Nervous Device by Catherine Wagner

City Lights Publishers, 2012
80 pp., Paperback

Reviewed by Nora Toomey

“Writing a poem is like reaching two prosthetic limbs out as far as you/can on either side to grab something…You can’t grab/ it but maybe you’ll take flight.”

Catherine Wagner’s fourth collection of poetry takes us to the moon. She’s been laying the groundwork for this rocket-ship since her previous collections, Miss America and Macular Hole. Using complex systems of collage, deconstructing the blurred lines between audience, poet, and poem, and pointing a sexual/political microphone to the face of our collective desires and fears, Wagner presents an invasive, self-conscious body of work.

From the onset of this collection, which actually begins with a Notes and Acknowledgements section, Wagner sets up a contract with the reader. We learn the collection is inspired by a William Blake exhibition, which was meant to defend the “bounding lines” between figures. Wagner abstractly promises to aggravate the boundaries between audience, poem, and poet, and her collection delivers.

In “Capitulation to the Total Poem,” a short collage of Alice Notley’s Culture of One and Aaron Kunin’s essay “Shakespeare’s Preservation Fantasy,” Wagner tells us the poem is actually printed on a bangle, and meant to be taken on and off while the poem is read. The leaps of faith she requests are high, but here we are jumping with her. The speaker of each poem is prophetic and blunt. “In this poem all artifice/is stripped away/but you are held underwater.” By revealing the craft, dispelling the myth of poem as fortress, the reader finds herself in an isolated landscape, one which forces her to consider the ritualistic (collective) practice of art making. “In this poem you enter a mirrored dressing room/lit so that you look more beautiful than you have ever looked./ I recognize you by surprise./In this poem you are by yourself.” But we are not by ourselves. Wagner acts as a spirit guide, shining light, casting doubt onto the most sacred of our societal rooms. Art. Politics. Currency. Sex. What it means to have a body.

                _____________ = Art.”

                “Then Art x Reality = Freedom”

                _____________ = Reality?”

Her willingness to let reality hang with a question mark is a driving current through the work. This makes more assertive, concrete lines line feel like tiny songs to herself, reminders that some things are constant or just have less variables; “Men and women are signs of life/Children are signs of life.” Moments like these act as gentle refrains through the work that are just as important as “Black silk dragged through blood brain barrier” orgasms, and “green clamp pulleywamp” post-languages.

As Wagner writes in her nearly centerpiece poem, “Spell,” “Event brought you here and event will blow you onward.” For a series of moments we are part of the spiritual, sexual and intellectual solar system of another human. We are challenged to dig up our own imperfect process, poke around, touch the overlaps.

               The sky is its border? (edge of atmosphere)
                                              The sun glances off multiparticles in
               Atmosphere and I then can’t see
               My stars. These are all the wrong ways of saying
               the poem for others to say
                             On screen.