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Friday, October 30, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Timeless Identities (Roy Fisher)


Roy Fisher: A Furnace, Oxford University Press.

When Roy Fisher’s Poems 1955-1980 was published, it made available to a wider audience a poetic enterprise of great importance that had hitherto been granted only limited - often small press - circulation.  Suddenly, he achieved what the Americans call ‘visibility’ and he seems to be following Basil Bunting as a re-discovered poet of unfashionable difficulty and suspicious foreignness.

The comparison with Bunting is pertinent: A Furnace, like Briggflatts, is a long poem of ambitious scope, consisting of lyric passages arranged as sequences, employing a variety of technical devices and free-verse styles.  In the marvellously evocative ‘Introit’ to the main poem, Fisher points the reader back, both to his long work City (1961), concerned with his native Birmingham, and to the defamiliarising poems of the 1970s, the period of his perceptual ‘scratch ontology’.

Even in City, Birmingham had to be ‘made strange’ and hallucinatory, but here Fisher is under no such compulsion, although characteristically ‘metaphors, riddles, resemblances’ are continually offered by the surface aspects of things.  But he has a more questioning, less playful approach to the mystery of a perception

that keeps a time of its own,

made up from the long

discrete moments

of the stages of the street,

each bred off the last as if by


In earlier poems these ‘discrete moments’ and their imaginative transformations had variously oppressed and delighted Fisher; in A Furnace they are subordinated to his search for a validating - and not merely scratch - ontology.  Metaphoric play no longer simply counterparts the riddle of evanescent appearances, it enacts the quest for identification in disparity.  Fisher acknowledges the ambivalence of this when he deploys his old trick of emptying the metaphor of its tenor:

a stain in the plaster that so

resembles - and that body of air …

that’s like

nothing that ever was.

What had previously been the operation of an individual post-Modernist imagination has become a universalised, Romantic principle; Fisher notes, with approval, John Cowper Powys’s contention ‘that the making of all kinds of identities is a primary impulse which the cosmos itself has’.  A Furnace attempts to reveal these ‘timeless identities / riding in the flux’ by working on some of the moments at which they achieve personal or historical ‘materialisation’ or ‘the coming into / … the guesswork of the senses’.  They can range from the perceptual transformations implicit in a

skein of connections from

lichens to collapsed faces

in drenched walls

to the ancestral evidence of ‘William Fisher / age ten years, occupation jeweller’ in nineteenth-century Birmingham.  The continual comparison between, and superimposition of, urban Birmingham and rural Staffordshire - which again, owes much to Powys - suggests topographical transformation.

The familiar notion of the ‘palimpsest’ of succeeding settlements on one site is presented as though it were a speeded up film (which accelerates at industrialisation), but Fisher emphases discontinuities of culture.  Cultures are formed by the collision of active forces, not by their collusion, and are entropic: ‘unstable, dividing, grouping again/differently’.  This, combined with frequent evidence of working class scepticism about civic authority in the ‘primordial’ lives of ordinary people, ensures that there is no unifying vision of cultural identity, no totalising myth.  Romanticism’s flight from industrialisation is turned back on itself and a mercurial ‘Nature’ is an inescapable fact, ‘an imperative’, for the urban population.

The poem - though it has a clear form and an elaborate plan - is heterogeneous and unhierarchical.  Fisher’s attempts to encapsulate cultural history do not always quite convince (nor does the occasional lapse into ponderous diction that signals uncertain reverence).  Fisher is working to extend his range in this, his longest work in verse, only by working against the grain of his sensibility.  When a thought or a movement of ideas is presented with the fidelity accorded to natural processes, the writing is sparkingly brilliant; but inert fact and commentary undermine the phenomenologist in Fisher.  However, at his best, a few of his lines can tersely present the balanced relation between his new-found metaphysics and his view of cultural change.


of the unmoving core

comes implacably out

through all that’s material:

walls of battleship scrap,

the raising up of Consett

along the skyline,

the taking of it down again.

March -April 1986                                        Times Literary Supplement, 20 June 1986

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