James Wagner is a traditionalist, and, unlike a New Formalist, he improves on tradition, and, unlike most of his peers out here in Po-Mo-land, he is not content to just dazzle us with some complicated formal rhumba or lurid me-first T-shirt. In his first volume, the false sun recordings, Wagner starts from within the convent’s narrow room, tapping at and sounding out its limits, mastering its acoustics and finally projecting new light and sound shows without quite knocking down its walls.

the false sun recordings begins with a group of fifteen short lyrics whose titles—anagrams? foreign and technical terms? bits of onomatopoeia?—seem not quite parseable as English: ‘Klart,’ ‘Oremoth,’ ‘Chilema.’ These titles signal the dense and endlessly interesting texture of the lyrics they emblazon. ‘Veste,’ a thirteen-line poem, begins:

The phantom vacuum of. Rain in the locative, the
Relaxing incisors. All bullets deprive the gold from
Sunning. The peach trees reach like a banker. [ . . . ]

This is an evocative description of relentless rain, rain that in its flaccid insistence is like ‘relaxing incisors,’ like ‘bullets’ that make one feel stuck in place and make that place into a ‘phantom vacuum.’ The repetition of ‘v’ sounds only drives this point home. Once inside the texture of this never-ending rain, we then see through the rain like a lens: The ‘peach trees’ seem to reach up towards their own gold fruit, and in reaching for that gold are ‘like a banker.’ Thanks to the deftness of what I can only (but am loath to) call ‘craft,’ we see through Wagner’s written world like a lens that makes that world even denser, even (visually) clearer.

One may see rain in the last image of the poem, ‘the dreary Syracuse ambulance corps,’ but one also sees and hears ‘corpse’ in this line, the corpse which a (literally, emotionally) rained-upon body has been rendered in the course of the thirteen lines. This subject ‘I’ seems to surface in rather than to utter the poem, not appearing till late and then going from second to third to first person from line to line:

As if the peanut butter would never leave his ridge.
Pointing to areas of relief on my body. Your body
Is an index they want you to embrace strangers in
Western apartments of. I may not be much, but I
Am all I think about [ . . . ]

These lines form a semi-coherent push-me/pull-you-type dialogue about stability and wholeness, by turns humorous (the peanut butter stuck in the mouth, the narcissism of the last two lines) and serious, for the body itself is a puzzling ‘index’ whose location grows more uncertain with each mangled adverbial phrase: ‘an index they want you to embrace strangers in/Western apartments of.’ By the end of the poem we do have a corpse but it is perhaps a paper corpse, washed apart by the rain.

The poem, however, remains coherent because of its tone, the knitted-togetherness of its sonic effects, and, importantly, its iconic lyric status on the page. ‘Veste’ is a thirteen-line poem with short, pentameter-looking lines. It doesn’t matter that they are not actually pentameter: ‘Veste’ and the other poems in this group look like sonnets and have the confident, echolocating quality of Keats’s odes. Wagner’s use of line is also traditionally lyric: enjambed, varying musically between long runs and short staccato phrases, using breakage and flow to control the current and pitch of the poem. He uses line plus syntactical repetition-with-variation to create suspense and release, which in turn produces a dramatic whole. In ‘Eyth’

Meat-house-valium. I superceded. I filmed the
Film was forgetting itself. I was forgetting the for-
Getting was forgetting. We allow ingots. Their
Wrens. They rubbed us in a wrong way. [ . . . ]

In this ‘I’-based poem, enjambment allows Wagner to pull his sentences off in unexpected directions, to make the word ‘forgetting’ spool like a piece of film and thus somehow shore up the equation between the two. Sonic dismemberment allows him to produce ‘wrens’ and ‘ingots’ from this reel of words, and to put them into motion based on their ‘r’ and soft ‘o’ sounds, ‘rubb[ing] us in a wrong way.’ Ironically, in a poem finally seemingly uttered by an ‘I,’ it is the ‘I’s ineptness with the medium (film) that sends the poem off the sprockets of mere reportage and allows the poem to ‘remember’ that it is sounds that produce words and not the opposite.

