In preparation for a reading in Racine next month featuring Catherine Wagner, Travis Nichols and Anthony Madrid, I’ve spent the last 5 days with Catherine Wagner’s latest book, “My New Job” (a title I’m really fond of). It has a lot of distinctive, idiosyncratic qualities to it that I really enjoyed getting to read. As this wonderful video illustrates (and the person who posted it has almost 300 poetry reading videos on YouTube…thanks, guy), Catherine has a pretty great sense of both music and humor. While the book heightens a reader’s conscious throughout to serious, species-wide tragedies, Wagner refuses to take herself too seriously, never assuming the easy role of a moral authority or any other such stereotype. One of the book’s biggest influences and references seems to be Wagner’s son, Ambrose (whose work “Eek eek and eek” can be found here), and it feels this like this influence may be responsible for the book’s exacted balance of profundity and absurdity (in the same way that being an intellectual and a mother requires a tricky balance of the two).
What I find most remarkable about the book is that it seems to illustrate a very particular cultural moment or experience really clearly; being an Anglo, middleclass, American, heterosexual woman in the 21st century; an AMAHW in deuce-uno, if you will. While the book teeters between opacity and such a personal directness that it’s risky, Wagner still never comes out and explicitly claims, “yeah, this book is about being an AMAHW in the deuce-uno.” But, what at first seem like casual asides (she finishes one piece, for instance, with the line “What a heterosexist poem!” which half sounds like disapproval and half sounds like Whitmanic celebration), start to add up through the book. These moments never lose their comic value, but it definitely becomes a tragic humor and a self-aware humor–a humor that questions itself. As a reader, I found myself confronted with my own laughter at the most fucked parts. And I use that word very deliberately, because large sections of the book are devoted to analyses (huh huh…yses) of fucking in all its many connotations (see this interview with Wagner in BOMB for more).
Wagner’s consideration of the AMAHW in the deuce-uno is so significant to me because it’s a role in which the individual experiences a unique tension of privilege and oppression or, maybe more accurately, being the oppressed and the oppressor simultaneously. In the title poem, which is also the last poem in the book, she asks,
“How can I from inside this comfort
Represent Hope to
I am Too tempted
To think I Deserve it
Rigidly and with effort
know my privilege”
[the formatting is slightly different in the book]
These thematic sentiments take on a greater urgency as the book builds more and more momentum, especially, I think because her son seems such a central character to it, and the issue of how not to pass one’s fuckedness (comfort in the role of oppressor) demands urgent attention. It’s a book super-relevant to our culture at this moment and I think its very existence bodes well for the future.
Come to the Reading, you silly geese! (see this link for more info)
(more info on the reading…not on silly geese).