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Laura Sims reviews

the false sun recordings by James Wagner

Small Press Distribution, US$12.00, 96pp., 0970942818 paper
This piece is 2,200 words or about six printed pages long.

James Wagner’s debut collection strikes the reader instantly as a highly musical, humorous and playful chaos (albeit a carefully ordered chaos), a world in which objects such as ‘meat-house valium’ and ‘fiscal pants’ reign supreme, and where ‘adders [who] tolerate shady ladies’ are welcome (15, 13). The speaker of the poems has a self-deprecatory air with which he delivers flatly funny lines like, ‘I may not be much, but I / Am all I think about’ (6). One can easily delight in these stylistic and linguistic elements alone, but what intensifies the pleasure are the slivers of narrative and emotional resonance hidden amidst even the most alliterative, seemingly nonsensical passages. This varied blend of elements supports the inquiry Wagner conducts, via poetry, into how language relates (and does not relate) to meaning and human existence. He prefaces his entire collection, in fact, with a quote from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, ‘Can I say ‘bububu’ and mean ‘If it doesn’t rain I shall go for a walk’?,’ which sets the stage perfectly. Instead of feeding us an easy answer, Wagner grapples in plain sight with this and other questions. We, in turn, are inspired to struggle with the ambiguities ourselves, and this greatly enriches our reading experience.

Wagner’s linguistic/ sonic play demands our attention first, not only because it is immediately obvious, but also because one rarely finds successful examples of it in contemporary poetry (an alliterative overdose here, an overall flatness there). The following lines illustrate Wagner’s ability to examine, maneuver, and pay tribute to language, while delighting us with music in the process of doing so:

I am edgy among pigeons because of the pristine
Shirts swollen from forms. (9)

Lately, a
Distance of the lungs, bi-lectured, ushers a too
Crazed insistence of sun. (7)

looking for a canyon, to return the slip, the
sleep that the redbud blackened. (47)

Next year the movies will be awful
Again. The fish feel. You may be dying in or
Of grinning. (55)

In the first pair of lines, Wagner uses alliteration so deftly that the reader can notice and appreciate it without flinching from a barrage of like sounds. The soft ‘g’ sounds, followed swiftly by ‘p,’ ‘s,’ and ‘f’ sounds, perform hypnotically enough to render us indifferent to separating out ‘meaning’ as an independent value from the line; the sound alone carries within it a mysterious sense of meaning more engaging than an easily extracted ‘nugget.’ In the next three sets of lines, alliteration and slant rhyme are similarly prominent without running rampant, perhaps most notably in the stunning combination, ‘...the slip, the / sleep that the redbud blackened.’ In the final set, the lines, ‘You may be dying in or / Of grinning’ do remarkable work. Here Wagner layers several different statements into a mere handful of words, embracing various readings at once. The first statement could simply read, ‘you may be dying,’ yet he continues, ‘you may be dying in...’ We might expect a place name to follow, or an adverbial phrase (‘you may be dying in Constantinople’ or ‘you may be dying in style,’ for instance). But the line continues further, and suggests to the reader both / either of the following: ‘you may be dying in grinning,’ ‘you may be dying of grinning.’ Either choice calls up distinct images that achieve absurdity even as they startle us.

The highly textured surface of these poems does not, however, obscure the continuous emotional undercurrent. Infrequently, there are moments of pure openness rendered all the more poignant by the surrounding wordplay:

Box often coffiny. A plum tart. One does speak
Of comings and goings and the Polish bowling
Alley. She said life I guess gets worse. Horses
Or not. (12)

Or they will come down the hall. In boots and long
Abated anger. Where for the belt. Tip-tap, a bag
Of snow. She said her feelings felt too big for the
Room. (17)

The lines, ‘She said life I guess gets worse,’ and ‘She said her feelings felt too big for the / Room,’ are powerfully straightforward statements. But ‘box often coffiny,’ showy as it is, also delivers an image that should secure from its reader an emotional reaction. The first two lines of the second stanza excerpted above have the same effect; ‘they...come down the hall. In boots and long / Abated anger. Where for the belt’ (17). More convoluted, perhaps, than the ‘She said...’ statements, but still fat-trimmingly effective even in their dressed-up language. Which must lead us to question the ultimate value of both the truly bald statements and those cleverly clothed. Wagner juxtaposes them as if to say, ‘take your pick.’ Thankfully we do not have to choose; we can enjoy both versions simultaneously.

