If you’re a fan of experimentation, silliness, and fucking–and what reasonable human being isn’t?–you’ll find things to like about My New Job.
My New Job, Catherine Wagner’s third full-length offering through Fence Books, can be hit-or-miss. There may well be something in here for everyone, and few people may enjoy the book cover-to-cover. So, is this book’s glass half full or half empty? What if that’s the wrong question to ask?
Yoking together work from not one, two, or three but six chapbooks, My New Job is divided into three series and two lengthy individual poems. There’s much variety to be had, from quotidian commentary to vibrant concrete imagery. The opening section, “Exercises,” offers twenty-two poems, some only a couplet in length, written line by line between sets of physical therapy exercises. The acknowledgments section claims one line per set, which is certainly an interesting method, one that has yielded perplexing results.
This section toggles between visceral imagery and abstract conversation. Wagner instructs herself to “Raise up your back like an insect on the face of the nation,” but also asks, “How are you booge? Are you the booge?/ I’m the booge.” We never find out who the booge is, and soon after, she describes her body as “one percent” of her apartment.
My favorite of the exercises is “Exercise 41 (1/15/02 PM),” an odd little ode to celebrity intertwined with some juicy body talk: “Sizzled behind the shoulderblade/ dry & sizzled blue/ like a light on in there/ the nerves treed into my skull/ lit up & whamming.” In a later exercise, the joint is described “like a pearl in vaseline.”
Whatever injury Wagner has suffered, I’m having sympathy pains. Unfortunately, sublime moments such as this are embedded in a lot of bland daily business. The contrast makes these images even stronger, but I could do without the speaker’s lover singing, ” ‘It’s the stinkiest poo in the world/ It’s a poo/ In the world.”
Wagner’s experiments–this is a Fence book –are alienating at times. The line between indulgent and self indulgent poetry is not as thin as many would claim, not even in the avant garde. There are lines that make me feel on the outside of an inside joke. Still, Wagner’s anything-goes attitude provides readers some unexpected pleasures.
Toward the end of “Roaring Spring,” the first of the longer poems, you’ll encounter a tic-tac-toe grid, “Rehearse[d]” and introduced as “An ample death of show.” The players are distinguished between standard and italicized font. Rather than writing any silly thing into her game board, Wagner’s lines(?) follow a certain strategy: “I will start,” “I will stop you,” “I will go on,” “I will stop you,” and “I will end this” are arranged in the center and corners in a way that demands active reading, even interaction. The interactive poem is tough to capture in book form, and it’s a pleasant surprise, albeit one that comes late in the book. The same poem ends with the couplet, “I need to be fucked, but not by you/ [repeat to all compass points].”
“Fuck,” followed by all conjugations thereof, is perhaps Wagner’s favorite word. The second section, “Hole in the Ground,” tosses the f-word around like a beach ball at a Jefferson Starship concert. Everybody is fucking– the homeless, perhaps even newborns. One poem, titled “This Is A Fucking Poem,” describes birth in surreal, visceral terms that outsex even Sharon Olds. The process, or perhaps the baby, is described as “pink grimy glossed/ entablature, welted/ and tattooed. Enfolded in/ ropy ceiling-hangings…”
Soon after, Wagner presents “Song,” a middle-schoolish rhyme that wallows in the words “penis” and “vagina.” The silliness of poems such as this one undercuts the more cerebral, touching, and intriguing moments in the book. When the homeless characters start fooling around, the tension between beauty and grime rises even more:
His cock is beautiful though
his body gray dried skin and dirt
his cock is clean, and his stomach and chest
are saggy and bones, but the cock is vibrant pact
Another, or perhaps the same, homeless man is described as being covered in pennies, these being his actual worth. Moments such as these keep the reader on unsure footing. The book tumbles through poignancy, childish humor, horror, and utter absurdity. This dissonance will likely turn off many readers while stimulating others.
“The Argument,” the first poem of the “Hole In The Ground” section, begins with a series of puns and rhymes that will permeate the remainder of the section. “This book is called Hypneratomachia Fuckphila/ Fuckfila on her journey her new spelling/ reminiscent of Chick-Fil-A. Fill the/ chick and filler well of ding ding dong./ Fuckin’ A.”
Sometimes the poems are clever, sometimes merely immature, yet sometimes both, asking the reader to take the leap of faith with the tone and word choice in order to get the pleasure of the actual wordplay. See also: “DID YOU EVER SEE AN OSTRICH/ STAPLING WITH A BOSTITCH.” Well, no, I can’t say I have, but why not?
While the “Exercises” section is by its very nature self-examining, the rest of the book contains moments of profound self-consciousness that jar the reader. Individual readers will react in their own ways. Wagner refers to her own line break as “coy.” She closes a poem with the single line stanza, “What a heterosexist poem!” She closes another, “A stupid pun can’t end this section./ A stupid cunt can. Bye!” Yowza.
The title poem of the collection is also the last, long enough to warrant its own section. The poem’s interplay of caesura-driven fragmentation and muted self-reflection works well as a closing ditty, a bit of a reprise of earlier images and themes. It begins with a requisite pun,
I am Invested in
by a Huge Fund
and ends with contradictory lines (“Disappear into a hole/ …but come back out./ …Go in and stay there”) that seal the book with a final, Freudian sense of a devouring womb. As an outro, it puts the book to bed, reminding the reader of what’s come before without necessarily repeating it.
Ultimately, if you’re a fan of experimentation, silliness, and fucking–and what reasonable human being isn’t?–you’ll find things to like about My New Job. It’s hit-or-miss, but I found enough hits to keep reading.