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Sheppard On Fisher

Eyewear is pleased to post a talk by Robert Sheppard given recently at the Manchester Literary Festival, 18 October 2010 (with Fleur Adcock, Jon Glover, Michael Symmons Roberts, Peter Robinson, and Jeffrey Wainwright, and Ian Pople chairing).

On ‘Stops and Stations’: from A Tribute to Roy Fisher

The invitation to speak about a single poem by Roy Fisher already makes me feel that violence has been inflicted upon the considerable body of work we now possess. Such stringency favours the isolated poem as against the sequence; it seems to me that much of Roy Fisher’s brilliance reveals itself in extended – often serial – works. The single poem conserves its energies in a centrifugal way, looking to itself for its sense of form, finding just enough confirmation of its own viability, its vitality, its need to exist, from its own resources. It seems to me that what we used to call free verse (and we haven’t found a less clumsy term to replace it) requires more of that energy. The poem hangs together by the formal and semantic magnetism of its parts. Fisher speaks of the short poem – and he was much given to the form in the 1970s – as being somewhat like the 3 minute max recordings of his favourite Chicago jazz heroes. Familiar patterns, laced with unfamiliarity. Tight, concise, limited, complete.
But Fisher has also spoken of a contrary force, a centripetal energy. ‘Unless I particularly want to produce density,’ he says, ‘I go for an open texture, feeling for a sense of conceptual space in which a reader might possibly perceive the elements of a poem hanging or floating, ready to be related to one another.’ Sequences or serial poems allow energy to spiral away from the centre – but the metaphor breaks down because poetry is temporally linear and proceeds with what Derek Attridge calls ‘a sense of its real time unfolding’. So poems may be serial or sequenced but our minds move back and forth between their parts, even in works that lack prospectus or boundary.
Leaving aside works like ‘Matrix’ or ‘Handsworth Liberties’ part of this centripetal energy in Fisher’s work is caused by the use of prose, either on its own, as in the piece I will read tonight, or in mixed forms, such as in City, where realist depiction and hallucinatory defamiliarisations co-exist; and in unique forms, such as ‘Interiors’, where, it is often forgotten, we find a cross-genre ‘lineated prose’. Part of this is in response to a distrust of traditional metrics. Fisher speaks of a ‘freedom to work in prose and to write in a more taciturn fashion.’
Much of Fisher’s shorter prose (the term prose-poetry feels as wrong as free verse) is of a more restrained kind, ‘taciturn’ as he says. (I’m ignoring The Ship’s Orchestra, a fiction, and The Cut Pages, a non-linear improvisation.)  While conceptually prose can handle more abrupt changes of subject matter and tone than verse – swift adjustments, like gear changes, not just between paragraphs but between sentences– it maintains the flow of ideas, conceptually, imagistically, and – strange to say for a poet whose commentators shy away from his prosody – rhythmically. Such works are scattered throughout the oeuvre, but I wish to read ‘Stops and Stations’ from this year’s Standard Midland.

[Here I read the piece, which begins: ‘Another absolute black with pinholes picked in it as is the way with absolutes. Bright beads magnify what light there is. The dark deep with respect….’ It may be found on pages 50 and 51 of Standard Midland, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, an excellent slim volume published to celebrate Fisher’s 80th birthday. It ranges from the poem Fleur Adcock read, the brilliant and funny ‘The Afterlife’, about our prehistoric ancestors’ attitude to death and eternity (‘nothing demented like for ever,//nothing military’) to reflections on Roy Eldridge’s bat-frequency trumpet playing; from exercises in the syntax of imagism to reflections on talking to oneself in old age. Late style, perhaps. At the tribute Fisher commented that it was typical of me to choose the poem he thought no-one would read! Buy the new book and you can read it too.]

