Mosaically Speaking: Pieces of Lionel Fogarty’s Poetics

By | 1 November 2019

I am a non-indigenous researcher and writer. I pay my respect to the Wurundjeri and Boonwurung people of the Eastern Kulin nation as the traditional owners of the land on which I’m working. I also pay my respect to Lionel Fogarty’s people, the Yugambeh people from the area south of Brisbane and the Kudjela people of north Queensland. Fogarty, a Murri man, was born Wakka Wakka land at Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve in south-east Queensland.


As the Hong Kong riots reach their sixth consecutive week, I’m emailing a friend at Hong Kong University who writes about liberty and subjection.

As the Hong Kong riots reach their tenth consecutive week, protestor Dominic Chan tells the New York Times: ‘We no longer demonstrate based on a schedule, which I think works well.’1

As the Hong Kong riots reach their eleventh consecutive week, I’m reading Lionel Fogarty’s poem ‘Disburse My Voice’, an extended metaphor about speech, consciousness, and violence. It opens with the figure of an unnamed, well-informed ‘sniper’:

Nationalism the terror of faceless victims 
I am a sniper nice and invader
Strip measure of humanity 
I am an autumn lethal eyebrow
I am a courageous turmoil to those,
     Middle skull confusions
No doubt my whether skills
No dilemma of a sentence to a brother
     Will twist my violent over capitalist’s symptoms.2

Splintering outwards, the sniper’s voice multiplies as ‘[f]ingers move beyond questions of identity’, creating the effect of a thousand infiltrating snipers, each one emancipating the voices of people who appear silenced; trapped and brain-dead under the anesthetizing effects of nationalism. The poem then flexes again in an idiosyncratic motion towards the intimate: ‘This was at the times of the sniper’s / Lovers reader bed concern of the river meet her portrays. / This at times desired highway-blazed flowers to take the impaired / eyed.’

These explosions of narrative order, unexpected movements from the political to the personal or from the constitutive to the alien and back again, are well-known characteristics of Fogarty’s verse. They distort a political semiotics at the same time as they inject meaning into the unimaginable. In doing this, Fogarty’s poetry, as John Kinsella has usefully put it, ‘searches for intactness and independence against the flow of cultural input that his poems measure. They are witnessings, measurings, recordings, and processings of hybridity, not end results.’3 Exemplifying this hybrid quality, the poem’s closing stanza takes the dispersed (and disbursed) voices and strategically, methodically puts them back together again:

My penalty came torment for zones where posture tantamount sat.
I am her sniper electric disposition
I orbit the singing cup of galaxy around, 
Morning memories over their forbidden. 
Tilt coffee and tea in the subways faces, 
And you all will find me the SNIPER

The reference to a complacent and numbed ‘posture’ echoes the ‘Middle skull confusions’ of the opening sequence, asserting one final time the speaker’s assessment of an ostensible psychosocial disease. This disease (white supremacy, misguided patriotism, ‘zones’ of colonial influence) inhabits the sunrise train carriage, which becomes a site in which to ‘{t}ilt coffee and tea in the subways faces’ is to destabilise an elaborate metaphor by jolting it back into the space of the everyday. There’s perhaps a modernist game with the reader here, too, in the significance of the subway to the poem’s conclusion. The subway, as we see in Hart Crane’s ‘The Bridge’ for example, becomes indexical to the genealogy of modern poetry. Fogarty positions it tactically here as representative of the cultureless ‘other.’ The subway becomes a grand homogeniser of the kind described by Lewis Mumford in his depiction of the banality of the New York City subway:

‘The result of all these assiduous attempts mechanically to mobilize and disperse, night and morning, the inhabitants of the metropolis is nevertheless plain; one and all, they have intensified the pattern of congestion … Though such transportation systems open up new areas on the outskirts of the city, they but thicken the crowding at the center.’4

The alignment of the subway with faces is also suggestive of Pound’s modernism, except that ‘In a Station of Metro’ we get ‘faces in the crowd.’ If Fogarty’s (presumably white) ‘subways faces’ need to be alerted to the sniper’s voices it is perhaps because, like Pound’s, they are less human than they are an apparition: ‘Petals on a wet, black bough.’ The linguistic play on ‘Morning (mourning) memories’ reinforces the image. The faces on the subway have no memories (at least not of the kind Fogarty knows); all they have is the ordinariness of the Western working day. In ending, the poem turns back to its own speaker, addressing not one or a group of subjects but everyone: ‘you all will find me the SNIPER.’

  1. Riley Beggin, ‘Hong Kong protests continue for a 10th week in the face of Beijing’s threats’. Vox, August 11, 2019.
  2. Lionel Fogarty, ‘Disburse My Voice’ in Lionel Fogarty: Selected Poems 1980-2017, ed. by Philip Morrissey and Tyne Daile Sumner (Melbourne:, 2017), p. 272. (n.b. all page number references to Fogarty’s poems hereafter refer to this collection)
  3. John Kinsella and Gordon Collier. Spatial Relations Vol. 1 (New York, 2013), p. 193.
  4. Lewis Mumford. The Culture of Cities (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 238-9.
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