THINKING WITH BIRMINGHAM


THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT: POEMS 1955 - 2005
by Roy Fisher, [Bloodaxe Books,12.00]


Bloodaxe Books comes in for heavy criticism at times for the sheer amount of titles it continues to unleash upon the poetry market (if such a thing exists), but here is a truly impressive gathering of the work of Roy Fisher. At well over 350 pages for 12.00 it represents considerable value when placed alongside slim volumes emanating from Bloomsbury, too.

In terms of content, it includes material which would be very difficult to trace: Fisher's four Fulcrum Press volumes from the late 1960s / early 1970s, 'City', which is now over forty years old (first appearance: Migrant Press, 1961), the two much later OUP collections, A Furnace (1986) and Birmingham River (1994) and much else besides. In other words, an excellent, chunky introduction to the whole range of Fisher's work[1] which supersedes earlier 'Collected' volumes, now themselves out of print.

This volume contains all you need to begin to investigate Fisher's work. He can't be easily 'placed' or conveniently grouped on the map of English poetry : contemporary with Larkin and Hughes, he sought out another poetic route through figures such as Olson, Creeley, Basil Bunting, Edwin Morgan and Gael Turnbull. I had originally planned to describe these poets as 'marginal', but that can't be right : marginal to what? Well, the central Larkin/Hughes/Motion dynastic thrust of late 20th-Century poetry, I suppose, but even thinking in such terms seems wrong-headed and any reader of Peter Redgrove, Thom Gunn or Geoffrey Hill knows that any centralised idea of a canon in this sense needs challenging. Anyway, I linger over this because placed alongside late Hughes or some of the 'Children of Albion', Fisher's serious intent and achievement begins to assume considerable substance, and yet the demise of the Oxford Poetry list  at one point almost conspired to make him invisible again. Naturally,a poet as playfully serious as Fisher has thought about this :

     ...as for my own appearance
     I suppose it inclines more to the
     Philip Larkin side of Ted Hughes's looks...
          ['Paraphrases']

As for his poetry, there is no one-sentence summary capable of covering his entire output. There is the Fisher exploring layers of urban topography, usually in Birmingham:


    
Wars that have come down the streets from the unknown city and the unknown

     world, like rainwater floods in the gutters. There are small shops at street corners,

     with blank rows of houses between them; and taverns carved only shallowly into

     the massive walls. When these people go into the town, the buses they travel in

     stop just before they reach it, in the sombre back streets behind the Town Hall

     and the great insurance offices.'
            [from 'City']


There is Fisher the lifelong jazz buff and musician - the Larkin side of him, if you like - here describing the pianist Joe Sullivan:

     ...jamming sound against idea

     hard as it can go
     florid and dangerous

     slams at the beat, or hovers,
     drumming along its spikes;
            (from 'The Thing about Joe Sullivan')

- this continues for some time, relevant to Fisher's own technique, too. There is also a more experimental, absurdist side to Fisher: he has said he writes in blocks of ideas, systems, shapes, incrementally acquiring a ballast of information in his poetry. If this sounds too seriously experimental, let me also say that he can be quite an accessible, witty writer. He has described himself as a 'sub-modernist'[2], whilst being as wary of the whole Modernist project as he is of any other grouping.

The sequences in this gathering of texts are not tethered chronologically, as a conventional 'Collected Poems' would have them. Instead, several are grouped together because of shared subject matter: Section V, for instance, contains poems dedicated to, or about other writers. Other important sequences such as 1991's 'Texts for a Film' and 'A Furnace, from the mid-1980s, are scattered about. This serves to underline how consistent Fisher's interests have been, but it also prevents the inattentive reader making any quick assumptions about poetic development. In interview[3], Fisher himself tends to downplay this, presenting himself as someone bumbling along, lacking discipline or drive, but this seems suspect, to say the least.  Nevertheless, the industrial landscapes of the Midlands loom large: 'Birmingham's what I think with' as he says at the beginning of 'Texts for a Film', and the usefulness of the place, as a tool for prising open layers of archaeology  and development becomes clear in 'Birmingham River', the second part of the sequence :

     ...the Tame

     gets marched out of town in the policed calm
     that hangs under the long legs of the M6.

     These living waters
     turgidly watered the fields, gave

     drink; drove low-powered mills, shoved
     the Soho Works into motion...

There is a powerful sense of anti-pastoral shot through these poems, and at times, this betrays his roots in the 1950s, the 'Movement' poets and other fellow-travellers.

Interviews with Fisher often suggest a quiet sense of under-achievement and self-deprecation and there are times when he sounds somewhat Larkinesque: 'On the Open Side' with its train-framed view, for instance, the quiet precision of 'Continuity' or the narrative tone of 'If I Didn't'. His openness to analysing perception or experimenting with phrasing sequences, however, usually work to balance this out, not to mention the relatively avant-garde sequences 'The Cut Pages' and 'The Ship's Orchestra'. Nevertheless, an early poem like 'The Hospital in Winter' (1959) can seem alarmingly similar to Larkin's 'High Windows' or the quietist defeat of 'Ambulances', underlining how some of Fisher's work is remarkably accessible and accommodating:

     Far-off, beyond the engine-sheds,
                 motionless trucks
     grow ponderous, their rotting reds

     deepening towards night; from windows
                 bathrobed men
     watch the horizon flare as the light goes.

     Smoke whispers across the town,
                 high panes are bleak;
     pink of coral sinks to brown;
     a dark bell brings the dark down.'

The links here to be investigated are probably further from the Midlands - Olson and Williams' Paterson - but others (August Kleinzahler, for instance) insist upon a more impressionistic realism, perhaps seeing the construct of Fisher's Birmingham as nothing more convenient than an ur-city, serving his purposes even as it is named, district by district, in his lines.

What are these lines, then? In 'Linear', an early poem, Fisher describes travelling 'always through eroded / country, amused by others and other worlds // a line like certain snail tracks / crazily long and determined' - here are the tracks for lucky readers to trace, explore and enjoy. After all, as Fisher admits somewhere, there are more miles of canal in Birmingham than Venice.


          M. C. Caseley 2005

NOTES
1. I would, however, recommend News for the Ear (Stride, 2000), Peter Robinson and Robert Sheppard's homage/ celebration of Fisher, which includes his valuable jazz prose-memoir 'License my roving Hands'.
2.
News for the Ear, p. 119.
3.See, for example, John Tranter's instructive Fisher interview at http://jacketmagazine.com/01 for an excellent, lengthy discussion.