn it

Bled irregularly
and late from the stem
banish it and damned if it's not on the bed


fasten inside the soft boated blood
a tiny carcass veined all round and eyed
absorption and the dissolute conception
a little self and is not what I am


What demon come to stick her eyes on you


That was my portion God was all of it
who took it me
Abandoned me, flouting in the wood
My hands are up my hands are good
and branching


sun yellows yellows yells in the gray twigs


I'm not in there
I saw it from out here
I wrote it from later
leaned on a wood thing
greedy as a punch
to make it go like mine
desk, this book who are all of you
willow burst in fur
the prairie burnt
burnt willow burst out in tiny animals
she all flowers
hussy     practice all my
hurray      to my governing my or




Who Admitted You?

My mother
I was fucked for
a coupling inside of that inside her
a split and crack and grotesque growthery
a veiny fish and limbs alarming off
and thrash her good
and split her out, a yellow wrinkling




An Hendy Hap

I saw the tyrant in the bath
his thing waved like anemone
The chesthair draggled
sprang to curl
he stood to dry himself.
Here is a perfect circle hedge of bronze
and when I stand here not afraid
in sweet consent and ritual
upbraid me through the vein that feeds the tumor
and pinch me off, the tumor hot and gorged
dried now to scab.
An eyelid like a wafer
concave and hardening.

And when I woke
and walked between the two trees to my house,
the house they'd lent me,
the door was blown open
I saw that I was single
and my marriage capillaried clasped to all
to the field and the brown world
I saw it to the tracks
a thousand stalks of canegrass downed by snow
frazzled the field in pointing yellow
pointing everywhere
some of them stood up
some of them pronged through by the next stalks
not mirth or death
it doesn't mean anything to point.





There Was a Place in the Brain, a Red Knot

                               My tiny babycrat
                               Loose in a pool and dying
                               My tiny cat
                               Is hanged up and a-dying
                               My little bracelet
                               Bangs on the page
                               My proud babycrat
                               Smut-faced in her rage
                               Go away little dogface
                               Go away little phage
                               I'm driving up to Providence
                               Investigate the gauge
                               My speed is like I pass 'em all
                               I don't pass anyone
                               Singing hard I give 'em hell
                               I sing 'em down the drain


Delver, light a match to flare the stink
and tell me why you are so bad.
Are you the scourge of God?


             The author has bad thoughts not me.


Delver, what is sexual?


             Sexual is the secret and uncontained.


Why am I happy?


             Everyone is nice to you.


Delver, I have no more questions. What is wrong?


             You aren't sick, you are rotting


ннннннннннннн             You dug in a wrinkle and found hair
             The red knot dug out with a shovel
             rooted deep

It wasn't the id it was what they wanted me to do.
The mass grave morphs into uranium I have millions!

нн  Whistle through the caverns and steeples, the school
and the bright columnar people     people gone.

I walk left and abort my future.
Turn right and pow a new world.
The past flew up my crotch and infested my brain.
I birthed a big one.
America: a prophecy.
      
             Delver: we still are.




The Divinity of Man

Roseation, spreading, yeastily beering up, the white soft legs and the golden hair.
The slits in the chest and the fur skirt. The mountain, the desert.
Sleep for a long time and a thrust of activity: log rolling, fall off a skyscraper,
phenomenologues, cigarettes, korn, seeding herpes lip to lip.
Why LSD in the seventies, why coke in the eighties,
why Ecstasy in the nineties, why Ritalin.
To bolster the wandering mind; to bolster the wandering heart;
to bolster the glamour; to glamour the wander.
The glamorous self and its story: no can do.


Originally Published in December 2001/January 2002 issue of Boston Review



Catherine Wagner's first book of poems, Miss America, was recently published by Fence Books.



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