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Intrepid Poetry

Catherine Wagner's Macular Hole


As far as most optometrists are concerned, a macular hole is a hole in the retina. The poems in Catherine Wagner's second collection, Macular Hole, are concerned with all types and sites of messy, disorderly transactions. These occur between an individual self, its seeing apparatus, the layers outside the body, such as "house ‡ town ‡ world," and the inside of the body, "Skin ‡ womb ‡ amniotic sac." Appendages and the home décor are part of this: "I broke my arm and the window/ integrally to exchange." God (of indeterminate reference) and sex along with the writer's plight become involved: "Please god love me and buy me/ Read this hillock and ride me/ Wraith typing all day for money." Even the newborn child is viewed under this atmosphere of exchange: "I desired a market for me/ In my bought boy ... I bought him again without/ Trying. At my breast/ He sold himself/ To me as my/ Needer. My valuable purse ... "

As Boise-based writer Wagner explained, these exchanges were impossible for her to avoid. "I was always trying to write a poem or think through something that would not fit into the system of exchange and I never could ... it would always get swallowed back up into it."

With voracious energy she examines social interactions, the experience of childbirth, child rearing, grooming habits, and the divine through the lens of economy, exposing the self-interest, violence and occasionally, tranquil altruism at the bases of such things. Such things may also include one's own bathroom, "A bathroom clean before a party/glare like it's never used/ They will think I wipe/ They will think I'm nice." The subject matter can leap from the quotidian to the ultimate in a line, but it's never distracting and Wagner's human, vernacular voice carries us through.

As with her first book, Miss America, the syntax can be elliptically playful, "Debt off my God today/ God off my debt in a macular hole," the language conversational and funny, "Look away, dickie man," whimsically onomatopoetic, "bouncy pedestal bingbong/ my ring rang on," and then--bam--startlingly direct, "I hate you coming over my life like a bag." Macular Hole is full of verse that is at least as daring as the last, and the associative leaps seem like natural extensions of an unflinching mind. Wagner's poems are intrepid, multifarious devices that can hesitantly unfurl and whip open, blade-like.

Wagner's not afraid to gamble with lines as weird as "The past flew up my crotch and infested my brain/ I birthed a big one," and poems as swift and jolting as "Kill so we can feel safe and comfortable." Some of the poems were even strange enough to give the poet pause. "They're the sort of poems that I'll write and go 'Who's that sicko?'" A section of poems near the middle of the book are written in a less assured, more naive voice and employ forms and sounds that resemble nursery rhymes. One of these is "San Francisco Ballad"-- according to Wagner a "totally sicko poem," and a sort of call and response song with a disquieting refrain made even darker by its formal air of innocence. "Scary Ballad" and "Song" are also similarly creepy in their childlike macabre. Not that the book is completely suffused with hatred and doom, but the claustrophobia of being enveloped by one's duties and rude impositions from outside does frequently permeate the poems.

Perhaps Wagner's impossible desire of "Wanting something to be, to exist in excess of the transaction," is fulfilled in the reading of Macular Hole. It is likely that the fears, anxieties, interactions and joys brought on by the wild considerations of exchange in these poems will evoke a personal, inexpressible response in the reader and bump them outside of exchange, if only for a little while.

Macular Hole is available at and will soon be available at local independent bookstores.