Winter 2001


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THE SECRET LIFE OF O: poems by Kathy Fagan
By Nancy Kuhl

Fagan, Kathy.  MOVING & ST RAGE. Denton: U of North Texas P, 1999. 66p.

The complex and pervasive nature of language is examined and laid bare in
Kathy Fagan's new book, MOVING & ST RAGE. The book begins with poems that
investigate the symbolic nature of letters and consider the complicated way
image, sound, emotion, and idea combine to make meaning. In "Portrait of a
Girl as the Letter A," the letter A, and by extension language, is a
mutable image whose meaning expands as the poem unfolds,
As in -line or -frame.
                        As in alpha, angel,
                        Arms of a merciful Jesus

                        Extended. As in clockhands
                        Signing 7:25, compass
                        On point, cloak rounding

                        A corner.
The transformation from one image to the next rests, finally, with the girl
of the title, "the letter of / the name she stands for." A kind of love
poem, whose object of affection is at once the letter and the girl, this
poem makes no effort to fix the language in place, but tries instead to
mark its movements, its path from the abstract and symbolic to the concrete
and specific, the girl, "so like herself." In poems rich with complex
metaphor and powerful lyricism, in MOVING & ST RAGE Fagan observes and
studies the deeply personal and acutely public nature of language.
            The title poem of MOVING & ST RAGE focuses again on a letter, in this case
the O missing from a billboard. The poem is rich with images both
surprising and precise, as Fagan creates a narrative to fill the space left
by the missing O. The letter's absence suggests the story of Moving and St
Rage "who'd met on the grassy medians of myth / to pledge those troths the
gods grow jealous of: / there are limits placed on endless love." The two
are "cursed to live / beyond their primes" and "to ride a wheel of common
failures / that is hope turning up / and regret coming down, and that makes
a sound like / See Me   See Me." Fagan's ability to envision and locate
alternative meanings in commonplace images, words, sounds, and even
emotions, as she does in this poem, is one of the unique strengths of this
book. Throughout, Fagan uses language to fill the gaps in consciousness,
the moments where understanding is just beyond reach.
            As a result, in the poems collected here Fagan finds words and language in
unusual places, and language becomes a kind of image in and of itself. In
"The End of the Story," she writes "It could be the beginning or the end of
winter / in that space revealed between snow and soil / ours to read like
all good words." In "Altitude," a remarkable poem where images are barely
held together by Fagan's carefully and deliberately made lines, the smoke
from a censer becomes desire, which in turn becomes, "a language made
legible / on buoyant tongues." And in the second section of "Triptych," the
book's final poem, fog rising off a river
                        became a river
                        detached from its source, 
                        like the visible
                        breaths the women let go of
                        along with their words 
                        in the winter air. 
In "Driving It," one of the book's strongest and most compelling poems, the
song of the cardinal becomes human language: "Here I / Here I / Here I   am
am am am am am am." Throughout MOVING & ST RAGE Fagan examines our human
need to read and comprehend even (or especially) that which defies
understanding-the forms we see in fog and smoke, the songs of birds-and
finds that things are more than they seem. She seeks out these blank spaces
in understanding and finds ways in which language can fill them, can make
them meaningful in new ways.
            Even grief and loss, which are central themes in this book, are
emptinesses that can be explored and, perhaps, illuminated through image,
sound, and word. In "Grief, " Fagan writes "There is a bell inside this
sadness / And a hand that rings it."  We live in language, this book tells
us, and it is here, in the words, their sounds, their shapes, that one can
find a kind of iconography, one that might comfort us in grief, help us
make sense of the senseless. In "Revisionary Instruments I," the first in a
series of poems in MOVING & ST RAGE, Fagan writes "What revisionary
instruments our hearts are . . . how merciful our misremembrance."
            This, Fagan's second book and the winner of the Vassar Miller Prize in
Poetry from the University of North Texas Press, is lyrical and
intelligent. The poems in MOVING & ST RAGE are built, beautifully, of
subtle narratives, compelling music, images that are both fresh and
concise. In "Elemental," Fagan writes of
                        stories with their edges
                        not gilded no
                        but the glow before
                        the page burns black
                        that line where the fire
                        is and was and is again
                        that glissade
                        like lightening.
The poems in MOVING & ST RAGE mark the places where "fire / is and was and
is again." Fagan's poems remind us of the power in language, and more
precisely in poetry, to construct meaning where there has been, before,
only smoke, ash, flame, and shadow.

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