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
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
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.