Roy Fisher wrote a poetry that foregrounds its own artificiality, and this itself is foregrounded in the poems of the 1970s, published in The Thing About Joe Sullivan in 1978. Indeed, foregrounding, in the technical sense, involves ‘all salient linguistic phenomena which in some way cause the reader’s attention to shift from the paraphrasable content of a message ... to a focus on the message itself.’ 44 It resists naturalization, in a way of holding a text in suspension, so that its qualities of saying are extended, its fixity in the meaning of the said, delayed.
‘The Only Image’ consists of a series of simple propositions concerning its opening observation, and is as fundamental to Fisher’s poetics as Williams’ similar framing of the wheelbarrow, or even Stevens’ of his snowman, are to theirs:
Salts work their way
to the outside of a plant pot
and dry white. (DLD, p. 106)
This becomes ‘the only image’ of the title, the only counter in its metaphoric change. ‘The rest,’ the poem states, ‘comes as a variable that shifts/in any part, or vanishes.’ (DLD, p. 106) Linguistic relations, particularly those of metaphor and simile, are as arbitrary and free as they had been in The Cut Pages, although here Fisher is remarking upon the process. The only image can be related, through comparison, to any other. (The ‘salts’ are also, paradoxically, a metaphor for the possibilities of metaphor.)
compare what I like to the salts,
to the pot, if there’s a pot....
The salts I can compare
to anything there is.
Anything. (DLD, p. 106 )
Metaphor, so distrusted by the Movement Orthodoxy (and used only for domestic and limited defamiliarizations by the Martian poets of the 1980s and after), has a clearly subversive, rather than decorative, rhetorical role. In Riceour’s formulation, it
brings together things that do not go together and by means of the apparent misunderstanding it causes a new, hitherto unnoticed, relation of meaning to spring up between the terms that previous systems of classification had ignored or not allowed.
Fisher has called the poem a ‘formal “work-out”’, adding, ‘For me it’s a work of delight in making the picture of the salts on the plant-pot and using them for that great void’ of linguistic relation which lies open to the poet, the general economy of language’s surplus; since it can be compared to anything, no metaphor or simile need be proffered.46 It is this facility of language that allows for the saying to remain elusive to the power of the said that must inevitably embody it, a game of hide and seek between the metaphor’s fixed vehicle and its indeterminate tenors.
‘It is Writing’ defiantly asserts its textuality; it argues for a poetry that frustrates moral interpretation, that implicitly supports the argument of ‘The Only Image’. Poetry becomes foregrounded as the subject of its own discourse, even while the temptations of artifice (in being able to transform suffering) are being ostensibly disavowed.
I mistrust the poem in its hour of success,
a thing capable of being
tempted by ethics into the wonderful. (DLD, p. 108)
Similar scepticism about the function of poetry is evident in the conditional opening lines of ‘ If I Didn’t’, which denies the possibility of foregrounding its artifice, in one sense, in the very act of undertaking it in another.
If I didn’t dislike
mentioning works of art
I could say
the poem has always
already started, the parapet
snaking away, its grey line guarding
the football field and the sea ...
- the parapet
has always already started
snaking away, its grey line
guarding the football field and the sea. (DLD, p. 112)
It is almost as though it were not possible to deal with the epiphany of involuntary memory (‘the looking down/ between the moving frames’) without ‘mentioning works of art’ (DLD, p. 112) The relineation of the repeated report of the perception of the parapet foregrounds the fact of its necessary mediation by a ‘work of art’. The ‘poem’ here contrasts with its anterior memory which, as memory, is also an event. The enjambement of the first occurrence of this phrase attempts to disguise the continuous presence of a particular moment of recollection.
Part of Fisher’s impulse to de-Anglicize England, is realized through foregrounding the aestheticism of the gaze; years after City he is still on the number 15 bus, thinking with Birmingham and the Midlands. ‘In the Black Country’ uses the simple declarative style Fisher developed during the 1970s, and even opens with a simile, metaphor’s weak cousin.
Dudley from the Castle keep
looks like a town by Kokoschka,
one town excited
by plural perspectives
into four of five
landscapes of opportunity
each on offer
under a selection of skies. (P55-87, p. 106)
Fisher distances the empirical Dudley by prolonging the reader’s apprehension of the town, a classic act of defamiliarization. The last line, ‘Art’s marvellous’, is sardonic about the use of art to achieve this, even while the reader is made aware of the possibilities of the actual Midlands town through the incongruous art of Kokoschka; the temptation of the wonderful is suspended. Dudley achieves ‘clarity’ through the very ‘confusion’ of its confrontation with the expressionist style of Kokoschka’s landscapes; the reader’s perception of both has been revitalized and altered; an alternative ethic to that of the wonderful and the marvellous is asserted.
