THE NEW MAPPED ON TO THE OLD

Place
by Allen Fisher
[Reality Street, 15.00]


This is a very big book, the antithesis of the slim tome sometimes associated with poetry. It is to say the least of it ambitious in many ways, expansive in time but returning to places again and again. Much of it is centred around Lambeth and its rivers, most of it around South London. The best of it is this anchored, deep rooted sense of  place - if ever a book were well-named, this is it.

                 under Ruskin's bridge
     joined by the shed from Brockwell Park
     described by the lady living at 32 Tulse Hill
                    ('Place IV')

The worst of it concerns sexual acts unattractively metaphorised in the mythic mode of the 'Greene Man' or just not nice. People are slotted in, subsumed in the genius of place. Here:

     warm waters locking us our spoons
     sponways into one another's bowl

there:

     My panting frame holds to her fast breathing
     to sow the field lip lip press

I find it jarring, ask is it part of the groundplan, something necessary to Fisher? When he returns to place as mapped, he's on much more certain ground.

Introduced as an essay in fragments and explained as a production with its roots in Fluxus, we can read the book in many ways - as a commonplace book (as an un
commonplace book), as a bedside book, a geographical aide-memoire, a sarf lannen I-Ching, even as a book of poetry. A train journey book yes, but my 4 hours down to Birmingham New Street didn't even begin to exhaust it.

I found it in a way comparable to the Wiccipoedia
, personal, slanted, skewed even, lots of telling of things, lots of information, vast quantities of desk research processed in a puzzling fashion, some seemingly unadulterated, some passages crystal clear. Then again he can be verbose but too clipped, a dichotomy well suited to Fluxus. Fluxus remember was behind both Yoko Ono's very concentrated Grapefruit and Joseph Beuys' opaque and now seemingly spurious personal myth-making.

Fisher's relentless patrolling of his manor  make this certainly a Londoner's book, more particularly a Southwest Londoner's book; the obsession with that particular patch of earth does not necessarily travel well. Admittedly, there are other locations, for example he does venture to the Grampians in 1974. And the particular must always stand for the general. Nevertheless, I lived in Lewisham, and Lewisham is what I'm on the lookout for. What of a reader in Sheffield, Manchester, Dundee?

Always the theme is of the new mapped on to the old, and the feeling of maps and charts pored over at length, the old enduring beneath the new:

     the grass over old trails
         ('Lakes XXXII')

enduring but in a different form:

     Mardale is still there - the guide says so
          ('Lakes XXXII')
the new not new:

     on the road the modern barrows
          ('for Beau Geste Press VIII' )
 
Among the most significant of the old-beneath new for Fisher,  the underground rivers of London carry endless streams of meaning.

How Fisher works year on end through these themes is very much what he brings to the party, working like a dowser on things hidden close by. On he goes.

The onward rush of the book is undeniable but exhaustion sets in. I found myself unable to read it (when not train bound) for more than twenty minutes at a time. The thread of understanding, of following a narrative is more keenly missed in a work of this length than in shorter pieces. Which is not to say that repeated reading will not prove rewarding. The thirty years of its making might indicate the time-frame for getting this book to yield itself up.

Much rushes past me ununderstood or perhaps misunderstood. Finally on page 330 we get a revealing footnote. Elsewhere I pick up odd references which I understand - to Manzoni, to Duchamp's love-gasoline. And to Alfred Watkins' The Old Straight Track
in 'Place VIII' as Fisher reflects on the web of leylines around the planet. I know that place. It's called the nineteen-seventies. Elsewhere, how much have I missed due to my own ignorance, tiredness or haste? For small example, my son told me that the 'mole' on page 326 is a physical quantity, not as I thought a little spade-footed creature. I begin to see that poetry with explanatory footnotes may not be, as I so long believed, a contradiction in terms.

I like best the simplest descriptive pieces such as 'Logos: Mother: Matter: 2' on page 303: very short lines, strange word breaks (good here, not always successful).

     these excellent "barbers
                of breath"
     make home
     from making jer
                kins

Another piece which strikes home directly is the list which stands in for a map - a list of places on a circumference which marks a parish boundary. It may not be in Fisher's words but be a quote or inclusion. Lists and maps, and on pages 350-351, a list of maps. A good list, too.

But Place
cannot be improved on - for all its defining historical and geographical sureness it remains the hermetic world flagged at the outset. Possibly every word is imutable - the programmatic production method is hinted at but not revealed.

As it stands, as a whole, it's great stuff. I would love to see what one might call the 'score' for its production. That, I think, could be better still.

           Robert Joyce 2005