Franz Wright
Jenn Morea
Ted Pelton
Susan M. Schultz
Amanda Nadelberg
Standard Schaefer
Matthew Cooperman
Ed Taylor
Coralie Reed
Gretchen Mattox
Mark Rudman
Ales Debeljak
Simon Perchik
Bendall on Wagner
Schroeder on Mullen
Thompson on Gibson
Minor on Tran
Rippey on Hannah

Catherine Wagner, Macular Hole. Fence Books, 2004. 64 pp. $12.

Reviewed by Molly Bendall

Initially, the way Catherine Wagner addresses the reader feels bold, as though she's hell-bent on 'fessing up or revealing the "whole story," but it's only an illusion.  That's the beauty of the poems in Macular Hole.  The book is full of overtones, secrets, and strange alchemy, rather than explanations or reflections.  It's wonderful to be lurched into Wagner's stubborn vernacular, which incorporates the bawdiness and darkness of old ballads.  The gestures of many poems seem to be made from folk relics pinned together with the tight uneasiness of a Hans Bellmer doll ("Who gave that little girl cold medicine to eat / My thighbruise made up to look pink / Nobody knew because nobody saw / Everyone walk down the street").

We're reminded that this body has been through a lot — its offerings, its use, its abuse.  Wagner signals to us in the book's title (which refers to a hole in the retina) that vision is blemished or stained, and a body's "hole," with its sexual suggestiveness, is also corrupted.  With a reference to Georges Bataille in the title poem  ("Georgie Bataille/I bought my debt today") she also acknowledges the body's economy and the "expressive value of an excremental orifice…" That may be confrontational, daring, obscene, but in Wagner's case it's also playful, hip, and crucial.

Wagner's musical poems rely often on nursery-rhyme rhythms and refrains. With their gutter humor and comic images they become part dare, part self-satisfied smirk, and part despair.  For a poet like Theodore Roethke, these rhythms provided a hearing aid to his past — his repressed feelings toward his father, his childhood and adolescent development. But for Wagner, the music consoles — cajoles — , yielding a kind of clarity, even as its images are harsh ("My little bracelet / Bangs on the page / My proud babycrat / Smut-faced in its rage"). The heavily stressed, earth-laden sounds are vital in wrestling with psychological struggles and bodily ones.  Her amazing and scandalous renderings of childbirth and motherhood are unique in contemporary poetry.  And even though this poet is nervous about enchantment and reflection and prefers to whisk away any hint of narrative, this particular subject matter with its taboo flavoring is utterly intriguing:  "The baby has a head of glass and I will let it be. A pencil end/Stabbed him from between the sofa cushions and he bled. / He was blown and glowed with milk. The milk made him alive. / I walked down to the river and returned and found him still alive."

The associative quality of the images have the feel of being spontaneous, as though one thought or sound triggered another in a whimsical way; however, she's concerned with the serious business of reaching further, probing intensely to capture the origins of a body, a psyche, and a lyric stance.  Since her first book,  Miss America, she's added more dimension to her prickly, defiant, up-to-the-minute voice.   It's a pleasure to enter into the world/laboratory of this original poet.

Molly Bendall is the author of three collections of poems, most recently Ariadne's Island from Miami University Press. She teaches at the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University.



(c) 2005 Slope. Slope is ISSN # 1536-0164.