Libby Hart Reviews Kate Fagan

22 July 2012

Fagan’s affection for her subjects is obvious within each cento, but in several instances there is a tight-bonded closeness that verges on the non-inclusive and this often causes distance for the reader. This detachment lies in the fact that these works seem not to aim for connection with a reader unless that reader is the individual for whom Fagan has created the cento. Perhaps the most conventionally accessible of the centos is ‘Through a Glass Lightly’, as this is a collage created for a collective rather than an individual, and samples the work of Arkadii Dragomoschenko and Seamus Heaney:

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.

Here Fagan dedicates the poem to ‘Beginners’, providing a sense of mystery as to who might classify as a beginner. Perhaps we are all beginners in one form or another, but I sense this cento is most concerned with Fagan’s anticipation of her daughter’s arrival into the world and a cento for Ruby (‘A Little Song’) concludes the section.

Following on is ‘The Correspondence’, a sequence of eleven poem-letters written in response to ten pieces of music by Australian born and Scotland-based composer, Luke Plumb, as part of an international collaboration called The Ten Titles Project. The eleventh poem acts as a reprise. These poems are elegiac in tone and deal with certain aspects of sleeping and waking, of introspection and longing. Intimacy of mind and body are key to these works. The themes of memory, truth and reality also get a mention. What is evident is the transience of life, of moments slipping through fingers.

‘Book of Hours for Narrative Lovers’ holds fifteen prose poems within this prayer book of a section. These poems are abstract by nature, but they are also evocative and sensual. Here Fagan focuses on the elemental and confessional. She explores thought and creativity, the nature of books and book forms, and the act of writing and musical arrangement. A sense of travel is also prevalent, but also of staying put, of journeying through time in that cumbersome time capsule we call body. Fagan intimates we are also book-like forms, for our lives are “whole and movable as chapters” (‘To watch a body stop to apprehend itself …’).

The poems within ‘Book of Hours for Narrative Lovers’ are not transparent in their meaning. They require dedication from the reader to decipher only a hint of truth from them. The rest, I suspect, Fagan wants to keep for her own. But there is an inexplicable absence underlying this sequence, of the poet being present but not fully in the room. There are moments when Fagan’s spirit is sensed, but the writing feels ghostlike.

The collection’s final section, ‘Thought’s Kilometre’, was first published as a chapbook in 2003 and is dedicated to US experimental poet Lyn Hejinian, an influential figure in both Fagan’s creative and academic careers. The work in this section was written in October 2001 and the aftershock of 9/11 is evident in some of the section’s most ominous lines. There are a range of things unfolding in these short and fragmentary poems: music, science, politics, war, mortality and eroticism, as well as intellectual enquiry and the questioning of existence. Dreams and dreamlike images also surface within the work. In ‘He disappears …’:

I leave the building alone and turn to see a ghost that follows
   throwing empty shells out the door
As each shell hits the ground it becomes a wild bird, an owl with
   lettered markings, small falcons whose wings row beside rust

Initially I believed ‘Thought’s Kilometre’ was not needed in this collection because it feels dated and it was published in its own right as a chapbook some time ago. If First Light had been released last September it would have made more sense to include it in the collection. However on reflection I can see that these poems help to make up a life and a life energy that is so intricately embedded in First Light.

In a recent interview with Sarah Gory, Kate Fagan explained that her poetry “is shaped hugely by my sense of music and sound”. I feel that the majority of First Light would translate differently in performance. Perhaps I would be able to interpret the poems more readily if they were set to music or delivered musically in an intimate reading. But then again I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s Harvard teaching years when she insisted poems should never be interpreted. On the page First Light is something you cannot read at a steady pace. The work forces the reader to participate in the creative process and such participation requires effort, of what US novelist and screenwriter, Richard Price, describes as the opposite to today’s “instant evaluation” of books. A particular commitment is therefore required in the reading of this collection, so too is a large amount of reflection.

First Light is a lengthy collection of almost one hundred pages of poetry. It is divided up into six diverse sections that can, at times, seem as different as countries. In fact they have the appearance of border countries. Their difference is appreciated and rereading each helps gain a clearer perspective of the poet’s aims and its cultural dimensions. If there is a cohesive focus to the collection I would say that it falls somewhere within the constructs of time and life’s cargo, of what ten years or more of life and writing can bring.

This entry was posted in BOOK REVIEWS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

About Libby Hart

Libby Hart is the author of Fresh News from the Arctic, This Floating World and Wild. Fresh News from the Arctic won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize. This Floating World was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards, and longlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. This Floating World was also devised for stage and received the Shelton Lea Award. Wild was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and it was named one of the Books of the Year for the Australian Book Review, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Further reading:

Related work: