Thursday, January 05, 2006

One of the momentous publications of 2005 had to be Allen Fisher’s Place, one of the epic longpoems of the 20th century & one of the foundations of contemporary British poetry. Place is a project on the scale of The Maximus Poems or Pound’s Cantos, 418 pages of superbly crafted work all of which contemplates, directly or indirectly, the term of its title. In Fisher’s oeuvre as I understand it, Place is the first of two such projects, Gravity being the second & current one, although these are hardly all that Fisher has been up to: since 1969, when the then-27-year-old Fisher first published Bavuska, he has had over 80 books & CDs. Just to keep busy, he is also an accomplished painter, publishes Spanner, and is Professor of Poetry and Art at Roehampton University, London.

To an American eye, Charles Olson is obviously the point of reference from which Place takes off, not only because the concept was likewise central to Olson’s spatial conception of history, but also because Place is organized more akin to The Maximus Poems than any other longpoem. It is gathered into five groupings, all of which were issued during the 1970s & ‘80s, tho not in this order:


Eros : Father : Pattern



Unpolished Mirrors

The organization of each is similarly revealing: Place, the original volume & initial section of this book, is subtitled in roman numbers I-XXXVII, and contains, within in it, an internal sequence entitled Lakes, as well as a section subtitled further Making An Essay // Out of Place. The chapbook length Eros : Father : Pattern is subtitled Place 39, and dedicated to the Baltimore experimentalist Kirby Malone. Stane – the term is Scottish for stone – is subtitled Place Book III: XLV-LXXXI – many of its poems or sections have complex numerical titles, such as 76 written as a numerator with 50 & 78 as a denominator, a number of the poems also being listed part of a series entitled Grampians (a Scottish mountain range); some poems are titled even further, for example as letters (say, to Eric Mottram) or “after” a work such as Robert Kelly’s Cities. Becoming, which comes next here, has no subtitle as such, but contains lengthy sections that fill in some of the “missing” numbers in the following order: 44, 42, 43, 41. Unpolished Mirrors has neither subtitle nor numbers, tho many of its sections are individually titled, often employing the word “monologue.” I could be mistaken – my personal Junior Woodchuck’s compass broke down here somewhere – but I don’t think there is Place 38 or 40.

Even beyond poems as letters & the use of monolog, the Olsonian codes hang over Place in poems that are organized as palimpsests, with every line (or in some cases stanzas) at different angles, a notational discourse, references to archival materials, poems (such as “XXVI”) that use horizontal, vertical & even diagonal graphic lines to connect snatches of text. But perhaps what is most interesting here, at least to an American reader – or at least this one – is that Place is not, finally, derivative – this is not imitation Olson. Rather, Place starts very close in spirit, both intellectually & formally, to where Olson arrives in Book III of Maximus, & then develops outward from there. It is, in one sense, precisely the project that Ed Dorn was never able to accomplish, coming to England as Dorn did only to abandon Projectivism there & turn instead toward ‘Slinger, a pop-art philosophical narrative closer in some aspects to the NY School.

Fisher’s own ear is clearly British, as are his concerns (thus a poem such as “the Effra is a torrent” tracks the course of one of London’s underground rivers), but the aesthetic impulse throughout Place always is toward here, this point in the text, the immanence of the word, so that it strikes me as almost impossible, or at least pointless, to quote passages or suggest an overarching course behind the text. One doesn’t follow Place as much as one does immerse oneself in it. Which is a major reason why the presentation of sections “out of order” is never really a problem – wherever you go, there you are, as much here as in the poetics of some very non-Olsonian American poets, such as Phil Whalen. Place is more serious than Whalen’s poetry, perhaps, tho not without its wit – there’s a letter concerning UFOs to the local council, for instance. Perhaps the closest Fisher gets in explaining his initial motives & what became of them is a piece, the third poem or passage from the book’s end, entitled “Second Release: Homage to Charles Olson.” I could quote it here, but I think you need to read the 396 pages that lead up to it first.