Selected Poems, by Roy Fisher.
Flood Editions. $15.95.
One of the sorriest results of the battle between stylistic camps in American poetry is that extremely important foreign poets go unnoticed here for decades. The British poet Roy Fisher has written astonishing poems since the fifties, and continues to write them now. According to August Kleinzahler, the editor of this superb Selected Poems, Fisher’s first in the us, Fisher has begun to be widely read in Britain, though he’s outside British house style too. Also a jazz pianist who spent the first forty-two years of his life in Birmingham, England, he worked as a university lecturer in American Studies in the English Midlands but never moved to a literary hub like London or Oxbridge and now lives in Derbyshire’s Peak District. He’s a “lifelong, rather cheerful agoraphobe and hermit,” writes Kleinzahler in his excellent introduction. He “never aspired to a readership. . . . On first learning that his work was being read outside a small circle of poet friends, Fisher froze up for an extended period of time, as he would periodically throughout his writing life.” In spite of that, a collected volume, The Long and the Short of It, published in Britain in 2005, ran almost four hundred pages.
Fisher’s poetry is experimental, but not in the American way. While the influence of American Modernists (particularly William Carlos Williams and various New American poets) is evident, Fisher’s idiom and elegantly complex syntax are British. His poems can be ultra-short or extremely long. Sometimes prose, sometimes lineated, they are dense except when they aren’t, restless except when still, improvisational in feel inside a kind of nonce formal rigor. Even late in life, Fisher doesn’t write obsessively or in the usual ways about death’s approach. The recent, six-line “On Hearing I’d Outlived My Son the Linguist” is extremely moving as it turns away from the fact of death, without grasping for consolation:
Two days since I heard you were gone
suddenly in your forties and me still not quite eighty
and hour by hour today with no whole word all
the emptied patterns of your talk come crowding
into my brain for shelter:
bustling, warm, exact. You’d be interested.
The autobiography is atypical. Fisher seldom relies on personae or traditional narration. Yet he never seems impersonal. His poems simply complicate any movement toward warmth, as at the end of “The Memorial Fountain”:
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—
From the beginning, Fisher’s writing dealt with landscape—urban, rural, sea—which he describes wonderfully. One gets the look of things in the tercets that begin “The Entertainment of War,” which describes the wwii bombing of Birmingham, but description isn’t the point:
I saw the garden where my aunt had died
And her two children and a woman from next door;
It was like a burst pod filled with clay.
A mile away in the night I had heard the bombs
Sing and then burst themselves between cramped houses
With bright soft flashes and sounds like banging doors;
The last of them crushed the four bodies into the ground,
Scattered the shelter, and blasted my uncle’s corpse
Over the housetop and into the street beyond.
The political is often folded into narrative scraps. “The Dow Low Drop,” titled after the steep hill that rises behind Fisher’s Derbyshire house (the stock exchange pun must tickle Fisher) is part (de)creation myth, part environmentalist meditation on quarrying, death, and material goods. Moving back and forth between the hill and artifacts from the Bronze Age grave mounds which have disappeared in the quarrying process, Fisher imagines a future burial:
On a day I could hardly be present
a group I guessed at
came to the ridge here again and opened the mound
laying there three rivets, a grooved bronze dagger,
flakes and a knife of flint, a piece of iron ore
and a bone pin. With these things and others
they placed my own dead body that I had
to be food for the journey
all rivets and the like must make.
Fisher seldom sticks long with a strategy, image set, or technique. “The Ship’s Orchestra,” a long prose “fantasia,” as Kleinzahler terms it, contains gossip about a made-up orchestra and their nicknames for their instruments; a description of how a porthole is made; a discussion of ship pipes followed by a litany of imaginary pipes (“Hope-pipes, love-pipes, fright-pipes”); a sorrowful one-sentence paragraph reading “Amy does not come to me in the night”; and surrealist metaphors that make bizarre realist sense:
At times the sea rises uniformly to become much of the sky, harmless, translucent, golden-grey, with the great sun billowing down under the keel and flaking itself off itself from ear to ear. A wake of hundreds of scooped-out grapefruit halves.
Sometimes this complicated poet simply charms. “Syntax” is an entry in the mini-genre of single-gesture Modernist cat poems (cf. Williams’s “Poem (As the cat)”; Sandburg’s “Fog”):
March. The cat
with eyes askew
rubs her great head hard
against the last stalk of kale
left standing in the mud
till it breaks
and the green juice gleams.
Fisher can also be the world’s best anti-charmer: “It is Writing,” complete below, is an anti-manifesto of sorts, a negotiation between rigor of thought and the seductions of emotional, moral, and linguistic ease:
Because it could do it well
the poem wants to glorify suffering.
I mistrust it.
I mistrust the poem in its hour of success,
a thing capable of being
tempted by ethics into the wonderful.
Jazz poems come early and late. “And on That Note: Six Jazz Elegies” combines tributes to dead artists with an ars poetica:
Wellstood, for forty-odd years,
guessed what there was to do next
and did it.
understanding that music’s
more about movement than structure.
