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Tim Godwin

Kate Fagan, ‘The Long Moment’. Salt Publishing. £8.95/$12.95. 108pp. ISBN: 1-876857-39-0

To state the obvious: poetry is the art whose medium is language. Some poems try to do what visual art can do better, or what music can do better. The poems in Kate Fagan's book do what neither painting nor music can do; they use the special features of language:

buildings have their
impressive disregard for sound

(from (april))

song's quiet machine keeping
light's motion perpetual,
heard in syntax

(from Lighthouse Series)

we remark that this stretch of land could write us eternally

a horizon of intimate syllables

(Anti-landscape: Lighthouse Beach)

I'd better stop, because I could go on quoting marvelous lines like these for ages.

Our perception of the world is not totally under our control; it can be fragmentary and chaotic. Fagan uses a fractured language to incorporate the variety of everyday experience, and to reflect the way the mind uses language to assimilate that experience. It is for this reason the Fagan's poems continually remind us that they are pieces of language.

The poems are concerned with Australia, as a colonial/post-colonial society, with the relationship between the indigenous peoples and white population, and with the fact that Australia is a post-modern culture, seeing its art in relation to, or as a reaction to, ‘second-hand’ European art.

Well, these poems are pretty abstract, and when I say that they are ‘concerned’ with these things, I mean, these things can be detected – in stray phrases, in the overall mood or form of the pieces; but they are as fleeting as any other concrete subject is in the slippery language of these poems.

The collection is divided into four sections:

'Calendar' is a verse diary (at least on one level) and is inevitably it concerned with perception in relation to the act of recording it:

we continue to occupy this
world, it appears in erratic scrawls, patient and actual.
Where nothing refers to nothing.

'New Physics' is a series of songs, of beautiful lyrics which do what lyric poetry should do - accept the imperatives of sound and image, of rhythm and metre to deliver the unexpected:

locale shifts
around a clock
reputedly different
at each hand

a sun shimmers
how to distinguish time
trees’ whisper a fiction
pixellated and scenic

and again, in a similar vein:

between you or I,
and consonant,
an otherworld
gets to appear

Part three is ‘Anti-Landscape’, a sort of anti-pastoral:

Language of a microcosm
heard in layers
ritualised by efforts
of filmic capture, a system
bent by instrusion

Part four, 'the waste of tongues', a single seventeen-part poem, is perhaps the most condensed and difficult section. Fagan's own comments on it, in a recent interview, throw some light on the process involved:

"I tend to work in series that are sort of 'improvisations' of thinking and word, in a sense, not unlike musical improvisations. This one has, I suppose, a social and political impetus to it."

But the 'musical improvisations' take precedence over the 'social and political', at least to this reader. It's no easy read, and the best way to approach it seems to be to jettison any preconceived ideas of what the poems are 'about', just go with them and see where they take you. But it’s worth the effort, for among other things, lines like these:

…quiet desecration perplexing.
from every point on a sand crescent,
a remnant worded, punctual as light.

As far as language goes, this set of poems is remarkably inventive, and for those looking for a key to ‘meaning’, perhaps there’s one in these lines:

this is not epic
but serial
who needs another hero

Copyright © Tim Godwin, 2006