Sunday, July 02, 2006

6. Roy Fisher

The sixth in this series.

Roy Fisher, from Birmingham, England, is easily the best known poet in the anthology. His collected poems, The Long and the Short of It, spans a 50-year writing career that still continues. He is now 76. That book came out on Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe imprint, the UK’s biggest poetry publisher. Fisher isn’t part of the mainstream, but he has been accepted by it, although that doesn’t appear to be important to him. Here’s an excellent article written by August Kleinzahler in the London Review of Books.

What strikes me about his poetry is the sense of place. Wherever a poem is set, the reader is there, with all the sights, sounds and smells of the landscape the words evoke. Fisher is also capable of pulling off surprising and remarkably well-drawn images, and the endings of his poems are never what you’d expect; they surprise, haunt, and live on in the memory.

The first poem Near Garmsley Camp is a good example of all these points. The narrator and friends are coming down a slope on a hot, hazy day. They go down a track and come to a gate, beyond which is:

…an unmarked meadow, thickly
hedged round and floating above itself,
floating a foot above its own grassy floor
as a silky, flushed
level of seed-heads, lifted
on invisible stalks and barely
ruffling; a surface cloudy and soft enough
to turn the daylight;

This a “translucent patch set into/ what seems the opaque ground”. The heat haze above is mirrored on the landscape, except for this one point where everything seems translucent. But the haze in the sky also has its moment of clarity. Although the trees and towers and poles rise into the haze and disappear:

a man stands sunlit and hammering
high on Edvyn Loach church steeple,
trespassing in the air claimed for spirits
by the stone push upwards, and giving
the game away; an entire man standing
upright in the sky.

What a fantastic finish!

The Burning Graves at Netherton centres on a church graveyard. The ground becomes parched and splits, and because there is coal there, smoke curls out the holes. The gravestones keel over:

Strange graves in any case;
some of them edged
with brick, even with glazed white
urinal brick…

This image is memorable enough in itself, with its strange cohabitation of gravestone and urinal, but later in the poem Fisher turns his attentions to the council estate over the hill, a place of decay, boarded windows, cracked roads, and “ a purpose-built/ shop like a battered command-post”. He then echoes the description of the graves in describing the houses:

…Concrete, glazed brick
for limits. A wooded hill
at its back.

So the poem is cleverly constructed, and the proximity between the living and the dead is more than just geographical.

Staffordshire Red is dedicated to fellow-poet, Geoffrey Hill, and it’s a poem that I’m sure Hill would appreciate, about a normal moment where things changed for good. The narrator is driving along a steep road and turns suddenly into through a tunnel of trees before the car comes out the other side. Something has happened to him in that tunnel, something he can’t explain. He then turns round and goes back through again and the experience is the same. The poem begins:

There are still clefts cut in the earth
to receive us living:

now that’s a candidate for best opening lines of the 20th century. Then he goes through the tunnel:

I had not been looking for the passage,
only for the way;

but being suddenly in
was drawn through slowly

- altering by an age
altering again –

and then the road dropped me

There’s a real drama about this poem that cuts to the quick. Fisher is pointed. He paces the narrative well, interspersing the necessary detail with more meditational material. He concludes at the end:

How hard
is understanding? Some things
are lying in wait in the world,
walking about in the world,
happening when touched, as they must.

That’s great – nothing pretentious or overblown, but at the same time thoughtful and liable to stay with the reader. A fantastic poem.

The final poem, Handsworth Liberties, a 16 part poem that takes its cue (I presume) from Handsworth, an area of Birmingham, is much more non-mainstream. The reflections are more abstract, the connections less easy to place together, the leaps in logic and sense more unsettling. But there is plenty of strong writing. Kleinzahler quotes one section in his article. I liked this one:

This is where the game gets dirty.
It plays
the illusion
of insecurity.

give way to hoardings,
to ground rumbles,
the street turns to a bridge –
flare and glitter of a roadway
all wheels and feet.

There’s no substance;
but inside all this
there’s a summer afternoon
shining in a tired room
with a cast-iron radiator,
pipes for a gas fire:
no carpet. No motion.
No security.

Roy Fisher is definitely someone I aim to read more of. The same might be said of Harry Guest whose work I have enjoyed very much. He's next.

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