Substitute “poetry” for “music” and the poem becomes a fine reminder to formalists, neo-formalists, and would-be formalists of what matters. “The Thing About Joe Sullivan” (the early twentieth-century jazz pianist) is good jazz criticism, advice for living, and much more—in three grammatically-complex sentences distributed over short-lined couplets. Sullivan’s mood drives his playing, writes Fisher:
a feeling violent and ordinary
that runs in among standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity
that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious
find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;
the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings
make when they get driven
hard enough against time.
Violent, ordinary, rapid, perverse, wakeful, finding corners everywhere, driven hard enough against time: Roy Fisher, wonderful at everything, is best, too, at describing himself.
Space, in Chains, by Laura Kasischke.
Copper Canyon Press. $16.00.
In Space, in Chains, her eighth book, Laura Kasischke, as in much of her previous work, concentrates on matters explicitly feminine and domestic—family, house, yard, town—but estranges them, treating them as specimens. This is a familiar, alluring Kasischke. She’s a supple, capable writer of lineated and prose poems which rely on quick shifts of diction and focus. She never takes a wrong step, stylistic or technical. I wouldn’t mean that as a compliment, normally—rough edges, clunks, and flaws-turned-strengths being the most exciting moments in much poetry. But Kasischke’s intensity and oddity of vision is concurrently social, political, intimate, and physical, and her skills make her discomforting disjunctions authoritative and necessary-feeling rather than merely gestural. In “Time,” a poem hard to explain but weirdly affecting, the death of a mother is set in close proximity to the world wars:
Like a twentieth-century dream of Europe—all
horrors, and pastries—some part of me, for all time
stands in a short skirt in a hospital cafeteria line, with a tray, while
in another glittering tower named
for the world’s richest man
my mother, who is dying, never dies.
Earnest-yet-satirical opening, disparates (horrors/pastries), apparent paradoxes: this is signature Kasischke. Also the difficulty of locating the poem’s subject: the living memory of the dead mother is at the heart of the poem, but the poem is not about that, exactly. There’s a vision of a one-winged bird flying in Purgatory, an autobiographical moment both mundane and perceptive (“I wake up decades later, having dreamt I was crying”), and a figure for sorrow in a “daughter/of the owner of the Laundromat.” Having leapt from Europe’s traumas and tourist delights to a dying mother, Kasischke returns to war and a ghoulishly arresting image, to the hospital cafeteria, then finishes with a mysterious and desolate rhetorical flourish:
and the soldiers marching across some flowery field in France
bear their own soft pottery in their arms—heart, lung, abdomen.
And the orderlies and the nurses and their clattering
carts roll on and on. In a tower. In a cloud. In a cafeteria line.
See, cold spy for time, who needs you now?
Kasischke’s ability to yank a poem through diverse utterances undercuts her conscious staginess. “View from glass door” begins in Plathian portentous domesticity:
I have stood here before.
Just this morning
I reached into the dark of the dishwasher
and stabbed my hand with a kitchen knife.
Kasischke is too witty to sustain melodrama for long. Blood turns cheerily humorous:
Bright splash of blood on the kitchen
that brightness inside me?)
My son, the Boy Scout, ran
to get the First Aid kit—
“View from glass door” becomes incantatory as Kasischke moves to a vision of a family:
Who fended for
and fed me. Who
lay beside me in the dark and
stroked my head.
Kasischke’s mannerisms are moment-by-moment always interesting. But a literary diction, with its artifices and evasions, runs through the lineated poems. This diction doesn’t weaken individual poems with their excellences of craft and meaning, but becomes habitual, making it difficult to remember one from another.
Kasischke’s many prose poems go far to relieve this. There’s more of the physical world in them, more idiomatic language, less clipping of phrase, more emphatic tonal shifts, and a hospitably relaxed music. “Peace” begins amused and dead-serious: “The boy climbs the tree that will be his ruin, and the ruin of his generation.” That’s a real boy and a real tree and, since this is a war poem, also symbolic of soldiers and war danger. A brief description of carnage in a palace feels like it could be part of the boy’s imaginary play. An inside-out image turns the whole poem: “And the box inside him in which his mother resides is velvet and black and without size.” Jewelry box and coffin, boy with mother in his gut instead of vice versa: surreal, hard-headed, and level-gazed, a spectacular invention which makes this sad, frightened, quietly violent poem into something mysterious, also complicated, also—that necessary thing again—real. Necessary too that “Peace” stays close to home in its last sentence: “At the library again today, as at the car dealership and the grocery store, no one says a word about the war.”
That This, by Susan Howe.
New Directions. $15.95.
Susan Howe, renowned for her genre-mixing project-books, won this year’s prestigious Bollingen Prize. The judges laud her career and cite That This, saying it “makes manifest the raw edges of elegy through the collision of verse and prose.” This is a moving book and a smart one. For those who want a way into understanding writing that gets labeled experimental, it could be important, organized as it is from most to least accessible technique.
