How does one survive in the current climate, political and ecological? “Live in the world and hurt / the living lining, that’s how,” Catherine Wagner proposes in her recent book Of Course. Wagner stages interrogations of the self both playful and violent to reimagine nature writing and to inspire a sly revolution in the pastoral mode. From inside the dysfunctional machinery of man-made hierarchies, Wagner invokes the pastoral to collapse the seeming divides that define modern life—leisure and work, the natural world and the urban cityscape. These conflations ultimately reforge the lyric speaker, her language, and the landscape of the lyric poem, exposing the violence that has underwritten the pastoral all this time and coopting its form as a vital means of protest.
Since its inception, the pastoral has always been an imagined ideal: a fictive place, a place always elsewhere. Recent work by American poet-critics has revised and updated the pastoral’s plight, plotting the overlap of reality and fantasy to reveal both as constructions. Highlighting this development in the discourse, G. C. Waldrep and Joshua Corey’s The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (2012), a collection of innovative poets writing in and through the pastoral mode, posits that in our age of digital spaces, the pastoral endures as one of the oldest simulacra. Corey argues in his foreword that the poetry of the pastoral can serve, paradoxically, to put us in touch with reality; harnessing the pastoral’s generative space for the digital age renews and reimagines the old impetus of “getting back to nature.” Joyelle McSweeney’s 2011 chapbook The Necropastoral and its 2014 critical counterpart, The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, also understand the pastoral as a simulation, arguing that its imitation belies its real power: as the grotesque body-double of the city, a fantasy place outside and adjacent to the urban, it is not only subject to cross-contamination but also inextricably linked to the notions of industrialization and development that undergird the city.
Of Course extends McSweeney’s notion of a polluted pastoral to craft an unapologetically urban Arcadia, collapsing the artificial wall between here and there upon which the notion of retreat is predicated. Wagner offers a world wherein everything is Nature—cars belching exhaust on the highway, imaginary female mushroom cities reproducing asexually, the speaker rehearsing desire through stock fantasies, “disco frogs” in the pond—and everything is implicated for its role in the disorder. Wagner’s collection does not so much ask What is Nature? (everything) as question Who’s left out? and Why does poetry uphold these restrictions?
In a book comprising mostly shorter lyric poems, “Of Course,” the titular long poem, redefines Poetry and Nature as sites of radically rebellious play (rather than idealized, idyllic spaces of leisure and privilege), scored with cricket song. Whereas pastoral poems typically gesture outward to an elsewhere, “Of Course” looks inward, its speaker realizing that she herself (a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman) embodies the paradoxes of privilege/restriction, work/play, Nature/urban, here/there upon which the pastoral seems to hinge. As a poet couched in the comforts and strictures of suburbia and academia, Wagner is a misfit in both contexts and an interloper in the natural world. Empathizing with chirping crickets, Aesop’s ambassadors of leisure, Wagner commiserates, “When I write I play my body too.” This notion of productive, embodied play resonates throughout the poem, opening up new spaces that conflate leisure, pleasure, and work, enabling the speaker to “breathe my [b]other.” Wagner updates Rimbaud’s declaration—her I is an other with a “[b]other” that inspires her to sing—and Of Course is her protest song. Like the cricket troubadour whose work is singing, Wagner’s poems play and work to demonstrate the desire that drives both, and their conflation results in a radically transformative act against the status quo. Identification with the insect world deprivileges the human animal in Nature and enables this speaker to imagine alternative models as she rejects established binaries and provides a forum for others to follow in her remonstration.
All of the poems in Of Course insist on the necessity of such dissent, though two notable suites of poems detail the clash of industry with the natural world and the sexual violence coded into the pastoral mode. The first thematized suite, “The City Has Sex with Everything,” imagines a future wherein the natural world retakes control, naturalizing civic systems—both concrete (highways, architecture, marketplaces) and conceptual (academic, legal, law-enforcement)—to ascribe libidos to these systems, with desire and consent pulsing through the sequence and everything from grocery chains to trees to cathedrals attempting to satisfy urges and [re]produce. Though these impulses drive life, in action, they often prove destructive, and the second stand-out suite, a smaller chain of poems titled “Six Very Short Poems About Sketchual Violets,” uses the brazenly ham-fisted pun in its title to implicate poetry—and, more largely, Art—for its role in beautifying and romanticizing desire to cover over the ugliness of sexual violence and coercion. “Can taking be made safe / . . . Can unharm sexy be,” asks one poem of the series whose title, “Don’t like this,” urges the reader to reject its premise even as its lines enact the seeming aporias of consensual desire and permissive expropriation. This slight series exposes a large, uncomfortable truth: control, disguised as tender romance, is knitted into the fabric of the pastoral. A classic example like Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” implores, “Come live with me, and be my love,” promising “delight each May-morning”; Sir Walter Raleigh’s anti-pastoral retort, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” famously critiques the proposition, insisting that “flowers do fade,” exposing the flimsy, fleeting premise of the pastoral’s retreat and the one-sided gains it promises. Of Course further pulls back the pastoral’s façade, revealing its fantasy to be as negligent and permeable as the unkempt “trash thicket” behind the Rust Belt golf course described in its lines. This fallen Arcadia decries the pastoral’s florid objectification of the beloved:
I feel terribly touched when you
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Like May came out of me
I was dismayed
Here, Wagner assumes the role of the pastoral’s beloved to acknowledge its conventions of romance—the feminine beloved is wooed in the pastoral’s tender ever-spring of May—while also operating as the poem’s critical subject-speaker, expressing disdain at the disappointment and injustices imported with these overtures. Refusing to blithely receive these actions, which fall on a spectrum ranging from “terrible touching” to “raping” and “hang[ing] by her hair,” this speaker acknowledges the system’s stacked against her but persists in voicing her objections.