There is a certain instability in the textual voice that ‘mistrusts’ the poem. It is most often a disembodied voice, a position, that the reader reads. As Barthes writes, ‘Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance saying I; language knows a “subject”, not a “person”.’ 47 Fisher dramatizes this lightly, in a poem which, complete with title and dedication opens:
Of the Empirical Self and for Me
In my poems there’s seldom
any I or you –
you know me, Mary. (DLD, p. 109)
Thus the poetic discourse opens self-consciously with a series of puns on its title and the name of the dedicatee, a playfulness at the level of the signifier unusual in Fisher’s work that represents the unstable nature of the self that is barely represented in the text. The empirical self is cut off from its own ‘me’. ‘Me’ is also the ‘M.E.’, the addressed Mary of the text, who is also, ‘linguistically’ as Barthes would say, the position ‘you’. Pronominal usage of ‘I’ and ‘you’ is rejected, but only by their very assertion; ‘the “I” is always located unlocatably,’ as Bell and Lland assert. 48 Each becomes a possible position for the other and the first person plural is fastidiously avoided to preclude intersubjective agreement. However, despite this playful beginning, rhetorical austerity returns; attention shifts from the instability of the self to the nature of that self’s self-confirming apparatus of sense data and perceptual instabilities. Merleau-Ponty claimed that the blending of intersubjective perceptions confirmed the world; Fisher seems to argue the opposite. The poem is concerned, moreover, with that area of tension between the fictive and the real already examined, though now from the point of view of the discrepancies between the self and its perceptual construction in making the world. The night, innocently presented at first, nevertheless limits perception until the empirical selves are once more unstable: ‘two invisible ghosts’. (DLD, p. 109) The senses have defeated their own claims to clarity and replaced it with comic confusion.
A tall man passes
with what looks like a black dog.
He stares at the milk, and says
It’s nice to be able
to drink a cup of
coffee outside at night ... (DLD, p. 109)
Once the man has vanished, this confusion prompts the question, ‘ So-/ What kind of a world?’ (DLD, p. 109) The world is constructed by agents of perception with all their phenomenological indeterminacies; reality is a spectral trace, a mark (those frequent Fisher lexes), something almost artificial, photographically printed: ‘lightning-strokes repeatedly/bang out their reality-prints’. (DLD, p. 109)
‘The Poet’s Message’ continues this enquiry by opening with two parallel questions about the function of subjectivity and text, what kind of ‘message’ and what kind of ‘man/comes in a message?’ (DLD, p. 108) The second of the questions seems more engaging and elicits not so much a clear response as a teasing confession. Its tone is assertive, while its own ‘message’ – the first unanswered question - is curiously oblique and conditional.
get into a message if I could
and come complete
to where I can see
what’s across the park:
and leave my own position
empty for you in its frame. (DLD, p.108)
The self is only the validating principle of the poem insofar as it is an absence, or a ‘position’ in Barthes’ sense. It stands behind the point where the scene focuses on the artificial retina of a camera, and its ‘message’ would ideally be the unmediated view of a characteristic park, which it knows to be an impossibility. The view is blocked by the absent self’s paradoxical self-consciousness. Not much of a man comes in a message, but enough, in this case, to frustrate realistic description.
City had, of course, used memories of a vanishing Birmingham, but the role of memory and its loss, its correlative shadow, become problematic in Fisher’s work of the 1970s. Most of these poems are quite slender with little evidence of metrical contour, and consist of brief, almost gnomic, propositions upon their subjects. In the case of ‘On the Open Side’, Fisher attempts ‘getting Proust down to matchbox proportions’, as he jokingly put it. Not only is the memory fleeting and involuntary, it seems eternal, pre-linguistic, and – more importantly – autonomous:
- the other life,
the endless other life,
endless beyond the beginning
... holds and suddenly presents
a particular, but totally insignificant scene to the mind. (P55-87, p. 111) ‘That was all,’ the poem concludes, ‘Something the other life wanted - / I hadn’t kept it.’ (P55-87, p. 111) The self is disrupted by this autonomous image, strangely significant with its haunting insignificance, its doubtful value. Elsewhere, in surprise, the narrator says,
So I start
at the single recurrence of a counter
I expect never to need. (P55-87, p. 135)
Unlike Proust, the recurrence does not involve the recovery of the past. Fisher is ‘fascinated with memory,’ because of its non utilitarian nature; ‘I’m impressed by its disregard for time and narrative sense. Or even for the simplest categories of thought’. The ‘counter’ can’t be used or exchanged in anything like the market this economic metaphor suggests. Its patterns of association offer not the old, but the new; they do not so much recover the past, as flood the present with the blank screen of nostalgia.
In many ways the obsessive concern with Birmingham (the narrator’s need to think with it as yet another counter) has dictated that later poems, such as the more discursive ‘Wonders of Obligation’, ‘Introit: 12 November 1958’ from A Furnace, his most ambitious long work of 1986, and ‘Six Texts for a Film’ (1994), are re-memberings of the body of the city, and constitute what Peter Barry calls Fisher’s ‘“composite-epic” of urban material’.
