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Book Review: First Light by Kate Fagan

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First Light begins by confounding the reader. Clashing words, unusual images, subversions, language works as both subject and referent, playing off the emotions and experiences of the narration.

It takes a little while to adjust to these pieces which play as much with space and shape as they do with sound and form. The book is divided into five sections, each structurally and thematically distinct, though related perhaps by a recurring thread around the nature of perception and the role of the writer to expand that through words.

The first section, “Observations on Time, Cargo” opens the book with a series of nine short interlinked pieces. The narrator awakens from a dream as the language contrasts the blurred memories of night with the discovered images of day. The images are sharp and fresh, mingling concrete observations with an abstract physics:

“Rocks transfigure
the time it takes to swerve,
see, redouble –


This second or another –

Field of apprehended birds, motion’s curve
stalked by ordinary fractions.


The likeness drifts further.”(10)

Everything changes through the course of the poem, the world beginning as one thing and changing through language and comprehension.

The next section “First Light” is a series of ten Centos, each written for a named person or event. A Cento is an original poem composed of a patchwork of other poet’s lines. It’s a tricky form to master, as you aren’t allowed to modify the lines or write your own lines and yet you have to create something both novel and coherent. Fagan handles the form perfectly, pulling the disparate lines together into new meaning that resonates with the overall theme of the section. The title poem, “First Light”, is particularly powerful, working the light motif, while, at the same time, referring to the Cento form itself, illuminating its value:

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.”(15)

“The Correspondence” section presents the strongest poetry in the book, created as part of an international collaboration with Luke Plumb and a number of other artists. These “letters” are intensely visual, working through natural imagery and allusion infused with emotion and desire. The end result is an almost intuitive truth – poetic letters that feel both universal and intimate, as if the reader were the sole recipient. As a fan of Plumb’s wonderful Celtic-inspired music, I can only image that the upcoming album will be astonishing, however, these pieces most definitely stand on their own:

“I have felt
the wind lifting grass
at its roots,
heard you in silent things.”(36)

“Book of Hours for Narrative Lovers” is the most challenging section. As with “Observations on Time, Cargo”, the pieces are serialised, taking up only a small proportion of each page. They are linked to one another thematically, but also stand alone, each work signalling a new start with the large formal typeface of the first letter. The white space provides enough of a pause to separate each piece. While there’s a prosaic feel to this work which is grouped into paragraphs rather than stanzas, the sentences are mostly left unfinished, working, like the breaks at the end of each page, to force the reader to participate in the creative process, filling in the gaps or adding in the connections. The grammatical syntax is also inflected, though not enough to lose the coherency. Instead, the conjunction of familiarity and distortion provides a kind of cognitive dissonance that, mingled with the lovely imagery, is simultaneously pleasing and intellectually tricky.

About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at