Allen Fisher proposes

Posted by Ken Edwards on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 Under: writing

Here is the opening move from Allen Fisher's new book, Proposals:

When I first came to Crewe
I saw the death of my mind 
and started work again
to bring it back to life
through nourishment unknown
to me until then with
vegetables and fruit already
known with tactics
already tried and sometimes
previously tested until
on the third day after
the railway declined
I stood on the grime of
platform 5 and revived
my confidence in
a lack I now recognised
as necessary as demanding

It's a clear summation of a point of stasis, a crisis, with strong echoes from the past: those who don't know Crewe (a major railway junction in the North West of England) will need to be apprised that it makes a more than serviceable substitute for Dante's "dark wood". The town is also the site of the Manchester Metropolitan University campus where Fisher was employed for several years and remains as Emeritus Professor of Poetry and Art. 

The poem, headed "Proposals 1", posits a response to the horror of "the death of my mind", framed as a creative tension of "nourishment unknown / to me" and "vegetables and fruit already / known with tactics / already tried ..." It may be called to mind that at that stage the poet had completed the years-long project "Gravity as a consequence of shape" (largely documented in Gravity, Salt, 2004), which had followed that of "Place" in the 1970s and early 80s (collected in Place, Reality Street, 2005). Here, he contemplates starting again: which involves facing the unknown, always a key component of this poet's aesthetic, but strengthened by knowledge and experience gleaned.

The book is not, however, a sequence of 35 poems in isolation. Its subtitle is "poem-image-commentary", and though the poems, printed on the verso (left hand side) of each spread, bear the titles "Proposals", these may be supposed to refer also to the elements on the recto pages, consisting of an image made by the author (who is also a painter, of course), most commonly a double image or diptych, and a commentary. In the case of the opening Proposal, the commentary is as follows:

The first fustian and velvet cutting shop was established in Crewe produced railway uniforms, 650 people, mostly women, with a need to change trains at a Grand Junction and in comfortable imitation of Crewe Hall.

The commentaries would appear to be derived from source texts listed in the back; in this case, I'd surmise it comes from Diane K Drummond's Crewe: Railway Town, Company and People, 1840-1914 (1995). Some of these commentary texts may be lifted verbatim, but in other cases, as here, they may have been deliberately garbled or otherwise treated.

The image printed above this is a diptych showing on the left a representation of a firework display above a city, such as might be produced in celebration of a new year, and on the right a shape imitating the firework formation but devoid of life: suggesting perhaps a discarded antler; an image of death or decay, anyway.

What are we to make of this conjunction? The commentary text in no way provides a "commentary" on either the poem or the image - that is, it doesn't elucidate them - but rather a contextualisation of some geographic allusions in the poem. It might be more appropriate to regard "commentary" in this and the other 34 instances as descriptive of a mode, in apposition to the modes of poetry and of visual art; in other words different ways of getting at the same thing. This is consistent with this artist-poet's multidimensional practice in his previous projects, which were never purely literary.

In the first 14 Proposals, the left-hand panels of the diptychs relate to fire or heat/light in some way: as well as fireworks, there are furnaces, oxy-acetylene equipment, forest fires, lightning. The right-hand image is usually quasi-abstract but suggesting tools or vessels, or a boat-like image which could also be a pair of lips. At Proposals 15 there is a sudden change in content and colour quality of the double image: here it is still divided vertically, but a pale green colour wash pervades both sides, with a red downward pointing arrow covering much of the right-hand panel and spilling over slightly to the left. The "commentary" seems to register this:

What appears to shift to a focus on colour and its substance is a mesmer, as if anyone really knew what existence links to ecstatic lift.

This in turn is echoed in the poem on the left: order to affirm essence as her own
prior to any ek-sistence, founded
by ever open lips, eclipsed by their openness, forgotten
in that opening, the look that encloses landscape...

which words are repeated but re-lineated from Proposals 5, which begins "Love is a marvellous insanity".

From then on, the left-hand images of the diptychs become more various, the iconography encompassing tunnels or a wine-glass shattering, among others, though the fire images still prevail: for instance, at Proposals 19 a forest fire image with a dark human figure in front of it is copied and abstracted in mirror form on the right panel.

As in much of Fisher's previous work, what is happening here is transformation: work into heat, poem into image, scientific concept into lyric poetry, a moment of lyricism into a political catastrophe:

Grey here
many greys but sometimes
you look out at a horizon
and see glimmers
of yellow or orange
you think it must be paradise
or some kind of promised happiness
better than it's been here
but it turns out
to be nuclear explosions
(Proposals 21)

The poem on the following page continues:

Some think this demonstrates our
spacetime after four fifths of our
existence has been burnt
in fact this has not accounted for
the speed change in entropy
which will indicate we have
far less chance to survive far more
chance to survive once we have further
encouraged a negative entropy
before we get back to a better sense of colour
(Proposals 22)
The "commentary" opposite this poem states laconically "In the past humans and non-human animals could be transformed into each other." The diptych above shows molten metal being poured onto an utterly desolate, flat ground that extends over both panels; in the grey sky is inscribed a graph labelled "Civil war" at the top of the vertical axis, "Prometheus" at the bottom, with "Pleistocene" and "Labour (?) consciousness" to the left and right of the horizontal axis. 

The work continues to comment on itself, to deconstruct its own meanings. These proposals are no simple propositions; as indeed no examination of the human plight can be. The modalities of art, poetry, politics, mathematics, science (as always with Fisher, many of the source texts cited are scientific) are in and of themselves insufficient to provide overarching meanings. They can never, in their necessary insufficiency, give us a summation. But taken together they can suggest what a summation might look like.

If this seems like transcendence, this in itself is illusory: there is no easy escape from materiality here. If Allen Fisher so often calls William Blake to mind (the cover painting bears an amazing resemblance in colour and tone, to my mind, to a Blake etching), there are certainly no Blakean spirit worlds in his work. But there is human ecstasy and comedy, and a lack of fear (including fear of recycling Wordworthian iconography!):

Orchard ablaze with daffodils
a mistle thrush signals a sky
sprayed with hundreds of starlings
moving in a changing cloud formation
until a swan opens his wings in my head
and I take a deep breath
my chest fills with the sound of
a flyer as it pulls out to London
wisdom smacked dead on the rails
in the form of an owl
(Proposals 17)

Note: This is a beautifully produced volume, A4 size with 35 full-colour reproductions of the diptych paintings. The poems Proposals 16-25 (minus images and commentaries) are also published as a pamphlet, Birds, by Oystercatcher Press, if you would like to sample them in this form. The wording of some is different, suggesting these are earlier versions.

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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at