Wednesday, April 09, 2003
James Wagner is a practitioner of compactness. The poems contained in The False Sun Recordings, a forthcoming book that will be published by 3rd Bed – a publishing venture that evolved out of the little magazine that Wagner co-founded* – are for the most part short, generally 14 lines or fewer, but they’re all exceptionally dense, as, for example, this first stanza from “Dolphy / At the Five Spot, Vol. 1”:
Lunafish, drugged on the alcove, flickers in a dim
limitation, like an eye obscured by bone. So, toxin,
encrusted, ambivalent, fallow. On a loan spoken for
got. Ten rides on the chigetai, no one broke in
the talc room. Let’s admonish small minerals,
pinch and crimp, loiter with whip and a tune.
The Eric Dolphy reference in the title is apt, if only because Clark Coolidge, the originator of this word-by-word mode of literary abstraction, is himself an accomplished drummer very much inspired by the syncopation & strategies of post-bebop jazz. Yet Wagner’s poetry is a far cry from Coolidge’s – it’s more worked, more determined by possibilities of image than sound, though with an ear that is genuinely gifted.
There are, in 2003, any number of poets who work with referential abstraction. Wagner seems quite unlike writers who generate texts sometimes in great quantity through such strategies, like Sheila E. Murphy or Peter Ganick. The poet who, in fact, Wagner most reminds me of is Tan Lin. Like Lin, he seems almost the polar opposite of a Coolidge, who used such practices as a mechanism for taking poetry somewhere it never previously had been. Wagner (again like Lin) appears far more concerned with the crafting of terrific literary objects using roughly the same set of devices, which are known rather than new. The result is an ornamentalism rather distant from the improvisatory flourishes of Coolidge.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but rather a distinction between the projects of writers from very different generations who operate with superficially similar palettes. Coolidge is & always has been about the discovery of color, for example, whereas Wagner focuses on its application. There are an exceptional number of solid pieces in The False Sun Recordings, lots of crunchy delights for eye, ear & mind. It may, in places, be more lush or more tightly torqued than anything you’ve read before – but it’s not new.
* Wagner departed during 3rd Bed’s little magazine phase, before it started doing books.