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Monday, October 26, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Irregular Actions (Allen Fisher)


Allen Fisher: Unpolished Mirrors, Reality Studios.

Allen Fisher: Brixton Fractals, Aloes Books.

Allen Fisher: Necessary Business, Spanner 25.

In 1975 Allen Fisher received the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award for the first volume of Place, a poetic achievement of some magnitude which occupied him during the 1970s, and which Unpolished Mirrors completes, but he has received little institutional recognition since.  His work seems offputting because of its bulk, and because of the way texts necessarily interrelate and form parts of extensive projects.  Within works - particularly Place - the poet’s reading provides ‘resources’ and quotations that are not offered as evidence of a case, but are part of the work’s ‘shading’, the co-existence of mutually cancelling cross-references.  They contribute not to a unity of meaning, but to an expansive semantic indeterminacy.  The work is therefore learned in a curiously off-hand way, and as knowingly self-contradictory and all-embracing as Whitman’s.  Fisher has used both chance procedures and fixed systems to generate texts, but is both anarchistic and committed enough to repeatedly subvert system to his utopian vision.  But to say all this is to present a blurred snap-shot of a vitally important poetic process - a key word for Fisher - and to acknowledge that this review conceals more than it reveals of his total endeavours.

Earlier Place volumes were Olsonian in character, focusing upon a palimpsest London, but Unpolished Mirrors adopts the slightly clumsy style of pseudo-Blakean oracular monologue, with characters ranging from Gardener of ‘the garden of a coming English Revolution’ to the repressive Watling.  London becomes similarly mythical, and there is a concern for both environmental and cultural ‘memory’, and for the dream of ‘potential revolution’: ‘an unhinged garden door/the dreamscape remaining beyond’.  It is an accessible introduction to Fisher’s work and its feeling for a new type of narrative points directly to the later achievements of Brixton Fractals.

In this work, ‘coherence’ is criticized as censorship of the possible, and the poems present their alternatives to such ordering, occasionally as images (‘a stone ejects/from a pond’), but mostly by offering interfering narratives that combine the condensed reference and poetic use of specialist languages of JH Prynne with the juxtapositions and leaps of Tom Raworth.  The excitement of the texts lies in the tension between the forward thrust and the lateral shifts which creates a jagged polyphony, what Fisher calls ‘plurivocity’.  The texts are a ‘participatory invention’, therefore, and the reader has to enter into their ‘irregular actions’ to create a temporary coherence line-by-line.  For the reader, they present an opportunity to imaginatively transform the world (transformation for Fisher being essential to knowledge).  The ‘world’, specifically, is often Brixton, which Fisher defines.

Call it carnival and spell out jouissance and horror.

A nexus of life and description, the child’s

game and dream plus discourse and spectacle.

Such work is well beyond the narrow literary parameters British culture imposes on the imagination and this perhaps explains Fisher’s estrangement from it.  His own theoretical alternatives to its limiting coherence can be found in his uneven essay, Necessary Business, which sketches a poetics of the ‘new pertinence’ which, by endorsing interminacy and polyphony, continually allows for the invention of fresh meaning and - in a phrase that is echoed in Brixton Fractals - attempts thereby to avoid the imagination’s ‘co-option by the State’.

November 1985                                                                             PN Review 53, 1986

Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of Far Language here.