Roy Fisher | A Furnace | Flood Editions: $15.95/£12.44
Roy Fisher’s A Furnace first appeared in one of Oxford University Press’s more elegant editions in 1986. It was, perhaps, Fisher’s second great masterpiece after his first real appearance in print, the pamphlet, City. It is a small pity that Fisher’s reputation is often confined to these ‘pocket epics’, as Peter Barry has described them. When, on ‘Desert Island Discs’ Ian Macmillan chose Fisher’s collected The Long and the Short of It as his desert island book, he was paying tribute to the whole range of Fisher’s writing; writing which ranges from ‘laugh-out-loud’ light verse such as ‘The Poetry Promise’ and ‘Paraphrases’, to the almost L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems such as ‘107 Poems’ and ‘The Cut Pages’, from the profound and delicate lyrics such as ‘The Memorial Fountain’ and ‘After Working’ to the surreal verse novel The Ship’s Orchestra. If City and A Furnace appear to loom large over this other poetry, it is testament to the way in which they encapsulate Fisher’s genius; a genius not only of place, but also of a way of perceiving and writing about place, his unique phenomenology, a visionary, almost mystical, way of seeing and recording.
As Peter Robinson notes, in his excellent introduction to this new edition, Fisher’s method with A Furnace was quite different to his usual, stated method of composition, which was ‘an additive method in which each section is completed without any idea of where the work’s next passage would come from.’ A Furnace, in contrast, was planned. For Fisher, planning a poem ran counter to his idea that a poem should not moralize, that the improvisatory nature of his writing would accumulate detail and precision and not state. As Robinson comments, these contradictions are, right from the beginning, ‘characteristic tensions’ in Fisher’s poetry. City describes a city, in this case Birmingham, in which many of the inhabitants live in abeyance to the ‘authorities’, ‘When these people go into the town, the buses they travel in stop just before they reach it, in the sombre back streets behind the Town Hall and the great insurance offices.’ Not only do these people not use cars, but the buses they travel in stop ‘behind the Town Hall and great insurance offices’; the bland designation of ‘the Town Hall’ is metonymic of the authority which puts the bus stops away and behind, and ‘the great insurance offices’, which insure what exactly? Thus moralizing occurs in Fisher’s writing despite his trying to avoid it.
In A Furnace, the decline of the city is, in part at least, the result of the way in which the city rose and the authorities which drove its rise. As Fisher puts it in A Furnace, ‘Once invented, the big city / believed it had a brain; Joe / Chamberlain’s sense of the corporate / signalling to itself with millions of disposable / identity-cells, summary and tagged.’ Such line endings are characteristic of what Maureen N. McClane calls, in her splendid back cover blurb, Fisher’s ‘unanticipatable yet always right prosody’. Here the line break between ‘Joe’ and ‘Chamberlain’ emphasises both the cheeky informality of Chamberlain’s first name, and also the fall onto the surname, which emphasises, in turn, the literal meaning of the word ‘chamberlain’, one of whose meanings the OED defines as ‘the treasurer of a corporation.’ If Fisher’s ‘millions of disposable / identity-cells, summary and tagged.’ might seem a little broad brush to us now, it is perhaps because Fisher anticipated many of our current concerns about the big corporations and the class divide. If, for us, Facebook and Google are the faceless corporations bent on summarising and tagging us, for Fisher, growing up in pre- and post-war Birmingham, it was the city authorities who reified class divides through their bureaucracies, which, in the last resort, could not halt its decline.
If Fisher’s class and bureaucratic divides might feel a little ‘of their time’, his acute sense of an ahistorical and Heraclitean flux permeates the phenomenology I noted above. This Heraclitean flux is explicitly described in the Preface Fisher wrote for that original OUP edition, and which is reprinted towards the end of this new, Flood edition, ‘A Furnace is an engine devised, like a cauldron, or a still, or a blast-furnace, to invoke and assist natural processes of change; to persuade obstinate substances to alter their condition and show relativities which would otherwise remain hidden by their concreteness.’ Fisher was never afraid of using such heavy-duty metaphors as a cauldron or a blast-furnace to describe the workings of his delicate, scrupulous writing. In the poem ‘Talking to Cameras’, he comments, ‘Birmingham’s what I think with …As a means of thinking, it’s a Brummagen / screwdriver. What that is, / is a medium-weight claw hammer / or something of the sort, employed / to drive a tapered woodscrew home / as if it were a nail.’
Such metaphors illustrate the sense of sheer, physical involvement which Fisher shows in everything he writes; he is one of the most ‘thingy’ of our great contemporary poets. That ‘thingy-ness’ and flux animate his best writing to an almost obsessive degree, as he writes in towards the beginning of A Furnace, ‘Something’s decided / to narrate / in more dimensions than I can know / the gathering in / and giving out of the world on a slow / pulse, on a metered contraction / that the senses enquire towards / but may not themselves / interrupt.’ That ‘something’ is, as Fisher himself would put it, a place-holder, and, as I’ve suggested, his poems are threaded through with a sense that reality has its own animations to which the poet and the poem must pay continual attention. Although he acknowledges the limits to his perceptions with that ‘in more dimensions than I can know’, Fisher more than almost any other contemporary poet, does, in that horribly cliched phrase, ‘challenge us to be as alive and attentive to reality as he is.’
The poem starts with the narrator riding on the top-deck of a bus as it rides through the suburbs of Birmingham. It ends with the life-affirming image of snails on fennel stalks, ‘together and upward; / tight and seraphic.’ In between, Fisher takes us deep into the history of post-war Birmingham, aspects of the Gawain legend, Celtic grave mounds in Spain, the final gigs of the great jazz saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins and much else. Flood’s new edition of the poem has Robinson’s important introduction, the text beautifully laid out on the page, Fisher’s final notes to the poem, and some new and necessary notes of Robinson’s which lay out some of the history which Fisher refers to. The book also includes, as an addendum, ‘They Come Home’, Fisher’s beautiful elegy to the parents of his second wife, Joyce Holliday. This latter, Fisher suggested, could have been part of the final poem, although, even now, it seems like an addition, and not an inevitable part of that whole. As Peter Robinson notes, ‘They Come Home’ is perhaps the immaculate record of too raw an event for it to form part of the overall trajectory of the final text. But it is good to have it reprinted here, to suggest more of the deep humanity which animates Fisher’s writing.
This new Flood edition is a beautiful rendering of Fisher’s greatest writing. Its clear, accessible font displays the careful pacing of Fisher’s trajectory through the poems, and Peter Robinson’s deft editing presents a poem which, as Maureen N. Mclane comments, is ‘Perhaps the last great modernist poem’ showing Fisher’s ‘unsentimental pathos [and] profound tenderness’