Category: Betsy Fagin

REVIEW: Names Disguised by Betsy Fagin


by Sally McCallum

There is something about Betsy Fagin’s poetry that snags me, that is interesting, but that I was having a hard time naming. Her recent chapbook, Names Disguised, takes place in three parts that address madness, wealth, buried eggplant, urban development, modernization & overconsumption, and greed. Among other things.

The sections of the chapbook’s three parts are entitled “names disguised,” “names assume life” and “given name.” So, naming: something this book refuses to do, or rather, refuses to do simply. For if there is one thing that will strike you about Fagin’s poetry, it may be the dearth of names, or, that is, of people who may have names, anyway. This is a world of participilized verbs, of absent pronouns, where agency falls on colors or abstractions:

intrepid potentials re-try opulence,
ragged. wandering on high
which ever way tossed & turned.
without lessons of sin
or rinsing clean.
to all, this love gushed
forth as from a fountain,
and to all the wings of hearing,
swift thanks. thanks a lot.

So that the world we enter seems strangely inhabited by mostly actions and nearly no agents. And yet – that last line, that last interjection. “swift thanks. thanks a lot.” Some one’s voice cuts through the remote country and makes it all real again. This effect occurs again and again:

anyone who was offered
that invitation
eschewed faith. fell,
grated, upon
a new delicacy.
shadows, gentlemen,
messengers of fidelity –
just when things were
getting started.

Do you see what I mean? Despite the elevated tone and sometimes abstract tendency of these poems, they are spoken by a gritty, grounded and deeply critical voice. These are thoroughly political poems.

gently boiled
fidelity is the ambassador of mind –
violent tearing
at a ribald sense of worship:
great men enjoy,
as a dog its license,
eating at the bowl
desirous of flight.
a painful return.

Imagine a world with no people, only parts. What’s the difference between a person and a thing, a subject and an object? By the time we reach the end of the second section – which focuses on buildings – in the poem “Transition Dynamics,” we’re totally unsure of ourselves the moment we meet poem’s first line: “one day will be homegoing.”

The first section, “Names Disguised” dreams of something fantastic, a world where “licorice profanities drip, fall” and “leaves are desirous / of election.” What I liked about this section was the way that, throughout its otherworld fabric, it uses the language of political unrest. One begins to imagine that the world of forgotten castles and ragged dead ivy that arises is actually our own America.

The second section critiques our built landscape. It was maybe my favorite part. Fagin examines the overlap between urban development and labor practices and over consumption. In the three-poem series “body and building,” she discloses how the same politics of space apply at the level of the built environment and the human body. The series, I believe, exhibits a bit of hope. In the “body and building.1” the built landscape enshrines the totalizing fantasy of modern technocapital:

a shrine of reason
in an unreasonable,

confused world
rationalized the hygienic

to function as clarity
precision, codified sanitation

However, by “body and building.3” our speaker has reached an alternate vision, one that, though not precisely optimistic, does dare to dream of a world outside capital:

exterior open space,
synthetic and composite,
contains a space of social action
ambiguous dwelling places –

There’s hope in that dream, no? Even if it is a dream for “increasingly / ambiguous and lawless times.”

These are poems born of necessary scrutiny. Scrutiny of how inequality and injustice are not only obvious: how they are arranged tightly even into our dreams and furniture. It’s a weird little book, and you’ll need time to dwell with it. Take the time, though.

Names Disguised is available from Make Now

Sally McCallum lives in Tucson and studies French, Creative Writing and English at the University of Arizona. She is co-editor of the Volta Blog.