Cathy Wagner's 'Nervous Device'

From commodity fetish to form

Nervous Device

Nervous Device

Cathy Wagner

City Lights 2012, 80 pages, $13.95, ISBN 0872865657

Poetry’s capital is cultural: this “state of being / text,” for the polyvocal speaker of Cathy Wagner’s fourth full-length collection, Nervous Device, is the state of being “cave-droppings” whose center is a “stone-hole soup.” The valuelessness (as evacuated site, or shit) of poetic “unmoney,” however, is for the speaker no less valuable than economic capital (also symbolic), which, like language, conditions value: “The unmoney is structured like a / Money is structured like a language. / Give that thought some currency” (55).

Giorgio Agamben’s theory of language as the prototypical state of exception in which the sovereign (metalanguage) determines the boundaries for territories of mind makes poetic language’s exilic state under capitalism heavily ironic, when considering language as a foundational matrix of “inclusive exclusion” by which things accrue value by virtue of belonging and being named.

Labor (the third component of production along with land and capital), while referenced in classical political economics from Adam Smith to Marx, has been neutralized as well as concealed (reduced to quantitative variables of work and time), which is to say, abstracted: the logic of capital reducing labor to labor power and time (a commodity reduced to the effects of value produced, stripped of its concrete, qualitative specificity and historical reality). Modernist arguments for aesthetic autonomy, followed by leftist platforms (labor politics, civil rights) of the ’60s and ’70s, have been supplanted by those of neoliberal aesthetics and marketization, what the wry speaker of Nervous Device refers to as “The Autonomy of Art Has Its Origins in the Concealment of Labor,” a one-line poem in which the abstraction of labor is shown to be the genesis of poïesis (aesthetics, and the construction of self): “My heart beat very hard by itself” (32).

The speaker of “A Well Is a Mine: A Good Belongs to Me” (couplets of quotations that can be read as isolated fragments or microconversations) articulates the fear of essentializing difference within these structures (“Anybody here who’s de facto ‘black’?”), and speaking from outside of one’s nonidentical subject position: “I’m afraid to speak for anybody in a different identity category.”

The addressee of this poem, and others, is, in the funhouse mirror of globalization, the speaker, the faceless profit-monger of the 1 percent, and the other friends and foes in the room, in turns:

“Who is responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf?”


“And how many slaves will you need to maintain your standard of
        living sans oil?”


“Can’t come to your birthday party, it’s my slave week.”

“Need categories of us.”
“A use for identity politics.”

“A use for identity. They also serve who only stand and wait.”
“Heidegger called them ‘standing reserve.’”

The splintering of this poem into citations substitutes authorial stance, however problematically, for polyvocality: these iterable speech acts without signature suggest that wage labor is bonded labor, exchanged in the marketplace along with the soft goods of subjectivity and sentience and (re)packaged for consumption as “identity” and “categories of us”:

“If some of us are to be slaves, it’s a good thing there’s this income
“It does make it easier.”

“A feudal system, stabilized —”
“By international trade.” (3–6)

The “I” of Nervous Device is internally divided: “I built this tone / ironically; that is, / it goes against itself.” This alienation of any “natural” unities (vocal, identitarian) under capitalism makes poetry an act of ventriloquism. From “Unclang”: “reaching two prosthetic limbs out as far as you / can on either side to grab something in front of you. You can’t grab / it but maybe you’ll take flight” (10–11).

The split between the “glamorous avatar” of exteriorized body-consciousness and the speaker’s own body is, in “Innocent Money,” posited as necessary equipage for a neoliberal subject (doubly so for a woman under capitalism, already alienated by exclusion from a linguistic or market category other than “not-male” or as an object of consumption and exchange). With hilarity, the poet appoints herself divider of her own personhood, and as distinct from a male subject, in the direct trade interaction between capitalist-entrepreneurs (and, as Nervous Device argues, exploitative wage labor between those market subjects without a product to sell other than human capital, unskilled labor, or, in countries controlled by the IMF, natural resources). “I must maintain / our separation, boys / so that you will continue to invest” — albeit founded on the commodified body’s dead, yet penetrable, form: “She is / I am handling / my carcass / with strings”; “I enter my carcass / to embrace you” (12–13). 

In this poetic performance, Wagner shows the body to be not only metonymic of capital (a physical object possessed by self or other), but of the miasmas of self, character, voice, and “presence”: of, in short, art. If, however, owned (bought back, or repossessed), this very capital becomes the foundation of (literal) self- and body-possession, and by extension, time (the subject becomes not just a representative “I” but subject experiencing interiority through self-reflexivity: a sense of “herself”).

The creation myth of a fungible, late-capitalist subject (a bonafide “nervous device”), this collection’s central question is how poetic statement can remain nondiscursive “play” (“How can I knock be clear about my intentions”) after the incident of “Meaning / brutally dragged in.” Intentionality, here, is represented by the speaker’s choice “never to be obscure”: “I understand why I was: explaining / is a bore, and flattens lang, so, it takes experience to write a real poem / that is well-lit” (10, 66).

The transformation from commodified language and alienated subjectivities, produced by the corporate state or culture industry, to human capital, restored to the agency of the poet-producer, frees the speaker to “mean” nonsense (or resist fetishizing a totalized meaning): “I emerged from postlanguage // What’d I say? // Green clamp pulleywamp” (27). It also marks a shift from exclusively aesthetic to ethical claims: “refrain from all damn harm” (39).

The enactment of perception creates a schism between subject and object: “I split the sun into parts when I look”; “I was differentiating the page / From itself by writing” (72–73). This is the event of language, occurring after the sensory-somatic learning of a language (oral muscular activity), when language is meta-phored (symbolized) and begins to circulate as social currency.

Moving from “normative anomaly” (“The dummkopf vice / Gets me stuck on things, bad habit”) to innovation beyond the recombinatory guises of the lyric (as “prosody whore”) entails accepting that the goods poetry offers (perspective, position) are as solvent as what the speaker can offer the poem (form), necessitating — for actuality’s sake — union: :Voracious view, / climb tree from inside speedway, // willow, meet my will” (41, 50, 72). Nervous Device constructs sites in which the other, without prostheses, may appear (“I recognize you with surprise. / In this poem you are by yourself”) within the emergent field of (who knew!) verticality and color: “Blue probable/ should I look up” (70).

But before sentience, the bloodletting of the real: “Let miserere deep. / Be mine for air” (42).