Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as “the best words in their best order,” which I have long misremembered as “the right words in the right order,” one of those double-positives that seems to fall apart upon examination. I’ve never been sure in what way “the wrong place at the wrong time” is worse than the right place at the wrong time. Similarly, mightn’t the wrong words in the wrong order somehow – being doubly wrong – create the right poem?
In any case, Catherine Wagner’s poetry is defined by its wrong words, seemingly in the right order – which is to say, she so often manages to pick the best wrong word, as in “Unclang” from Nervous Device, recently out from City Lights Books:
I coulda moved to ______ moved to __________. My more glamor-
ous avatar did, she willy did, but when she was there, lookout, she
looked in her pocketbook at the mirror
in the snapshut clamshell, the mirror was distwatted
curved along the shell wall. A weirdo pronunciation from New Ywok,
distwatted. That’s just dis toy bin and it’s more exciting than the
Art, they say, is not supposed to be comfortable, but it’s easy to make people merely uncomfortable. In the past I have sometimes found Wagner’s poetry uncomfortably uncomfortable, slippery and full of crotches like booby traps to catch prudish readers and laugh at them. But in Nervous Device, Wagner has transcended the simply wrong to reach a kind of sublime wrong, so every wince is accompanied by a shiver of pleasure. For example: Read out loud, the “willy” in “she willy did” is just “really” in baby-voice, cutesy-cutesy. But in print it’s polysemous – it’s half of “willy-nilly,” it’s a little boy’s nickname for his penis, it’s an adverb: done with will, via force of will (and so done really).
Then there’s “distwatted.” We’ve already been put in mind of vaginas – in the book’s introduction, Wagner describes illustrating her tilted cervix to an interviewer by holding up her fist for he/she to stick a finger/figure into. (You’d think at least the foreword would be clear and correct, but these notes do not make sense – or they make the kind of sense that a poem makes; they are “coherent enough.”) And that “snapshut clamshell” is this poem’s second (after willy) set of sex-parts. So this mispronounced, misspelled, distorted “distorted” sneaks a “twat” into the poem while simultaneously taking it out – the poem is dis-twatted, mutilated, female-circumcised. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s dis toy bin.
Scientists classify tickling as a kind of pain, and Wagner’s intentional mistakes are pleasurable in the way tickling is pleasurable (hurts so good). See “How can I knock be clear about my intentions?” and “I / j’adore your piggy light.” I particularly j’adore this second “mistake,” the double “I” which is crucial in order to Frenchify the word for “love,” which otherwise is boring English. I’m reminded of an old friend who had a real gift for typos, for evocative errors like “seamingly” and “unphased” which I would steal and put in my poems.
Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) said “Verbing weirds language.” Wagner writes, “explaining / is a bore, and flattens lang.” What you get in Nervous Device is bumpy (“ridgy whatfor”), weirded language that means without explaining, because “a real poem” is “well-lit. Which is not the same as clear.”