Hard Against Time: On Roy Fisher
There’s a scene in the documentary film Birmingham’s What I Think With (1991), directed by the Northumbrian poet Tom Pickard, in which Roy Fisher happens upon the house in working-class Birmingham where he was born in 1930 and lived until he was 23. The house has a fresh, new door, and the poet, a large white-haired gent in a parka, gives it a knock. A young Sikh boy answers. Fisher introduces himself and inquires whether he might have the old door, which he had noticed in the rubbish. His courteousness wins the boy over, and later we see the two studying a sandstone crag in a nearby wood; Fisher takes out a penknife and digs in, showing the boy how easily sandstone crumbles. Upon that foundation, the poet points out, Birmingham was built.
Fisher, now 81 and still a perennial outsider in British poetry, has just had his first Selected Poems published in the United States. It’s long overdue, considering that as an accomplished poet and jazz pianist, Fisher has owed much to our free verse and free jazz. But his reputation rests largely on his scrabbling penknives into British bedrock, beginning with his first book, City (1961), and continuing through works like The Dow Low Drop (1996), which, as Fisher explains, takes its title from “the steep but backless hill that rises behind my house in an upland valley near the headwaters of the Derbyshire Dove. It is part of a line several miles long, formed from limestone of exceptional purity and until recently topped for some three thousand years by many grave mounds of Bronze Age dignitaries, set so as to be clearly visible from their farmlands to either side.”
The bedrock of Fisher’s land- and cityscapes is his preoccupation with time, and the struggle to grasp its scale. Tracing the imprint of time on sandstone and soil, or streets and buildings, is a challenge to trifling human memory. But whenever our forgetfulness falters, morbidity creeps in. Consider “The Memorial Fountain,” which starts with a faithful description of what is seen and then grapples with the mood of asceticism memorials impose on public space:
The fountain plays
through summer dusk in gaunt shadows,
against a late clear sky,
water in the basin
where the column falls
rapid and wild,
in cross-waves, in back-waves,
the light glinting and blue,
as in a wind
though there is none….
people on the public seats
embedded in it, darkening
intelligences of what’s visible;
private, given over, all of them—
As for the fountain:
nothing in the
beyond what shows
It’s like this often—
I don’t exaggerate.
In its setting and prosody, “The Memorial Fountain” calls to mind three of Fisher’s American predecessors: William Carlos Williams and the descriptions of the city in Paterson; Charles Olson and his “open field” poems about Gloucester; and George Oppen and the spare phrasal fragments with which he pieced together the poems in Of Being Numerous. Fisher soaked up the influence of these poets at a time when they were either unknown or dismissed in Britain. As for Fisher’s remove from the literary culture of his time, it has something to do with his geographical distance from the London literary scene. But it is also preserved by his poems, with their reticence and deliberate drabness, like the camouflage of a fledgling avoiding predators. (The young Fisher stopped writing for a period when he caught wind of a rumor that strangers were reading his poems.) The avuncular Fisher of Pickard’s documentary is different from the poet one encounters on the page—gimlet-eyed, impersonal, critical. “The Memorial Fountain” ends:
And the scene?
a thirty-five-year-old man,
by temper, realist,
watching a fountain
and the figures round it
in garish twilight,
to distinguish an event
from an opinion;
intent and comfortable—
A deflated posture distinguishes the “thirty-five-year-old man”; Fisher indents and gives a parenthetical air to the description of his life’s work. After all, he does not “exaggerate.” One might doubt the modesty of a man who is, after all, an artist, but one cannot question the severity of the style—there is no dissembling in it.
“The Memorial Fountain” was written in 1966, continuing the important work of City, which contains one of Fisher’s earliest and best-known poems, “The Entertainment of War.” In that ironic title lies a tangle of feelings particular to Fisher and the postwar provincial England the poem documents. The poem recalls how an aunt, uncle and two cousins Fisher barely knew perished in the Birmingham Blitz (between August 1940 and April 1943, some 2,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Britain’s second-largest city). The 10-year-old Fisher can’t pretend to mourn them; he registers, instead, his “classmates’ half-shocked envy” at the attention cast upon him by his kin’s misfortune, and the drawings of naked blondes in the notebook he inherits from a slightly older cousin (along with his pencils).
The British critic Angela Leighton has called “The Entertainment of War” “one of the coldest elegies ever composed,” but it seems so only because the poet refuses to embellish the feelings of his 10-year-old persona, acknowledging instead something no adult could admit: “And the end of the whole household meant that no grief was seen;/Never have people seemed so absent from their own deaths.” That’s not entirely true:
But my grandfather went home from the mortuary
And for five years tried to share the noises in his skull,
Then he walked out and lay under a furze-bush to die.
The grief wasn’t actually absent, only protracted. Fisher’s lack of immediate grief for his kin will transmogrify into a lifelong concern with memory and elegy, and with the less transparent feelings that become emergent only with reflection:
This bloody episode of four whom I could understand better dead
Gave me something I needed to keep a long story moving;
I had no pain of it; can find no scar even now.
But Fisher’s poems belie the claim that he can “find no scar even now.” The “bloody episode” bequeathed to him not only the impulse to elegize but the imperative to criticize what he calls “the fiction”:
But had my belief in the fiction not been thus buoyed up
I might, in the sigh and strike of the next night’s bombs
Have realized a little what they meant, and for the first time been afraid.
What Fisher means by “fiction” is that naïve “willing suspension of disbelief” that was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s formula for poetic faith. It is this fiction that persuades us that we will never be the victim; the adult Fisher atones for the fiction to which his 10-year-old self clung. This atonement takes two forms: skepticism toward personal emotion and austerity of style. Because he “had heard the bombs/Sing and then burst themselves” over Birmingham, this poet will not mimic them or call attention to himself with verbal fireworks. His prosody shuns the musical effects of meter and rhyme that his near-contemporary and fellow realist of provincial England Philip Larkin employed with a vengeance.