There are three kinds of movement in this piece, firstly, the textual one, the ‘stops and stations’ of the paragraphs, with their tight sentences and – note – part and verbless sentences, but there is a second movement, the ‘again’ awaiting the interiors with their recycled utility: taking hospital to shop and back again; theatre to empty space to theatre. It’s an awareness of repetition that produces the single, and uncharacteristically for Fisher, verbal ejaculation, ‘Ach, not again already’. This unease also prompts the least concrete line of the poem: ‘Provision’ – the site of utility and commerce – ‘stretched and strained almost to snapping point’. The ‘almost’ holds the ‘again’ at bay it seems. It’s a scaled down quotidian version of the visionary cycles of Fisher’s long poem A Furnace, but enacted in a recognisable ‘Fisherscape’: the town, its station, its institutions, lack names, are reduced to one or two vivid details, like the ‘certain swank in the panelling’ that suggests institutionality. Nothing worthy of word pictures, a remarked upon unremarkableness. It’s a world constructed from a detached way of looking at its appearances, a ‘scratch ontology’ as an earlier prose piece has it.
There is a third movement, or lack of it. At one point ‘a sunny splendour … with the power to lift the air and move’ is imagined as having transformed one of the interiors but, once visible, ‘the cartons and packing cases maintain an oppressive inertia bordering on menace’. There’s no time to trace this opposition in Fisher’s writing but it has been there from the start; ‘cemeteries of performance’ threaten to atrophise and astonish. Here they seem equal and opposite forces; mobile light; resistant matter.
However it is not sunlight but darkness that prevails, and opens and closes the text. The first words run: ‘Another absolute black with pinholes picked in it as is the way with absolutes…. The dark deep with respect’, we are told, and it demands it too. ‘Another’ implies we have been here before and it is not to be messed with. The absolute black is the night sky we suppose, but in Fisher’s next move that is as near to metaphysics as we are going to get in this piece, all absolutes are conceived as being pricked with doubt, weak stellar abrasions upon the indefinition and exclusivity of absoluteness. ‘Bright beads magnify what light there is’, but this kind of detail that I am tired of calling defamiliarisation, leaves us with a familiar sensation unattached to objects. We cannot – dare I say? – absolutely refamiliarise it with a paraphrase: ‘that’s the moonlight on the banisters’, or some such. Only in the interiors does ‘the dark drain away’, but even this is qualified ‘And mostly it does’, as if the absolute opposite of an absolute equally must not be entertained. An epistemological anarchism underlines the scratch ontology in Fisher’s solid but fragmentary world.
Finally, though, as so often in this world, blighted as it is by the traces and scars of commerce, institutions and dwellings, and by industry and habitation even by privatization and nationalisation, dirty Nature has its way, or at least its say, as it threatens utility (cyclical or otherwise) with entropy, literally architectural collapse. We are asked by the impersonal voice of the poem: ‘Can it be nature’s way that the first cottage in the terrace should have no back?’ The next (part) sentence is no answer but an evocative description of the tarpaulin registering the movement of nature’s wind (where the back wall was). Yes, we assent, this could well be nature’s way, but we are still blinking in the dark against absolutes, and are not so sure. The ‘two-storey wagon-tilt of canvas bellying and sucking’ is at least an assertion of movement against ‘oppressive inertia’ which the solider institutions harbour.
The poem ends with movement, with cycles even as day contrasts with night, and so the dialectic between light and dark is re-enacted. ‘By day, cooking and washing on the bare earth.’ (This oddly evokes the indeterminate post-industrial fantasy of Fisher’s early prose ‘Starting to Make a Tree’.) ‘By night fireworks start up from across the street outside the only bedroom with a window.’ But we suspect that on this side of the street behind that surviving window, in that bedroom shorn of its back wall, nobody is looking out. No one is there. There are objects, there is even movement, observation without any apparent observer. This is a fully human world (because so worked over by building, cooking, firing fireworks) but an unpeopled one. The poem simply stops at its final station without euphony or moral; the pre-emptive attack on absolutes in the opening words of the piece should prepare us for this. We might then heed the residual ambiguity of the opening phrase: ‘Another absolute black with pinholes picked in it as is the way with absolutes.’ Is it an ‘absolute’ that is ‘black with pinholes’ or the ‘absolute black’ of the night sky we have been facing? It is both; hence ‘the dark deep with respect’. Nothing else.


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