Noreen Hernandez Reviews THE WAGNERS, a booklength poem by John Colasacco

The Wagners, a poem, tells the stories of different generations of Wagners. Or, that’s what we are told on the back cover. I tried, but couldn’t keep track of the Wagners because the bits do not form a historical family narrative. But it doesn’t matter, because the poem is a journal of the sensations that are the Wagners. As I read the poem, it seemed as if I was listening to an eerie sort-of-omniscient narrator. Someone who knows more than the words on the “fragments [of] handwritten notebooks kept in the years following his death,” reveal.

The book is small, but took me over a week to read. I took my time travelling on the fascinating and winding dirt roads of Colasacco’s language. He creates ripples which subtly mark the existence of sensations. Minute sensations that lack the concreteness of a definitive feeling:

In one of the university offices a boy has bitten his tongue. A woman walking down the hall hears about this and feels the texture of the paper she’s holding a little more precisely. At the end of the day a few people might stop at the apple tree near the main road, pouring out good crisp apples this time of year. Still, very few stop compared with those who pass by and don’t know about it at all. Their nice dinners are sometimes made uneasy by peripheral worries, creaky floorboards, and pink kids bikes.

In a few sentences Colasacco moves from connection to complete disconnect over the course of one day. The woman and the boy aren’t physically connected, but while she listens to the story she reacts; almost feeling the painful bite. Later, the apple tree pours “out good crisp apples” but is passed by and ignored. Although the family later sits down together and accepts nourishment, they are preoccupied with thoughts that keep them from truly connecting. The next lines describe the ripples that surround the family:

A girl with a helmet on fills her shirt with handfuls of grass, advancing toward a corner of the yard where a knot of snakes have made their nest underneath the roots of a tree she occasionally draws in pencil. Tonight the tree will be covered in ice.

It’s not clear why the girl needs protection, but I accept that she does. The armour of ice on the tree mirrors her need for protection. The presence of snakes living in the roots describe a deeper, deadly, unseen-until-it’s-too-late danger. Colasacco quietly uses these ripples to mark the sensations that is revealed next:

The father who planted it in the yard will come out and have a look. Why is it this and not something else? he will ask, with his hair showing some of the curl it had when he was younger. 

This Wagner planted the symbol of family, its roots connecting to the soil. Colasacco describes the discontent that nested under the roots, the protection (helmet, ice) that hardens, then disconnects the wearer from the warmth of touch and empathy. 

I understand the Wagners interactions, and the beauty of the poem is that I’m not sure how. Colasacco describes the spaces between what we see, what we think we understand, and what we feel throughout the poem. Those spaces of “… times like this, premonitions of the future would come not as visions, but as sensations.” He develops the story by describing the solid nature of a truthfulness that is too ethereal for the physicality of the senses. I recognized it when I read the concrete descriptions of events, things, or people that surround this truth: “Because she wanted very badly to do everything he was already used to, she gave her consent, and got on the jittery plane.” The sparse language describes an out-of-kilter balance; a ripple of discontent. She gave her consent to everything he was used to. But Colasacco goes on and compares the relationship to a game of skill. Everything between them deteriorated while at the same time “two chess enthusiasts had just shaken hands on an interesting wager.” He reveals the sensation of truth by describing the different ripples within the meaning of consent. I hear the one-sided interactions of the couple on the plane. I picture the handshake of the chess players. Colasacco uses parallel descriptions like this to mark the places where sensations exist. 

The Wagners also includes sixteen illustrations by freelance artist and illustrator, Cody Coppernoll. Each one is framed within a multi-circular border which act as a portal to further define the physical spaces surrounding the sensations in Colasacco’s poem. At the same time, this point of view widens the understanding of the poem. I imagine a vastness beyond or through the picture that reminds me of looking at a large tree out of a very small window. My eyes only see a branch of the tree, but I trust myself enough to know the rest of the tree is there. 

The Wagners is a worthy read because John Colasacco understands and validates the truthfulness of the sensations which exist beyond the borders of the senses.

The Wagners, by John Colasacco. Grand Rapids, Michigan: TRNSFR Books, August 2019. 104 pages. $15.95, casebound, with 16 illustrations by Cody Coppernoll.

Noreen Hernandez is a teacher’s aide and writer with deep life long ties to Chicago. She is a fairly recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University English and Creative Writing Dept.

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