Slakki: New & Neglected Poems, Roy Fisher, Bloodaxe, 2016, £9.95 (paperback)

Float, Anne Carson, Jonathan Cape 2016, £16.99 (paperback)

 

Roy Fisher’s new collection, Slakki, (Old Norse for a shallow depression among hills) looks calmly over a lifetime of neglect. Not by publishers, who have loved his poetry from the early 1960s: ‘The neglect has been entirely mine,’ Fisher says. Many poetry-lovers, hazy as to who exactly he is, might admit as much.

Fisher is a Birmingham-born poet’s poet yet so easy to read that his works could be more widely enjoyed. Here’s the last stanza of ‘A Garden Leaving Home’:

The plot filling up fast with curved shapes,
some very small, some moving; brambles
arching above themselves and breaking in waves
down inside the boundary wall. And above,
the patch where design had planted saplings at random
to develop the pretence of a little wood – rowan, field maple, hazel,
goat willow, crab, walnut, sloe – had become
the little wood.

A short essay that concludes the book, ‘Roy Fisher on the Nature of Neglect’, describes how over half of Slakki’s poems are taken from the leavings of  a cull made nearly fifty years ago. In 1968, when his first Collected was published, these poems were put aside in that climate of ‘vicious reviewing’ because they might need a ‘stronger supporting context’. Is this book that context? The three sections go back in time, from contemporary work in the first part through a set of 1960s poems to the final third section of heavily ornate poems from the 1950s. It is worth reading through the book back to front to appreciate how a lifetime of writing experience delivers great effects with much less apparent sweat. Which is why the supporting context, of course, is age and the reverence due to it.

Surprisingly, some of the young poet’s poems deal with age. Perhaps the apprentice poet looked far forward and wrote a few morsels for his old self to feed on, such as this from ‘Silence’:

Giant legs of stone
Can become old men’s
Crumpled trousers.

And here is the complete ‘1941’, a poem from the new – young – poems in section one, looking back just as his old poems look forward:

Too early in his career for Merleau-Ponty
to have appeared on the syllabus of Wattville Road
Junior Elementary School as I was leaving it
with the bomb-shot windows hanging loose
and the useful part of my education completed

And in any case French Thought
stood not a chance so soon after the Fall.

A matter of waiting a few years once again
for English Blake to uncoil.

‘1941’ brilliantly exemplifies one habit of Fisher’s later style, to leave the main verb out of a sentence, giving the impression of a friend sharing a thought, no big deal, not worth a complete sentence but maybe of interest. This is characteristic Fisher, deflationary, a man who might neglect his poetry to play jazz piano, a skill of his, or tackle the garden. It’s the poet- voice that he describes as arriving when he was thirty: ‘I would give myself the slip and write more casual pieces, invariably begun from chance operations. …they seemed to me very flimsy…but I think they show the beginning of a thread that has persisted through almost everything I’ve done since.’

Maybe Fisher misses his baroque twenties. Here is the final poem in section one:

While there’s still time to make dispositions
I want it put about that when I come back
it won’t be, as you might have been supposing,
as a cat or a capybara. No: I shall return
in the form of a nut-brown silver-banded
bassoon.

…                                             Make no mistake:
my voice will be heard once again and as never before.

—————————–(‘While There’s Still Time’)

That’s a loud instrument to bring such a modest poet back from heaven. Roy Fisher really won’t need it.

It’s no surprise to find Float, Anne Carson’s latest poetry collection and sixteenth book, comprises twenty-two chapbooks with a cover note: ‘Reading can be freefall.’ This multi-award winning Canadian poet is the most fun a fragmented modernist can be. Yet the heady invitation to read in any order is avalanched by systems, formal and otherwise. Float’s lyricized grammatics, essays, prose poems, plays in numbers, parts, chapters, even poems that riff off the fact that poems are just piles of lines, all present the paradox of an office in chaos.

One chapbook, titled Possessive Used as Drink (Me),  is  a  set  of  sonnets. This gives a nod to the master of logic, Lewis Carroll, who labelled  a  Wonderland  bottle  ‘Drink  Me’.  The  sonnets  are sometimes hokey  and  sometimes  mind-bending.  ‘Recipe’  has  twenty-eight  lines:

He hers himself she
his herself me mine
myself here
we all are in the kitchen.
Now first
get the stove
very hot.
Use all three

elements.
That is,
use one element
to heat the soup,
use one element
to toast the nuts: he

likes soup, she likes
nuts. They’ll have
soup with nuts.
But look
one element
is left
over –
while they

sup,
one might use it to burn
the pronoun
off
one’s
lips.

The metaphor of cooking is apt for Carson’s stew of ideas and forms.

Every sonnet here is centred on the page and ‘Recipe’ meditatively centres the reader in a sexually charged vision of me, you and the loss of self (that third element). ‘Recipe’ also owes much to Carson’s long interest in poems that explore language through an intellectualized lyric (and/or vice versa – reviewing this collection, my ideas regularly do handstands).

Carson does have intellectual form. Lecturing is her day job and classics her academic subject, so she must be concerned with naming and ordering as well as describing ideas. In Uncle Falling, subtitled ‘A Pair of Lyric Lectures with Shared Chorus’, the second lecturer says:

I like to write lectures. My favorite part is connecting the ideas. The best connections are the ones that draw attention to their own frailty so that at first you think: what a poor lecture this is the ideas go all over the place and then later you think: but still, what a terrifically perilous activity it is, this activity of linking together all the threads of human sin that go into making what we call sense, what we call reasoning, an argument, a conversation. How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.

Restlessly, these chapbooks try this, then that, to force randomness out of and into language. In Stacks, Carson uses the alphabet to pile up names for the seas of the moon. But a stack can be many sorts of pile, as defined in ‘Stack of the Definitions of Stack’. Stacks’ highly ordered poems examine the dis-order of cruelty to women and unravel the misogynist myth of Jezebel who is mentioned fifteen times but only twelve times according to ‘Countstack Not Counting Restacks’, which is a stack of words from this chapbook. Such dessication of language is one way to distance ourselves from our cruelties, particularly to women, Carson implies. There is no morality in language acquisition, it seems:

From the Phoenicians the Greeks

stole
the
alphabet,
added a few letters
and sat down to write
the classics of Western civilization.

Cold
clear
and blue
was
the morning.

Jezebel is filed between ice cream and karma.

(‘Cheapjack Stack’)

 

Float offers what it says on the box – various topics – and it’s a firework burst of ideas. Carson, I think, is a grand Romantic. In Cassandra Float Can, she writes:

If we were Romantics, and possibly some of us are Romantics, we might imagine that there is in our minds, one or two beats before a thought forms itself into anything like mental speech, into phrase or sentence, into an order of communication, something earlier, rougher, more gripped, more frail,  more  saturated,  something that will dry away like the dew or crumble like prehistoric paint as soon as it’s exposed to air, something that – compared to a sentence – is still wild.

Language snuffs out the wild and Carson’s poems re-enact it. Float’s cute transparent box is no coffin.


Claire Crowther has written three collections of poetry. The first, Stretch of Closures (Shears- man 2007), was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh Best First Collection prize. Her latest publica- tion is Bare George (Shearsman, 2016), a chapbook written after a year’s residency in the Royal Mint Museum. Her poetry is recorded in the Poetry Archive.

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