Up to this point I have focused almost exclusively on the first section of the book, in which many poems are named (in anagram form) for friends / influences who reappear in Section Three as dedicatees. The poem titled ‘Veste’ in Section One may refer to poet Steve Timm; ‘Chilema’ to Michael Burkard; ‘Eidih’ to Heidi Peppermint; ‘Palu’ to Paul Maliszewski, and so on. In a work grounded in (or ungrounded by) wordplay, Wagner builds a sense of community by using these double dedications. Furthermore, in Section Two, which consists entirely of aural ‘translations’ into English from the Spanish (Vallejo), French (Reverdy), and German (Celan), Wagner continues to build community with an unusual method of paying homage to others’ work. In ‘Auralgraph 6,’ after Paul Celan’s ‘Die Ewigkeiten,’’ we read:

The highway kite in foreign
Hymen gets sick and drew bare
In house

long song        locks brandy
all is get hurt

A Groan, nicked veneer,
O, flower dump that can
Destine eyes, then the wayside
by grubbing and wider
grubbing. (30)

When we look to the original (below), Celan’s ‘Die Ewigkeiten,’ we can relish not only the serious fun Wagner has had with this text, but also the sincere justice he has done to the sounds of the original German; we might consider this a more earnest/ honest representation of the Celan poem than a literal translation. The Celan poem reads as follows:

Die Ewigkeiten fuhren
ihm ins Gesicht und drüber

langsam löschte ein Brand
alles gekerzte,

ein Grün, nicht von hier,
umflaumte das Kinn
des Steins, den die Waisen
begruben und wieder
begruben. (Celan, 306)

In comparing these two poems, we can see that Wagner has convincingly effected both collaboration and unique creation, a feat seldom accomplished in one fell swoop. Equally impressive is the tone of Wagner’s poem, which captures the overall tone of Celan’s. This holds true for the entire section of auralgraphs. The following words are used throughout this series of Celan ‘translations’: ‘sick,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘groan,’ ‘grubbing’ (30), ‘shame,’ ‘hair,’ ‘sever,’ (31), ‘darkness’ (33), ‘hell,’ ‘insomnia’ (34). All of these are in keeping with the atmosphere, imagery, and events of Celan’s work. Wagner shows us something that a conventional translator cannot, and something that would be more difficult to demonstrate in a non-auralgraph poem: that in sound alone resides a particular author’s tone and style. Furthermore, on realizing that the literal translation of the lines, ‘begruben, und wieder / begruben’ is: ‘buried and / buried again,’ and then comparing the meaning of this translation with Wagner’s (‘grubbing, and wider / grubbing’), we may delight in how reminiscent Wagner’s sound translation is of the literal meaning of the German words (Celan, 307).

Sometimes there are lines in these ‘auralgraphs’ that do not match or echo the literal translations, but achieve meaning on their own, against many odds, as in the following: ‘You know son my keyless dock’s the shore’ (22). Lines like these are remarkable for the resonance they achieve within the formal constraints of this section. Rather than being inhibited by the difficult task of translating by sound, Wagner transgresses more boundaries; these further transgressions result in a lively, sonically wonderful group of poems that signal an evolution in his examination and manipulation of language.

