Tuesday, March 01, 2011

O'Brien on Fisher

I'm delighted to feature a review by Sean O'Brien of last year's two books on and by Roy Fisher.

Roy Fisher: Standard Midland (Bloodaxe, £7.95)

An Unofficial Roy Fisher, edited by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books, 12.95)

In ‘Inner Voice’, Roy Fisher records his widower’s habit of talking himself through mundane tasks: ‘The monologue’s so stupid / I do it in farting Mockney / or worse, mincing Estuarian: none of it worth /the touch of my own Standard Midland.’ Standard Midland and An Unofficial Roy Fisher mark the 80th birthday of one of the best and most original English poets now at work. Roy Fisher has always been fruitfully ‘unofficial’, at best uninterested in the alleged metropolis, writing as a modernist in frequently anti-modernist times while winning readers of all shades of opinion. As well as a fascinating selection of uncollected work, An Unofficial Roy Fisher includes poems, essays and informal writings in tribute to Fisher by numerous poets and critics, many of whom would agree on little else. In this sense Fisher fulfils Wordsworth’s requirement that the poet create that taste by which he (or she) is understood.

Fisher is England’s major poet of the city, the city in question being his native Birmingham, from which he accessed literature, art and jazz (his other job is as a pianist). There was a popular 1960s TV private detective series set in Birmingham, starring Alfred Burke, called Public Eye, and this is the function Fisher fulfils in his poems: enquiring in order to see what is actually there. City (1961) was psychogeography before the practice had that stupid name. As another poem says, ‘Birmingham’s what I think with’, while Standard Midland describes the speech of Midlanders, dwellers in an England-within-England.

Retiring from university teaching, Fisher moved to the Peak District, where he applies the same methods of enquiry to a different landscape: hills, ridges, farmland and old industrial sites. In the hamlet of Brough-on-Noe in the High Peak, he celebrates a secret plenitude: ‘What’s good / is the way there seem to be / more waters than there are, poured / out of the rows of hills / to the valley bottom. There seem / to be more side lanes and alleys than there ever were’ and concludes ‘There’s / no single place to be / at Brough’. As he states in a poem on one of Ivon Hitchens’s pool paintings, where the perspective is felt to move under the gaze, the here and now may offer ‘more than one life’.

Fisher has always been distrustful of metaphysical and moral ambition, at any rate in his own work, but his eye produces startling juxtapositions which provoke those very temptations in the reader. In one sense, ‘On Spare Land’ is about somewhere nothing is happening: ‘Commons without commoners / the Unadopted. A footpath worn / from corner to corner. Wormwood.// And how at the edge the hoardings / paralyse words high up / in the common air.’ In another, though never stating as much, it continues the history of the Enclosures by which land, ‘the common treasury’ sung by the Diggers, becomes property.

It seems to be the inbetweentimes of things that most stimulate Fisher. His work is often quite depopulated. Its settings – streets, buildings, neglected districts, places lodged between other places – open themselves to the imagination that happens, not quite accidentally, along for a look. The effect of such an intense regard for the material particulars of time and place might be described as an uncanny ordinariness. It is interesting to imagine how, in some unlikely earthly paradise, television property programmes would be replaced by the study of location for its own sake and ours. Fisher’s prose poem ‘Stops and Stations’ would make an excellent introduction: ‘High over the little town and the railway in its cement cutting, a vacant institution among trees. Has been a small hospital, will be again: a certain swank in the panelling. Goes every so often into commerce until commerce fails every time. Night thins out and the dark can drain away out of the corridors. And mostly it does.’

Sean O'Brien


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