‘Handsworth Liberties’ is yet another such attempt, in The Thing About Joe Sullivan, and is one of Fisher’s most impressive sequences. Like all such sequences, the 16 parts do not develop narratively, as they negotiate adolescent memories of particular locations in Birmingham that Fisher associated with particular pieces of music. Indeed it is the street that dominates the sequence, not the people, who appear only as traces upon it: ‘The place is full of people./It is thin. They are moving’. (P55-87, p. 118) Even when
A mild blight, sterility,
the comfort of others'
is invoked, it is still the incomplete yet immobile environment that claims the poem’s attention:
apart from the pavement
asphalt and grit are spread
for floors; there are railings,
tarred. It is all
unfinished and still. (P55-87, p. 121)
Other poems from the sequence consciously de-Anglicize memories of the 1940s, as had parts of City. The procedure to refuse to name objects which then appear indeterminate, a form of semantic indeterminacy developed from The Cut Pages, is introduced to deal with the characteristic material. Thus the presentation of the city horizon, which certainly resembles the northern prospect of one of the clues of ‘Starting to Make a Tree’, ‘pale new towers in the north/right on the line’, operates here through non-descriptiveness, as it were. One of Fisher’s favourite descriptive adjectives is ‘non-descript’.
in a lightheaded air
without image. (P55-87, p. 117)
Realism is forced, not just into the strategies of foregrounded artifice, but into a register of ‘waves’, since there is no presentable ‘image’, a version of the ‘traces’ and ‘marks’ already noted. Occasionally a ‘flicker’ might reveal a partial, but insignificant, image.
There is a world.
It has been made
out of the tracks of waves
broken against the rim
and coming back awry; at the final
flicker they are old grass and fences. (P55-87, p. 117)
Sometimes, ‘At the end of the familiar’, there is stark realist enumeration but with the barest of elaboration:
brick, laurels, a cokeheap
across from the cemetery gate –
a printing works and a small
cycle factory; hard tennis courts. (P55-87, p. 121)
But this exists in a state of tension with formalist abstraction: ‘With not even a whiff of peace/tranquilities ride the dusk’. (P55-87, p.119)
Shklovsky’s formalism is easily mistaken for pure aestheticism, especially when he declares that the ‘object’ that undergoes defamiliarization is not important.52 As has been seen the object – usually Birmingham - for Fisher is very important; there are social and political reasons for his de-Anglicizing. The Russian formalists themselves were rigorously criticized, both by Trotsky and the Bakhtin Circle before the Stalinist years enveloped them all. Shklovsky’s 1940 volume Mayakovsky and His Circle, was a rejoinder to that criticism, in which he reformulates defamiliarization. He repeats part of his 1917 essay, particularly Tolstoy’s claims that ‘if the entire life of many people is lived unconsciously, then that life, in effect, did not exist’. 53 This has an obvious existential and moral dimension often missed in readings of the original essay (as is its insistence upon form). Shklovsky developed this (opportunely) with an examination of some statements of Lenin. His conclusion is that Lenin took an interest in ‘eccentricism in art, a skeptical attitude toward the conventional, and the illogic of the unusual’. 54 Although Shklovsky is trying to prove that ‘eccentric’ art can be ‘realistic’, he is also showing its political potential, that ‘the absurdity of the capitalist world could be shown through methods of eccentric art’.55 One avenue for this radical art would lead to the dramatic alienation techniques of Brecht’s poetics of the theatre; the other would concentrate upon destroying habitual associations within thought and language. In ‘Handsworth Liberties’ – the pun on the second word is intentional – moments of eccentric illumination occur during
a trip between two locations
ill-conceived, raw, surreal
outgrowths of common sense, almost
merging one into the other. (P55-87, p. 118)
Such a meeting of the extraordinary within the quotidian produces
on an ordinary day a brief
lightness, charm between realities;
on a good day, a break
life can flood in and fill. (P55-87, p. 119)
As Shklovsky argued, the most radical art works are not those that thematize revolution or class war. Indeed thematizing itself imposes a limit upon the possibilities of expression.
Memories and things in Fisher’s poetry of this time are often invested with an additional autonomy from reference; things achieve a necessary freedom as the recognisable world is phenomenologically reduced:
Travesties of the world
come out of the fog
and rest at the boundary. (P55-87, p. 122)
These ‘travesties’ are not quite visual or tactile, but synaesthetic, evanescent; they are only
forms of outlandish factories
carried by sound through the air,
they stop at the border,
which is no sort of place;
then they go back. (P55-87, p. 122)
Although ‘they come/out of a lesser world’, they offer an approach to perceptual freedom: ‘I shall go with them sometimes/till the journey dissolves under me’. (P55-87, p. 122)
Fisher has stated that the ‘political content’ of his work consists of ‘descriptions of consciousness, reminders of the complexity of the perceptual mechanisms which show us the world.’ 56 ‘For me,’ he adds, ‘it is the private memories and private fantasies of individuals which actually create the public, social world.’ 57 An art that consciously defamiliarizes breaks the false perceptual automatism which habitualizes readers to a particular version of social reality. In the fourth poem of the sequence there is yet another trip unnamed between locations, one in which all that is solid melts into a world of exchange that is not primarily economic:
Something has to happen here.
There must be change.
It’s the place
from which the old world fell away
leaning in its dark hollow.
We can go there
into the seepage,
the cottage garden with hostas
in a chimneypot
or somewhere here
in the crowd of exchanges
we can change. (P55-87, p. 118)
More on Roy Fisher here: