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How Poems Work: Kate Fagan’s ‘Through a Glass Lightly: Cento for Beginners

1 December 2014

We move through language, swimming on influence, arranging words into patterns that make sense for our purposes. An essay with an argument, an email trying to get the day off work, or a poem that tries to make letters do something that they haven’t done before. A cento makes the act of being influenced manifest. It could be a tribute, taking another poet’s work and laying it out through one’s own prismatic vision. Saying yes, I admire what you do and now let’s make what you do with language continue, to spin and spiral outward into any of the myriad forms that are possible. Let’s make your words go on and on and let me reveal how language is always material by delicately or forcibly or deliberately reconstituting your work.

Obviously, I don’t know Kate Fagan’s intention in ‘Through a Glass Lightly: Cento for Beginners’ but I can plainly see the care with which she has set out the lines of Arkadii Dragomoschenko and Seamus Heaney to make her own meanings from their work. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines the cento as, ‘A verse composition made up of lines selected from the work or works from some great poet(s) from the past’ (220) dating back to Homer. So just the idea of ‘great’ poet implies the notion of tribute, of admiration, of wanting the work to be revealed in a different light, thus ‘lightly’ we see the words as through glass with the traces of their original form as well as the prismatic colours or depth now being revealed in their new iteration. This could send us back to those poets (as it did for me) and it could send us forward into thinking of language as having more possibilities than the mere fallacy of original individual self-expression. The collective work of the cento is actually the work that all poetry does: it doesn’t pretend individual talent, but acknowledges the ongoing debts to language.

In this poem, Fagan imbues musicality with images of the common nasturtium (taken from Dragomoschenko’s poem ‘Nasturtium as Reality’): ‘I see it plain/as a living fretwork/in the distortion of sound’ so that the plant is recognised with its inherent energy intact, the idea that bursting could be a sonic action as well as a biological process of ‘cells dividing’ while at the same time, the action of moving fingers along a fret board to produce music is also conceived as some kind of miracle. What comes is a simple ‘water drop/clean in its own shape’ like a baby developing, an originary miracle if ever there was one. It’s also interesting to note that these ‘great’ poets of the past are men, and their work is developed in the service of images of the pregnant female body in all its remarkable commonality: ‘Our love called and we lie/in the future of cells dividing … A nasturtium between itself/and us, showing the light.’ Again, the ‘great poets from the past’ are called forth to enact a series of bursting forth moments that culminate in the final action of this new poem: ‘Time to be born.’

Here the poem is again:

Through a Glass Lightly: Cento for Beginners


The nasturtium is to itself already
a memory. It opens its leaves
its fire
ribbed impression in the grass
that forms like shadow.
I see it plain
as a living fretwork
in the distortion of sound,
press a leaf to a winter dream
of your hand
translated, given.
Our love calls and we lie
in the future of cells dividing,
a water drop
clean in its own shape.
A nasturtium between itself
and us, showing the light.
Time to be born.


‘Through a Glass Lightly: Cento for Beginners’ from the collection First Light by Kate Fagan, published by Giramondo Publishing Company (Sydney). Used with the permission of the publisher.

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