Rooting for Birmingham

John Kerrigan

  • The Dow Low Drop: New and Selected Poems by Roy Fisher
    Bloodaxe, 208 pp, £8.95, February 1996, ISBN 1 85224 340 6

Since the publication of Roy Fisher’s sequence City, in 1961, his work has been praised by fellow poets, but his refusal to strike marketable postures, during a period in which reaching an audience has increasingly depended on a poet’s willingness to do so, has kept him relatively unknown. This neglect is the more understandable given Fisher’s publication history. Many of his early pieces were circulated in fugitive pamphlets. Like the Collected Poems of 1968, the superbly crafted Matrix (1971) was published by Fulcrum Press – a by-word, in those Movement-dominated times, for what was taken to be wayward experimentalism. Only with The Thing about Joe Sullivan (1978), published by Carcanet, and two OUP editions of his collected poems (1980 and 1988), did Fisher turn to houses equipped to reach ‘mainstream’ readers. Now he has gone the way of all poets and taken his selected works to Bloodaxe. It is to be hoped that The Dow Low Drop will not be lost in the sheer bulk of that outfit’s throughput – though it would somehow be typical of Fisher if his gesture towards a popular readership proved yet another route to self-effacement.

Until he was about forty, Fisher lived almost continuously in Birmingham. The city was his imaginative centre: what Paterson had been to Williams and Gloucester, Mass. to Olson. Those American precedents would come to matter over the years, but in Fisher’s early work the co-ordinates were set by Eliot, Rilke and Urban Renewal. The waste land in City is Birmingham, gutted by postwar development and stripped to perceptually vital surfaces by the poet’s phenomenological self-consciousness. The sequence’s spasms of febrile expressionism (‘The foetus in the dustbin moves one claw’) are as recognisably Eliot-like as the Prufrockian stance of its narrator: ‘All I have done, or can do/Is prisoned in its act.’ Yet, if City sometimes reads as more literary than lived in, it is innovatively alert to place. Registering the mundane intensities of ‘Soot, sunlight, brick-dust; and the breath that tastes of them’, its vistas open out onto things, not into the extroverted subjectivity of so much loco-descriptive verse. This clarity is especially sharp in the revised text of City, published in 1968: the version which (despite the 1961 given on its contents page) opens The Dow Low Drop.

Fisher rewrote City not least because he came to feel that the alienations of its narrator owed too much to his own sense of being oppressed by local detail. With a photographic memory for places, his early commitment to Williams’s aesthetic, ‘no ideas but in things’, went so readily with the grain of his sensibility that the futile plenitude of Birmingham drove him into a creative cul-de-sac. In a state of empirical overload, he found himself confronting the self-defeat which is recorded in ‘Seven Attempted Moves’:

A cast concrete basin
          with a hole in the bottom
Empty but for
          a drift of black grit
Some feathers some hair
          some grey paper.
Nothing else for the puzzled face to see.

We know that this typical section involves an exhausted encounter with the real, rather than a scant description of the commonplace, not just because the poem diagnoses a stalemate but because its thwarted scope and movement relate to a wider frustration which shortly afterwards precipitated a five-year writing block. Fisher only broke through his perplexities when, in 1970, he piled up blank pages cut out of a notebook and used them with purposive undeliberation to write pieces of disconnected prose and poems about locale. He began to rework his sense of place from the ground up: from the ground, that is, of writing.

The change can be measured by comparing the start of City with that of ‘A Poem not a Picture’. Where the early text intimates fresh horizons by describing the clearance of land ‘On one of the steep slopes that rise towards the centre of the city’, the post-block poem – written, paradoxically though not unusually, in prose – begins: ‘On a ground remarkable for lack of character, sweeps of direction form.’ These are the marks of script on paper, the painterly squiggles from which poetry grows (serious composition, for Fisher, is always graphic), and the poet looks on with interest as they conjure up a text: ‘Out of a scratch ontology the sweeps of direction form, and, as if having direction, produce, at wide intervals, the events.’ The creative freedom established here is exploited with subtlety in the oblique vers libre of Matrix and the more confidently discursive Thing about Joe Sullivan. Location becomes theoretical; the fabric of Birmingham is reconstituted in lyrics which use urban structures to image the shapes and potentialities of making: ‘The window/filled with reflections/turns on its pivot.’ Fisher still addresses the matter of his city: the ‘Handsworth Liberties’ cycle is one of the best works of his mid-career. But there is a new interest in how places are made in writing, in the chorography of a page.

