In the introductory notes to Catherine Wagner’s fourth full-length book of poetry Nervous Device (City Lights Books, 2012), the author writes:
When Jem Sportsman interviewed me about audience and what is the bounding line, at some point I discussed my tilted cervix…then I stuck out my fist and had him put her figure inside it which freaked him out though not as much as if I’d offer her my vagina to put his finger in…I wanted to imply to the audience that we was putting his finger in my vagina and touching my cervix
The notion that the audience is “putting [their] finger in [her] vagina” while reading Nervous Device signals one of Wagner’s primary thematic concerns in the collection: the complex relationship between poetry, sex, desire, and the body.
In the first iteration of the poem “Rain Cog,” from which the title of the collection is taken, Wagner writes:
Think cold and genialSomeone whose symbolicPresence makes theLiquid flush from pores inMy vaginal skin. There.And it works reversely—Sure, seek source.A nervous device, a communicatorThe juice waits stupidlyNot shiny, because my pants are on.The juice in shadow. (9)
At the most basic level, the poem explores sexual fantasies and their ability to affect the body. To this extent, a “symbolic” (or imagined) someone induces a “Liquid flush from [the] pores” of the speaker’s “vaginal skin.” This “Rain Cog,” then, is a liquid “communicator” of desire; but while the speaker’s mind produces the “symbolic / Presence” of the imagined someone, the “juice waits stupidly.” In other words, the “juice” or “Liquid flush” communicates sexual desire in a non-intellectual manner (i.e. stupid). It is corporeal and primal. It is affective and intuitive. It is poetry of sensation.
The book, though, does not cast the stupid and fluid communication of this “nervous device” in a negative light. In fact, affective communication appears to be the goal. In the third iteration of “Rain Cog,” the speaker asks and answers a question integral to the audience’s understanding of these poems:
I emerged from postlanguageWhat’d I say?Green clamp pulleywampDallying open the silversoundThat is the body’s eon-noise ecology (27)
Emerging from (or looking to escape) the confines of “postlanguage” poetry, the speaker embraces the “body’s eon-noise,” or a sound (not language) emanating from the corporeal self: a song composed by and in service of the physical/sexual realm as it sings its “Green clamp pulleywamp / Dallying open the silversound” song outside of meaning. To state this claim a bit differently, Wagner writes in the poem “Pressed Go” that the “body’s eon-noise” articulates the “choice between action and understanding” (2). And it would appear that, for this book, the choice is simple: all action all the time.
But just because Nervous Device abjures meaning for the sake of sensation, does not mean the poems therein are inscrutable. In fact, the speaker of “Unclag” states:
I would like 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. Which is not the same as clear (10)
In an effort to compose an affective poem of/from the body that excites (while simultaneously avoiding the bore that is explanation), the speaker argues for a “well-lit” but unclear text: something both finely wrought and visceral, yet not bogged down with cerebral intellectualism that so often shackles the feeling of a poem to a disembodied mind.
What happens, though, when one discounts or fails to access the body and its sensations? The second iteration of “Rain Cog” answers this question in the form of a cautionary tale:
One who could not smell came up to the other’s apartment (threw pebbles at the window) after the other had masturbated. The other not having washed her hands brought on a beer. One was intimate with the other’s smell and wanted to be intimate with the other and was and did not know it. That old factory. (25)
The “one” character desires and wants “to be intimate with the other” character. But due to one’s lack of smell (i.e. one’s failed olfactory (i.e. “old factory”) sense), one does not smell the juice of the other’s nervous device and the sexual desire it attempts to communicate. Thus, one does not take action. Yes, if one wants that “swanky love” (16), one must voice the body’s eon-noise bound up in the “not-word” (57) and feel.