On My New Job by Catherine Wagner (Fence Books, 2009)
Catherine Wagner's My New Job is as body-conscious as an American Apparel garment: it is a relentless, playful, uncomfortable look at the shape of the beast. The book hosts a great deal of variety because it comprises elements from six chapbooks, and it is amusing, experimental, cringe-worthy and aggressive at once.
The first section, Exercises, meets the body in pain. That said, though, it is by no means a played-out, emotionally tiring “illness narrative” (after Miss America and Macular Hole, no-one would expect pathos). Rather, the Exercises are about an obligation to an exhausting body that you both want and do not want to challenge:
“I politely rise to meet
“I politely rise to meet
As I get sorer in the belly
I hate the knee
am however diligent and strict” (Exercise 28)
The poems here aren't numbered in order, so when I refer to the order, I mean the order in which they appear. In the first Exercises, the harder the physical act, the more distracted the narrator is, and the scarier the feeling that follows it. The more observation of the outside world there is during the exercise, the greater the panic reaction that follows. In Exercise 31, the narrator spends the poem (tidy, in visual stanzas) looking around. The looking outward is punctuated with minor motions of the body (lifting the hips, moving the head), until the end when the narrator quite literally projects herself with force into the room, both as image and act of violence:
“Facing the room I could walk in there
the girl thrown from the lamp” (Exercise 31)
By the end of the Exercises section, with all its fight and flight, panic and re-panic, the body is distinctly and disturbingly alive: “Breathed & ovulated, breathed & blood fanned out / Tough new cord so I get stronger” (Exercise 42).
Exercises is also an obligation to poetics. According to the notes, each line of each poem (and if the numbers are trustworthy, there are at least 45 poems) was composed between sets of physical therapy. The writer's frustration sublimates in darkly comic bubbles (“Why don't you work? Is it because you are lazy or do you / think you can't?” Exercise 33) but it's pervasive, especially in the fact that the setting seems to never change; the imagery of this section is almost exclusively window, light, television, computer, the boundaries of the bedroom. “My heart vibrates the ceiling” she writes in Exercise 42. The room is, by the end of the section, an indifferent antagonist.
There is a lot of fucking in My New Job. It takes many forms – silly, scary, tawdry, inefficient – with the sexy conspicuously missing. There is the idea of the body stripped of other symbolism, as in the poem “Among the Orders” where an irritating narrator sees two homeless people fucking. There is sex as a measure of the body's worth, like in “For the Boys,” where Wagner writes “Now there was / in a transparent skybox / someone watching my body and giving it / a score”. Body parts become punchlines, like in “Song” which rhymes penis and vagina repeatedly. But the punchline is the point of the joke, and so the body stubbornly asserts its importance: it's brightly lit, albeit unflatteringly (as when the narrator sits on a copy machine to make a facsimile of her ass in “Coming But I Did Not Run Away”). I found myself drawn most to two simple lines in “For The Boys”: “the problem lies / with you.” Something about this word “lies” and its threefold meaning is extremely effective – “lies” as a locating verb, as an untruth, and as a sex act. These last two interpretation are my favorites: the problem is the body and the body is both traitor and accomplice. But it is not a person's entire measure of character.
Each of the sections has its strangeness, vulgarity and charm: the rapid-fire sections of “Roaring Spring,” the mondegreens and outlandishness of “A Hole in the Ground.” As a body of work, My New Job gives a lot to a reader, but it is harder to read as a single unit. On my readings, I repeatedly the book down and picked it back up, usually at the end of each section. But what makes a book cohesive? The presence of a cover and a title? When I asked my non-poet boyfriend what he thought of the muted-orange, plain-font cover that Fence Books gave My New Job, he answered that it looked like an instructional manual. If this is the interpretation we go with, then the book is one of the most coherent I have ever encountered: each section is equipped with its own set of parameters, its own pace and vocabulary, and a reader can quickly internalize these elements because Wagner pulls them off so stylishly. The sections teach themselves to the reader, and though the teaching methods are wildly varied, they each fortify.