It is sad to find ‘Handsworth Liberties’ excluded from The Dow Low Drop, and regret becomes disgruntlement when the sheer extent of the cuts in middle-period work – Matrix reduced from 54 pages to three – becomes apparent. Chronology goes astray as well: much of The Thing about Joe Sullivan is reproduced in the Bloodaxe selection, but the order of the texts conforms neither to that of the Carcanet edition nor to the date-of-composition arrangement so valuably given in the OUP collected poems. The only plausible conclusion is that the poet has conspired against himself to come up with Roy Fisher Lite. The Dow Low Drop repeatedly privileges comic verse over experimentalism. The two are not, of course, incompatible. Like the Cubists, and his hero Kokoschka, Fisher can be a deft comedian even when most bracingly Modernist. But The Dow Low Drop has a bias towards the whimsical which squares with the claim in its blurb that Fisher’s ‘reputation ... as a difficult poet is wrong: this book shows that he is one of the funniest, most open and liberating writers of his generation.’ In a poem called ‘The Making of the Book’, Fisher once produced the advice: ‘Let the Blurb be strong,/modest and true./Build it to take a belting;/they’ll pick on that.’ The blurb of The Dow Low Drop certainly invites a belting, because it only fits where it touches. Too much has been sacrificed in the attempt to package Fisher as a Bloodaxe crowd-pleaser.

Fortunately, space is found for the whole text of A Furnace. By the time he wrote this in the Eighties, Fisher had moved north of Birmingham to the hills of Staffordshire. Being at a physical remove from the mass of urban data seems to have helped him confront, once more, the city where he grew up. But the burden of place was also eased by the collapse of West Midlands industry: the Birmingham of the Forties and Fifties, which crammed the poet’s memory circuits, was receding into history as A Furnace took shape in his notebooks. That sense of living through a period of change was formative as well as enabling. Fisher’s Modernist allegiances have generally made his work more spatial than historical in reach, but A Furnace makes room in its spiralling structure for allusions to medieval settlement along Dane River, to the emergence of Birmingham as a workshop town, to its titanic growth during the Industrial Revolution and its post-industrial decline: ‘waste cavities,/defenceless structures in collapse; grey/blight of demolition’. Like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, A Furnace vividly counterpoints the often brutal past of the Midlands with the banality of its modern condition but it also, just as ambitiously, superimposes the landscape of Staffordshire on the conurbation which threatens to engulf it.

Though intensely analytical, Fisher is a visionary leveller: his politics are close to Blake’s. Like the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he wants to cleanse the doors of perception, to radicalise by writing verse which is (as he once told an interviewer) ‘a subversive agent, psychologically, sensuously’. Those designs on the mind and the senses help explain why A Furnace so often modulates into epistemological self-scrutiny. It is not that any one mode has priority within the poem: Fisher’s levelling impulse gives his work an accretive movement, sceptical of stylistic hierarchies and formal centres. But material which another writer would frame into descriptive vignettes is typically juxtaposed with philosophical flights, or is inflected with an awareness of how the ‘involuntary/strokes of my mind, dark/swings of a fan-blade’ shape what is perceived. At its most inwardly Romantic, A Furnace invests phenomena with the speed of the imagination:

Mercurial nature, travelling fast,
laterally in broken directions, shallow,
spinning, streaked out in separate lights, an
oil film dashed on a ripple ...

