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.”