In Circulation: Catherine Wagner’s My New Job

by on Sep.10, 2010

Though the stanza breaks have been elided by this blogging software, below please read one of my favorite poems in Catherine Wagner’s volume of last year, My New Job:


Your servant and oppressor, son.

I permit your blossoming

along the sticks inserted in your brain:

Socialize. Intellectualize. Capitalize.

Socialization implies original sin.

Play Ambrose-as-Iraq: I’m mighty

and I’ll direct him polite before he interferes:

“Dear other nations: your servant, USA Catherine Anne,

I”ll tidy up your house to look like mine;

you’re free now to be me.”

There’s no analogy.

Iraq’s dictator was evil. Baby’s not evil.

But Iraq’s dictator was naughty,

And the baby wants things he should not have.

There’s my analogy.

I have learned best.

I’m free, right, and point a gun.

A stupid pun can’t end this section.

A stupid cunt can. Bye!

What’s frightening about this poem is the way power flexes back and forth between the speaker and the addressed son, a doubleness wrapped up in that opening phrase “your servant and oppressor.” The poles of this power continually reverse—the game “Ambrose-as-Iraq” might be a thought problem on the part of the “speaker”—how to dominate this Other and make him profit(-able) at the same time?—or it might be a game of soldiers actually initiated by the “son”, a game in which the speaker, by playing along, is the submissive.  Which is more shocking—to overtly confess to trying to dominate and occupy a child, or to be submissive to one?

Even applying the word “speaker” seems a little off to me, since so much of this poem seems ventriloquized in some way, as if the “speaker” is trying to describe one world (the domestic) with a jargon thrust in from another, the public, with resultingly out-of-scale, out of synch, and clumsily dubbed effects. The last line of the penultimate stanza [“I’m free, right, and poing a gun”] has this feeling—it’s the most “line-y” line of the poem so far, the most “poem-y”, yet it also feels  like something from a Toby Keith song.  Yet its parallel phrasing is fetching; its sonic might makes right.

And then, just as I’m wrapped up in the interpretability of it all, I end up in the last stanza, which shoves flat the little domestic diorama of the poem, calls attention to its flatness, and at the same time ventriloquizes the belittling, dismissive attack bestowed in our culture on all weaker parties: “stupid pun,” “Stupid cunt”. Suddenly the poem’s power struggle is not so binarily contained between the son and speaker. Another voice breaks in, a voice of ambient hostility, both external and internalized. The final “Bye!” is like a slammed door; at once flippant and self-erasing (as opposed to self-effacing), the push-me-pull-you effect of that last word flattens me every time.

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