Elsewhere, it draws on the rhetoric of Blake’s late prophetic books, denouncing the mansions of Victorian plutocrats ‘strung along ridges/upwind of prosperity built in infernal/images below’, and rounding on the iniquities of a later capitalism:

This age has a cold blackness of hell
in cities at night. London
is filled with it, Chicago cradles it
in ice-green glitter along
the dark of the lake. Birmingham Sparkbrook,
Birmingham centre, Birmingham Castle Vale
hang in it as holograms. For now

Puritan materialism dissolves its matter,
its curdled massy acquisition; dissolves
the old gravity of ponderous fires
that bewildered the senses,
                         and for this
glassy metaphysical void.

This grand and angry stuff is at the limit of Fisher’s range. It risks toppling over into the Children of Albion vacuity which mars the work of Allen Ginsberg: as a result, it raises interesting questions about the role of Romanticism in Fisher’s work. In a poem from 1966-7, called ‘The Memorial Fountain’, Fisher dispels the Romantic aura which the spontaneous overflow of a fountain can still evoke. Resisting all emotions which might be thought pathetically fallacious, he pictures himself as

a thirty-five-year-old man,
Poet,
          by temper, realist,
watching a fountain

but then deflates his stand-offishness with the put-down: ‘Romantic notion’. The idea that one can get outside the language and sensibility of an era with enough detachment to be a ‘realist’ is itself, Fisher suggests, the product of Romanticism. Two decades further on, a less rebarbative accommodation with the Romantic can be found in A Furnace. It is true that, in his Preface (regrettably omitted from The Dow Low Drop), Fisher puts some distance between the clean-burning intensity of his creative furnace and the smoky atmospherics which he calls ‘Gothic’. But the poem is dedicated to John Cowper Powys, whose Atlantis, one of his most eccentric novels, is cited as a source. As Fisher himself points out, A Furnace inherits Powys’s ‘Romantic notion’ that ‘the making of all kinds of identities is a primary impulse which the cosmos itself has’: it shows the life-forms of the English Midlands, the social systems and cultural infrastructure, emerging mystically, as well as cybernetically, out of the flux of history.

In other, less exalted moods, Fisher can see that Birmingham suits his poetic temper because it has been picked up and put down by its inhabitants, used instrumentally, like a tool. He explores that side of his art, and its correlation with place, in the wryly magisterial ‘Talking to Cameras’, in Birmingham River (1994). Readers of The Dow Low Drop will look in vain for it, however, or for anything from that book, no doubt because, since Birmingham River is still on the OUP list, Bloodaxe was unable to reprint from it. The result is an even more awkward gap than the one where Matrix should be. The 13 closing pages of ‘New and Uncollected Poems’ nonetheless prove that, in his mid-sixties, Fisher remains as technically adroit, and alert to the moment, as ever. In ‘The Dow Low Drop’ itself (a poem named after an escarpment near Buxton, though with a quibble on slumped economic indicators), there is a range and perceptual rigour reminiscent of A Furnace. Fisher also includes a lyric called ‘Hand-Me-Downs’ which, when it appeared in Klaonica: Poems for Bosnia (1993), lent moral dignity to that sometimes distasteful display of hearts on sleeves.

Bloodaxe always does well by its authors when it comes to cover design. Fisher’s gets an eye-catching Kitaj, but a number of curious readings blot the pages of The Dow Low Drop. There is even a typo in the text of ‘Irreversible’, Fisher’s entertaining poem about misprints, though its final line – a tribute to Yeats – is right:

Chisellers! cut deep
into the firm, glistening
sand—

Norseman pass by!

In the end it must be a good thing that the imprint of the Norseman Eric Bloodaxe – a tenth-century king of Orkney – did not take Fisher at his word, and pass him by. The Dow Low Drop will introduce new readers to an array of distinguished work. It is, though, an interim book, quite probably chiselled in sand. What we need, as soon as possible, is an expanded Collected Poems, taking in not only A Furnace and the writing which has followed it, but various earlier pieces still left out in the cold – not least the remarkable Cut Pages of 1971.