Wagner concludes his collection with two sections of what may be called his most emotionally and straightforwardly narrative pieces. This is not to say they are ‘straightforward’ or ‘narrative’ in any unqualified sense of the words, but they seem more approachable than what precedes them, and appear at first to lend themselves to more conventional modes of reading. But here again, Wagner surprises his reader. In Section 4, for instance, in which each poem is titled with an anagram of ‘Lisa’ (I assume, based on the book’s dedication), the lines stretch out gracefully; there is a sense of relaxation in this excerpt from ‘Iasl’ (57):

There was a plot behind the arranging, the flowers,
the tickets purchased under the opaque lookingglass. Here he
was, mincing, and now a leftover feeling assailed him. He
meant to tell her ‘the kites,’ of ‘the kites were cruel then?’,
were not really kites. He was always reversing himself.

This is in no sense a ‘straight’ narrative, but the line construction welcomes us into settling down with this tweaked little tale. Also in pronounced contrast with the initial feel of these lines is the pervasive sense of unease (within the mind and body) the narrator expresses. In the first half of the book, this anxiety comes across more frequently in structure than in content. In Section 4, however, the narrator shows us his vulnerability most clearly in what he says, as in ‘Lias’:

Who is appealing to whom?
Who is the message disavowing? Why is she applying lipstick
in front of him? Why red? Why now? (60)

T.S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ instantly comes to mind when reading this tormented voice that declares: ‘the pool table was wrong, the players were wrong, the time / was wrong...There were wrong notions coming that way, from the / powerlines or cornfields’ (65). There is evidence of this powerful unease in the last section, too, as in ‘Stravinsky / Le Sacre du printemps’: ‘I remain uninvited to my own conversations. / Unkempt armpits attracted. / Numbness oiled me. / I noted and fell.’ (80). In this last line, what is most conspicuous is that, just before falling, the narrator ‘noted’; he noticed, recorded, i.e., he wrote. This persona is always noting, thinking, writing, and toying with language, whatever his psychic state, in whatever form his experimentation takes. A particular stanza in ‘Beck / Sea Change’ captures the narrator’s vital, yet troubled, relationship to language:

Shining letters dreaming of release
From a game of labeling nothing something.
Language being or pretending to be other
An answer to a dark wrist in a folded show. (75)

When one recalls the quote of Wittgenstein’s that prefaces this book, ‘Can I say ‘bububu’ and mean ‘If it doesn’t rain I shall go for a walk’?,’ the stanza above gains added significance, or lack of significance, or both. Wagner’s ‘shining letters’ have and have not been released from the game he describes above. Regard the absence of the expected ‘than’ between ‘other’ and ‘an’ of the last two lines: ‘Language being or pretending to be other [than] / An answer to a dark wrist in a folded show.’ The result is that, without ‘than,’ language becomes ‘an answer to a dark wrist in a folded show’ (75). What is more unexpected, though, and typical of Wagner’s anticipation of (and subsequent manipulation of) what the human mind & ear expect from language, is that this absent word echoes in the reader’s head when she reads the lines. Now, with the echo of ‘than,’ language becomes anything ‘other than / An answer to a dark wrist in a folded show’ (75). Wagner offers both of these non-answers as ‘answers,’ and leaves us with blanks, echoes, and the (illusory) freedom to read these lines as we wish. Such playful elasticity, paired with Wagner’s imagistic and linguistic exuberance, makes this debut collection brim with life.

Works consulted

Celan, Paul. Poems of Paul Celan. Translated by Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea Books, 1995.

James Wagner was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in 1969, and currently lives in Syracuse, New York. He holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Syracuse University. His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. the false sun recordings is his first book.

Photo of Laura Sims
Reviewer Laura Sims (photo, right) lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she teaches English Composition and Creative Writing at Madison Area Technical College. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals, including Columbia Poetry Review, Conduit, Fence, gam, jubilat, LIT, 3rd Bed, and 26. She has written book reviews and essays for Boston Review, Rain Taxi, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and is currently writing an essay on the work of David Markson.

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