These protestations ultimately empower her to expose and refuse the casual (or overt) violence of the status quo: when entering the “rose garden, a leisure place,” wherein “the park designer’s name is Law,” Wagner identifies the leisure-space of the pastoral poem as a fabrication of privilege, shorthanded as the white patriarchy. Wagner’s entrance into this space spurs self-reflection and recollection of W. C. Williams’s “Asphodel”: but rather than die “for lack of what is found there,” she gets to work in the garden, pulling in excluded figures (Mike Hunt, a Black athlete, appears, but only as an impossible dream, an ephemeral “walking mist, a starry mist”) to point out its exclusions and call foul, “say[ing] unfair to men and passing fair.” Wagner attends to the garden of lyric verse, working to bring in more variety. It’s an unfinished project, but admirable nonetheless; this series of poems—and Wagner’s book as a whole—walks this off-course line of not quite “passing fair” as a pastoral per se, but rather conspicuously and defiantly deploying its appropriations so as to announce its plans for future revision and expansion.
The reconstruction Wagner proposes is twofold: one, prioritize Nature, and two, reconceive language. In “English is 99% buckled to a rock,” Wagner demonstrates that these goals are inextricably linked, speculating first at language’s possibility for change through geological parallels (erosion, combustion, solidification) and finally concluding that its transformative power is closer to the biological, viral, and parasitic:
I propose to yoke it
To the underside of a life
Also to the inside and the other side of the life
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It hums out local air that’s moved
Full of yeasts and stream toxins
Egg in its testes like an Ohio frog
Reconceiving change in language to be unstable and evolving rather than a series of simple constructions or established, solidified forms, Wagner dissects and renews formal tropes and fractures language to reveal meanings both new and implicit. This renews and reimagines the role of shepherd-poet, as she weeds out the flowery language that disguises the pastoral’s privilege and prejudice to cultivate a new, fragmented and reconstituted language, abounding with allusions to canonical poems, news headlines, and misheard lyrics from pop songs. These poems demand work from their reader, often code-switching multiple times within the space of a single word; in the title poem, for example, Wagner grafts the language of police procedure onto the biological terminology of plants’ reproductive systems to critique the notion of order, mocking, “Xylem and phloem / Jailem and drownem / Kingdom and file‘em.” By splicing scientific taxonomy with slang, Wagner juxtaposes systems of production and support (xylem and phloem) with the anti-production of incarceration and torture in the penal system (file them, jail them, drown them), to disrupt these establishments and expose the casual violence of bureaucracy in a sinister singsong. This mocking renders the defiant “hurting” from the inside (both a painful awareness and an autonomous revolutionary action) that she calls for.
This language play which belies serious meaning exemplifies her poetic project, echoed in her sardonic call for an impossible return to “in no sense”; but just as language cannot be stripped of sense, neither can Nature be returned to a golden age. Instead, Wagner turns to a Nature where “[her] way is the highway,” and the retrofitted vehicle of language transfers unfettered desire and transforms communication. Of Course surveys its grungy suburban idyll of global warming and Kafkaesque urban planning, humming with spectrums of diction and threaded with constant, compulsive desire, to offer its increasingly imperative vision of an alternative pastoral remove wherein Nature returns in full force and replaces income-based hierarchies with a holistic biosphere:
change the form of the for
for animals and problem-solving
This heralds a new Arcadia wherein the poem—freed of the taming imposed by the pastoral’s manicured constraints—exists as “the host for disease” to spread its “promise that the current and the / given are unfinished.” These poems—and this poet—expand the relationship between Nature and poet[ry] to which the pastoral aspires. Pledging to help script an unwritten future while addressing the unfinished work of the present, Of Course deploys the archaic pastoral mode through Wagner’s jagged poetry to accommodate protest and play, work and pleasure, and shoulder the large, complex issues that plague the twenty-first-century citizen. What, then, is the role of poetry? To dissent, of course, but also to offer hope for what’s coming, to remake language and spread like germs. What’s the pastoral? Open season. And what is Nature? “My gosh! it’s the OUTSIDE.”
Of Course. By Catherine Wagner. Hudson, NY: Fence, 2020. 91 pp. $17.00.