“Emerson, calling for a true American poet, said that language is a fossil record of poetry: every word was once a poem. If poetry is, therefore, some kind of life-animal, then Catherine Wagner’s Miss America is a glorious beast. Her first book is cocksure and wailing, stinky, rude, and actually happening. Miss America is not self-thrilled by its (her?) own intentions and inventions, but running fast ahead of them. We have here the strangely visceral truths that fall from children’s mistranslations, something undeniable slipped from the angry, drunk, or otherwise possessed. Wagner warns us of herself (and her propensity to invent words) right from the start. The opening poem of the book begins: ‘nigh said I made that up to / get some sweeteye from you all / some glance at me even if my / story is boring and a lie / . . . and who fuckin cares they don’t / want me to be likem and borem / everybody dead. / Since I been here SCARED / and my natural EBULLISHNESS / held back by a warning finger. / Mo lady! Poop it out!’
Anyone who thinks this is babytalk should remember how we react when encountering a talking baby: fascinated and mesmerized. The further these nascent communications seem to be from ‘language,’ the closer they feel to an emotional core. Wagner’s tongues, however, are never an escape from meaning. As she tell us in ‘Poem for Poets & Writers,’ ‘I like understanding so much I want it to happen over and over.’ Wagner is not just playing with the readymade materials of poetry, she is working from inner fiat: ‘Not here with joy but under pressure / from my superego’ (‘A Poem for Art in America,’ one of her ‘Magazine Poems’).
On the contrary, this book does include joy (much of it, um, very natural). ‘I Am Darling You’ begins ‘let me king around / you king all over, mighty’ and continues, building gut-felt affection with mere words: ‘slavish all over me, please. // Darned mighty, sleeping, / oyster eyes. // Feel little. Little my head to sleep. // I suffer you, you basic.’ The final line of this poem, if read alone, would remain the merely prosaic: ‘He made enough for me to take to lunch.’ But the pressurized accumulations of off-phrased adoration force something miraculous into this final sentence. By the time the reader reaches the last line, each of its words tremor with the bursting love that speaks it. We suddenly experience the no-difference between correct and incorrect when human feeling overwhelms language.
Wagner’s yawps run from the clever/cultural (‘If you are Gwyneth / You are never toenails on my rug / Abounding’) to the crisis/existential. But, as we see in ‘Café Rouge,’ even the cerebrum’s old complaints about its fetid meat-vehicle are freshly horrifying to Wagner’s mind:
Shoulderblades frayed the cloth I’m made of
Sewn up my neck round speaking hole
and ragged with snot
pale salmon concealer sodden
I pick and pick the seam all day
does I really think anything covers me up
this my swan is it
Wagner dives more into the skin than the conscious mind to find her way. These poems are raw, pre-lapsarian in their instinctual connections (not to mention their naked and naughty refusal of sin); they feel more than our language usually allows us.”