This review has dwelt at inordinate length on the first fifteen poems of the book because these, I feel, are the most inventive, the newest material, and, as a Western-trained poet, I can’t help being preoccupied with the new. Yet the false sun recordings delivers much more poetry for your twelve dollars. The largely homophonic translations that make up the ‘Auralgraph’ section of the book are gratifying reading, casually, syntactically errant, and pleasantly stuffed with vocab. The translations of ‘Trilce’ are full of Joycean neologisms and exclamations and, frankly, sound like Joyce, while the translations of Reverdy allow the poet to combine his interest in sonic synching with the rainy, surrealist atmosphere which is a more natural fit. On the whole, there is a sort of Joycean cheerfulness and fizzy jumpiness to most of the Auralgraphs, as if the writing genie is delighted to be released from his lamp of lyric concision. This same freedom and lightness may be detected in the ‘Lingo’ section of the book, which consists of short poems each dedicated to a poet and each apparently in dialogue with the dedicatee’s work, be that dedicatee Clark Coolidge or Heidi Peppermint.

The book ends with a tour-de-force followed by a sort of Baedeker of the poet’s record collection, followed by some hefty exit credits. The tour comprises a thirteen-poem series all titled with an anagram of the name ‘Lisa’: ‘Aisl,’ ‘Sila,’ etc. These are not so much conventional love poems as a terrain-charting in lyrics and prose. The lyrics function much like those that open the book, but the prose is more murky, with tonal variety from line to line that seems to enact a subjectivity by turns sensing and tentatively dramatizing itself as it interacts with the world and (perhaps) the beloved:

[ . . . ]The past is a sentence that is dripping with future stiffness. The echoes instruct the moles or menstruation lamps, we have trouble hearing, we are arguing and filming lint of a topical accident, the sky is now deranged and dirty, for such a face, deeply, if not bitterly protrudes. The light is lemony and diamonds settle in the fence, the ears[ . . . ]

Here showy pronouncement tips the balance downhill into ‘trouble,’ which leads to ‘arguing,’ which is reflected in a sky ‘now deranged and dirty.’ In the next sentence, as in life, a switch of mood places diamonds in (perhaps) these ears that were in the previous sentence dirty and deranged. Such dense and imagistically attentive prose typifies the poems of this section. Particularly arresting is ‘Iasl,’ which gains momentum despite its (or due to?) starting nearly every sentence with ‘they.’ Drama in this case becomes a matter of succession: ‘They are lonely as olive knives. They dream of bimetalism.’ Surprisingly, for love poetry, the pronoun ‘I’ puts in very rare appearances in this series otherwise dominated by ‘They,’ ‘he,’ and ‘we.’ Although there is something portentous, perhaps, about putting the swain in the ‘he’ rather than the ‘I’ position, this deflection puts pressure on the sentences, producing a fiction-like diction which gives heft to the poem’s variety while avoiding the slightly queasy egotism of casting the poet in the glamorous starring role.

Oddly enough, this ‘I,’ withheld for so long, makes its most extended appearance in the final section of the book, in which speakers have adventures in evocative soundscapes riffed, apparently, off the various records that serve as the poems’ titles, ranging from ‘Stravinsky/Le Sacre du printemps’ to ‘Portishead/Portishead.’ These poems have terrific texture and pace, capturing the moods and sounds of the music with long lines of rich timbre, particularly in ‘Mingus/the Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’:

The shallow ladders ingratiate into objects, into
looming angles fastened by gruff stomachs. I was
retelling and my narcotized narcissism fretted it
goes lonely along the supremely lenient itching.

These poems seem riven by an identifiable passion and a largeness of gesture and scale which will be gratifying to readers frustrated by the deliberateness of the volume’s previous modes. On the other hand, readers who have delighted in the depth of Wagner’s invention heretofore might be disappointed that the book concludes with poems the methods of which are somewhat familiar and which are merely very good. Still, if that’s the only complaint one can muster against Wagner, than this is a volume very nearly above reproach. Hats off to the false sun recordings and to what this new poet can do for poetry and for all of us practicing our moves in Po-Mo-land.