Poetry is a slow art. Between Kate Fagan’s first full-length collection, The Long Moment, and her second, First Light, is a gap of a decade, punctuated only by a couple of chapbooks. It has been well worth the wait. Fagan writes with the ear of a composer, working harmonies and dissonance into a precise, individual music. First Light is a substantial collection: finely worked, highly conscious, attentive to complexity, and utterly unafraid of the rawness of feeling.
After my first reading, I idly googled to see what had been written about it. I found a couple of reviews which emphasised the ‘difficulty’ and ‘challenge’ of the poems, writing as if they were sculptures of intellectual pins designed to repel the reader. Eyebrows slightly raised – I never read a poem I liked, from Blake on, that wasn’t in some way a ‘challenge’ – I went back and tasted a few poems. Elliptical, complex, elusive, no doubt, I thought – but what about their immediacy of feeling?
For my part, the overwhelming impression I had from that first reading was of Fagan’s unerring sense of musical poise. Meanings in poetry emerge organically, intuitively; I am the sort of reader who notices the feelings first, the shapes and rhythms that are a poem’s sensuous language, and the meanings later (sometimes, much later). I left the book for a few days, and then sat down and read through the whole collection again, from beginning to end. This time I ended in tears.
As is the case with all significant work, this is a book that teaches you how to read it; although as Fagan wisely warns, ‘nothing I write can prepare you as readers’. Poetry is a slow art for the reader as well as for the writer: when, as with Fagan’s poems, the immediacies of rhythm and colour catch your imagination, they act as invitations to return. Maybe this is the real reason that poetry finds itself on the back-foot in a consumerist world that demands instant gratification. The invitation to return is too easily transformed into a kind of test, a ‘challenge’, a measure of difficulty that a reader might obscurely fail. Elusiveness becomes parsed as lack of meaning: if a poem can’t be grasped in its entirety on a first reading, it is dismissed as ‘inaccessible’. But what if a poet is speaking – as poets often do – of states of thought, feeling and being that are themselves elusive?
Fagan’s poems remind me of Blake’s quatrain:
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingéd life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
Fagan is a poet who kisses. Perhaps she is first of all a singer, a poet of superb lyric sensitivity and experimental curiosity. The six parts of First Light are formally distinct, ranging from the taut lyrics of the opening sequence to a series of Centos or collaged poems, then to prose poems. She questions even her own exactness, knowing how precision can lie – she is looking for the life in things. Her poems of celebration, as in ‘A Little Song: Cento for Ruby Minter’, are among the most moving in the book, not least for their unabashed, spontaneous beauty.
As she says in the opening poem, ‘things and appearances are moving’ – everything in this language is in motion. This is a poetic world in which light – the visual play of fleeting appearance – becomes an analogue for the subtleties and quickness of perception, thought and feeling. The title poem, one of the series of Centos, makes this explicit: ‘We’ve been living I think / in a kind of drowning light & the poem / is over, the light of an alcohol lamp between / thick things.’
These lines are interesting because they pluck at the desires in these poems, and especially at Fagan’s desires for poetry. ‘The poem is over’ she says, with unusual directness, picturing ‘the poem’ as a dim, homogenous illumination that merely fills the space between ‘thick things’ – objects that are strangely immobile, solid and opaque. Then the poet discovers ‘finally / a kind of punctuation’:
sapphire light, solar light, light of a magnesium flare ordinary light, acetylene light naptha noontide jump-spark light as if this being’s old light carries the whole world of present activities.
Perceiving these discriminations – between one kind of light and another, one quality and another, one rhythm and another – permits the poet to shift language from a muffled register in which boundaries are firmly delineated, into a sense of energy and relationship, a ‘world of present activities’. The ‘drowning’ homogenous light is transformed into a various agent, which not only illuminates but ‘carries’ action. Light itself becomes a sensual force, as potent, contingent and fleeting as touch. Objects cease to be ‘thick’ and become mutable, as in her ‘Letter X: On Truth’: ‘things / shrug off their names to become / more fully themselves’. As Fagan says in another poem, ‘the verb is everything’: naming, the act of ownership, is rejected in favour of an act of perception that no longer seeks to possess. This process is what Fagan reveals through the collection as the ‘use’ of poetry.
The question of poetry itself is asked again and again this book, often in anguish. In ‘Letter I’, the first poem in the brilliant sequence ‘The Correspondences’, Fagan quotes the German lyric poet Hölderlin: ‘What is the use of poets in a bereft time?’ In this poem there is no answer, just the morning, which ‘comes crashing around my ears / hard as shipwreck’.
Fagan obliquely reminds us in another poem, ‘Authentic Nature’, that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger addressed Hölderlin’s question about the use of poets. ‘The time is destitute,’ said Heidegger, ‘because it lacks the unconcealedness of the nature of pain, death and love.’ The poet, according to Heidegger, is a person who refuses self-will – which turns objects and people into ‘merchandise’ – and instead ventures his being in the most human of qualities, language, thereby revealing his mortality.
‘Authentic Nature’ begins with an image of death: the poet is burying two dead magpies, ‘a plain music of repair’, wondering if nature has become a ‘a cipher for speak-easy /consumption tactics’. Then Fagan’s thought leaps to the meeting between Paul Celan, the Jewish poet whose parents died in German concentration camps, and Heidegger, who was a member of the Nazi party throughout the Second World War. Heidegger never apologised for nor explained his Nazism, and the encounter between the two men has been the subject of much speculation, focused especially on the poem Celan wrote afterwards, ‘Todtnauberg’.
Nobody knows what happened in that meeting, and there is much debate on whether or not Celan’s poem represents forgiveness or a possibility of redemption. As Fagan says, it is a kind of parallax, something that seems to shift direction according to the perception of the viewer. The urgency of the debate around the poem – and underneath it, the question of how a man Celan admired as a foremost modern thinker could have supported the obscenity of Nazism –
reflects the weight of the world that shaped it: the industrial slaughter of Jews by the Third Reich, and the mechanised destruction of European civilisation.
Heidegger speaks to many of Fagan’s preoccupations as a poet, and the political and moral ambiguities around his thought vibrate in the anxieties that underlie so many of them. For Fagan, these questions bleed into the present:
Here I dig for a different language, a new balm for the bruise of lost opportunities.
This suggests the scope of Fagan’s poetry, which speaks in one breath of the most domestic and concrete of details, and in the next is turning its attention to contemporary global crisis, thinking through urgent moral questions. At stake is nothing less than the idea of what it means to be human, in a world that we are terrifyingly remaking in our own image.
Fagan seeks to unmake alienation: to re-perceive the intimate connections between the minute and the immense, the personal and the impersonal, the felt and the thought, the natural world and human beings, life and death. ‘At the edge of a globe we risk mindful care / Poetry waking thought’. It’s here, in this joyous attention, that we can begin to see why poetry might matter. For all its anguish, First Light is an act of hope, even of faith. It’s a poetry that celebrates possibility, in the face of everything that seeks to deny that it exists.