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Published on October 11th, 2012 | by Elizabeth Coleman


Review: Nervous Device by Catherine Wagner

Catherine Wagner’s latest book, a full-length poetry collection titled Nervous Device, explores the boundaries between author and audience, using a masterful command of language that is both playful and provocative. Drawing inspiration from William Blake’s “The Bounding Line,” Wagner’s poetry delves into sexual, political and cultural themes as well as the communication between humans that surrounds them, jumping between imagery and never letting you fully settle into a comfortable space.

Having interviewed Wagner before writing this review, I felt I understood the complex themes she explores better than I would have if I had read the work without context. My initial impression (pre-interview) was that the collection was too smart and intellectual for me to fully comprehend. (Ironically enough, Wagner later told me that trying to be smart in the book was a fear of hers. “That’s the deadly thing — the wish to appear smart — and I hope I didn’t succumb to it too often,” she told me.)

But the difference between other poets and Wagner is that Wagner doesn’t have to try to make her poetry smart; it simply is.

The Notes and Acknowledgement section highlights this fact. She starts off with a quirky story about shocking someone by talking about her cervix and vagina (an auspicious start to any poetry collection, in my opinion), and then launches into all the references and literary passages she pulled from while writing her Nervous Device. I had only heard of a handful of them.

Wagner’s command of language is apparent. She plays around with syntax and grammar in a light-handed manner, experimenting with cadence and melody. Her poems emit a sense of freedom, breaking from traditional rules and style, often sounding almost child-like in their lack of “proper” grammar. For example, in “Pleasure Trip” Wagner writes, “She grew up in the blitz. House destroyed by bomb. Go home, house gone. It scared me so I never got over it, in my life. Said the lady. She sing most soberly.”

The beautiful thing about Wagner’s poetry is that she doesn’t try to put distance between the reader and the topics she explores — however uncomfortable — by writing about abstract concepts. Life isn’t all flowery language or romantic abstraction, and Wagner makes you painfully aware of this. By using phrases like, “Tumor against her spine, growing” and “pulled [boogers] through body shield,” or “I have no vitreous eyeballs when I bloom dead,” she brings you viscerally close in ways that perhaps make you cringe or want to squirm away. But if you stay with her — sit with the discomfort — you will be rewarded. Wagner’s gift is her ability to break through and see things from a new angle, allowing her readers to make connections that they had never made before.

But not all of Wagner’s poems are difficult to read; some simply make you laugh. I have to admit, my new favorite term is “prosody whore,” written in “Arrived Detaching Toward the Union.” Her lightness and humor contrast nicely with the more difficult pieces, working well to round out the collection. Much of her work is beautifully written (“Snowflakes built rotating palaces on the way down. Crashcrust parking-lot crystalle”), adding to the pure pleasure I got from reading the collection.

At first glance, Wagner’s poems seem difficult to understand, jumping between different concepts and images and never letting the reader get comfortable. But when is life ever comfortable? Wagner’s work highlights this uncertainty, the potential for miscommunication and the beauty in human connection. After several reads, Nervous Device‘s beautiful language and imagery crept up inside me, winding around in my mind and taking hold like quietly powerful vines. Each time, Nervous Device seems like a first read since the rich and sensual language somehow manages to remain fresh and new. I eagerly await future collections from Wagner, knowing that she is only going to continue to surprise and satisfy her audience with her unique lens on these universal topics.

Final Score

Summary: Each time, Nervous Device seems like a first read since the rich and sensual language somehow manages to remain fresh and new.


Beautifully written

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About the Author

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney and writer, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA and a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received a certificate in public interest and social justice and served as an articles editor on their law review. Apart from her legal career, Elizabeth enjoys writing short stories and dabbling in art (the messier, the better!), and previously was a regular contributor to SWOOP Magazine. She has recently started working on her first book, a young adult fantasy novel about lucid dreaming and parallel realities. Read her blog at

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