That This is a series of approaches to the death of Howe’s husband, the philosopher Peter Hare. The book begins in prose, moves to appropriated-text collage interspersed with photograms by the artist James Welling, and concludes with lineated lyric. The first section, “The Disappearance Approach,” is twenty-five pages of clear, utilitarian, plain-spoken, specific prose. It recounts the days following Hare’s death but interrupts that narrative with quotes from autopsy reports, meditations on Ovid, Milton, and the seventeenth-century painter Nicolas Poussin, and more extended commentary on the life, family, and death of the eighteenth-century American Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards, who has haunted Howe’s past work. In her prose, Howe has a burrowing research sensibility and a nearly-affectless writing style. Twenty-five years ago, her important book My Emily Dickinson tracked the shadow-presence of a variety of writers, including Edwards, in Dickinson’s poetry. In a sense Howe is doing that for her own writing here, a kind of self-scholarship, even as she relates her grief-stricken story:
The water was boiling, I poured it over the cereal, stirred it, then stopped. The house was so still. I called his name.I went into his room. He was lying in bed with his eyes closed. I knew when I saw him with the cpap mask over his mouth and nose and heard the whooshing sound of air blowing air that he wasn’t asleep. No.
Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said
“O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” On April 3, 1758, Sarah Edwards wrote this in a letter to her daughter Esther Edwards Burr when she heard of Jonathan’s sudden death in Princeton. For Sarah all works of God are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion. I love to read her husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes.
Death and widowhood are never out of view in That This, but Howe has room for digressive anecdote—for example, that Edwards had ten tall sisters whom “their minister father jokingly referred to as his ‘sixty feet of daughters.’” This helps mitigate an occasional reliance on familiar ironies, as when paperwhites the husband planted go on blooming after his death, or a book arrives in the mail addressed to him. There are familiar triumphs too: the aged artist working through difficulty. We love to hear about Monet’s blindness, Renoir’s paintbrushes strapped to his wrists, or, in this book, Poussin, whose hands “were shaking so badly he was painting through the tremors; in spite of his affliction the surface of the lake at the center of Pyramus is smooth as glass.” But Howe’s cliches seem the more authentic and compelling for being sentimental. After all, this is about her husband’s death. It’s interesting that she confines emotion to the prose section of a book elsewhere careful not to be manipulative. Her lineated lyrics avoid sentiment and concrete detail, and are severely abstract.
That This’s middle section, the part that deals most directly with the language of grief, was first published as an art-book collaboration. “Frolic Architecture” is a sonically delicious title for work that’s neither frolicsome nor particularly architectural. Welling’s photograms are delicate, nonrepresentational but sometimes suggesting gray veils, melted wax, or water blown by wind. Howe’s accompanying texts are physically-manipulated transcriptions from the Edwards family archive. Allusive phrases jump out of word clusters, some intact, some slit but still readable: “will fail you like a Broken tooth or a foot out of joint”...“pursuing shadows & things”. . . “Remember Lot’s Wife”. . . “wild unbounded place.” These operate cumulatively as expressions of states of mind, emotions, and idea—confession-by-proxy.
The seven lineated poems in the third, title section of That This are virtually unpunctuated, all but one a pair of couplets centered on the page. They have a religious feel to them, though they reject the human expression of collective need one finds in hymns. They also form the most problematic, possibly the most essential, part of the book. Typical nouns: Day, type, form, thing, mystery, space, mind. Trees, fields, moonlight, garden—but no real toads in imaginary gardens:
The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually
concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth
This is syntactically nifty, but I can’t help wanting to make sense of it. Is it true? Is it supposed to be? Why is concrete opposed to accidental? I can see that half and whole truths may be accidental—but so? Is music really formed of cloud and fire? Is that half or wholly true, and does it matter which? Which music? Howe’s objects dissolve into their names—the most general kind of naming.
Something Howe says about Jonathan Edwards in My Emily Dickinson might be useful: “Edwards’s apocalyptic sermons voice human terror of obliterationHe exhorts us to turn from the world, to live ascetically, while actively striving to obtain the emotional peace that is grace.” Coming after Howe’s prose and collage sections, the lineated poems make emotional and conceptual sense. At first I longed for a little of Edwards’s crazed eloquence. Then I found in Howe’s ethereal blankness a kind of ascetic practice in the face of terror, linguistic vacuum as a means to emotional peace. I remembered the lake in the Poussin painting, “smooth as glass,” and imagined Howe herself shaking with sorrow. Are these lyrics Howe’s version of Poussin’s lake? I often mistrust writing that says writing can’t adequately express thought or emotion. On its surface, Howe’s “That This” resembles that kind of writing (abstract, elliptical, seeming to court meaninglessness). But Howe’s poems are never idle wordplay. She has a subject, and a purpose: to go on living and working. Howe’s abstract words, in the opaquest possible arrangement, obtain a near-silence “smooth as glass,” like Poussin’s lake: you know how much there is under the surface you can only guess at.
Howe ends That This with a single fragment of a recollection of Poussin by a French writer who encountered him in Rome and remembers Poussin saying of his work “Je n’ai rien negligé.” I’ve neglected nothing. The words, in French, are the last of the book. Howe has sliced a faint x across the words, half-delicately, half-violently, as if with an X-Acto knife. As if regretting—but not obscuring—them.