Articles - May 2013

Girl head mostly eyes (PoemTalk #67)

Catherine Wagner, 'This Is a Fucking Poem'


Rae Armantrout, Laura Elrick, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis joined PoemTalk’s producer and host Al Filreis to talk about Catherine Wagner’s “This Is a Fucking Poem.” The text of the poem is most readily available in Wagner’s book My New Job (Fence Books, 2011). It was previously collected in a chapbook, Hole in the Ground, published by Slack Buddha Press of Oxford, Ohio, in 2008 (5 1/2" x 8 1/2", 28 pages). The Hole in the Ground poems form a sequence, even beginning with a poem setting out “The Argument.” On their site, the Slack Buddha folks say mildly (but, to be sure, accurately) that these poems “explore [...] the mores of interpersonal relationships.” The PoemTalkers say much the same thing of “This Is a Fucking Poem” in particular, but perhaps, in the spirit of our poem, more bluntly. The fucking poem, which includes child sexualization through insectization and (self-) cannibalism or body mortification and brutal socialization (“Send her to school // ... her eyes will retract inside // ... nobody will hurtcha”), asks us right away not to “expect too much” and then nevertheless “go[es] into the / fucking human tunnel” headlong.

Wagner here is writing “under the sign of Armantrout,” as Rachel points out. To the clear influence of the writings of one of our own PoemTalkers (Rae herself humbly did not bring it up; we others did), we also add these styles (“allusional zones”) to the always striking Wagernian mix: Emily Dickinson; Sylvia Plath; Franz Kafka (“I woke up and I was turned into a little girl-bug” — per Rachel); Perrault’s/Grimms’ fairy tale of stalking-become-mastication, “Little Red Riding Hood”/“Little Red-Cap”; and Olga Broumas’s key feminist poem “Little Red Riding Hood.” To quote from the famous Broumas poem:

No child, no daughter between my bones
has moved, and passed
out screaming, dressed in her mantle of blood

as I did
once through your pelvic scaffold, stretching it
like a wishbone

Now Wagner:

            … go into the
fucking human tunnel
I'm going …

shudder out the little-girl
legs with a little
girl head mostly eyes …

Stroke her riding hood
Settle down, little

nobody will hurtcha

by breaking off your little legs,
six little legs,
if you come.

The poem raises haunting questions. Is there always a threat of being eaten by someone in disguise as a loved one? And — frightfully — can that threat be transposed onto or even into oneself? What does all this have to do with child-getting, child rearing, and birthing? (With Rebecca Wolff, Catherine Wagner is editor of Not for Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child Rearing [2007].)

The recording of Wagner performing “This Is a Fucking Poem” comes from the reading she gave at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 26, 2011. She also read several other poems from the Hole in the Ground series. These and many more recordings are available at PennSound’s Catherine Wagner page. PoemTalk this time was directed and engineered by Steve McLaughlin, and edited — as always — by the same super-talented Steve McLaughlin. Next time on PoemTalk: Charles Bernstein (coming back to Philadelphia from New York), Aaron Shurin (visiting from the Bay Area), and John Tranter (with us all the way from Australia) join Al to discuss a poem by Ray DiPalma, “It makes of nonsense.”

Deep heart's core sound (PoemTalk #66)

W. B. Yeats, 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'

William Butler Yeats in 1932


Taije Silverman, Max McKenna, and John Timpane joined Al Filreis to discuss William Butler Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” [text], surely his most famous early poem (written in 1888; published in 1890) and a staple of his poetry readings into the 1930s. Yeats’s father had read Walden aloud to him; Thoreau’s pastoral simplification had been alluring for him as a teen, when he fantasized living on an uninhabited island in Lough Gill (near Sligo) — Innisfree. In the poem, the speaker, now longing for an orginary Ireland “while I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey” of the city (presumably London), expresses his desire to build a small cabin on the isle and, like Thoreau, to plant rows of beans and “have some peace there.” The romantic torque generated by such Irish/English splitting produces at the same time a brilliant but makeshift, extra-cultural — one might almost say, dramatically dislocated — prosody.  The striking sound made by this poem is a topic that draws special attention from our three talkers.

PennSound’s Yeats page includes three recordings of Yeats performing this poem: the first recorded sometime in 1937; the second recorded on October 28, 1936; the third sometime in 1932. At another 1932 — on October 4 — he took two minutes to introduce the poem. Here is a transcription of his commentary on our poem: “I am going to begin with a poem of mine called ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ because if you know anything about me you will expect me to begin with it. It is the only poem of mine which is very widely known. When I was a young lad in the town of Sligo I read Thoreau’s essays and wanted to live in a hut on an island in Lough Gill called Innisfree, which means ‘Heather Island.’ I wrote the poem in London when I was about twenty-three. One day in The Strand I heard a little tinkle of water and saw in a shop window a little jet of water balancing a ball on the top. It was an advertisement, I think, for [of?] cooling drinks. But it set me thinking of Sligo and lake water. I think there is only one obscurity in the poem. I speak of noon as a ’purple glow.’ I must have meant by that the reflection of heather in the water.”

This 66th episode of PoemTalk was directed and engineered by Rebekah Caton and Christopher Martin, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin. Above, from left to right: Taije Silverman, Al Filreis, John Timpane, Max McKenna.