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The Allen Fisher Companion Eds: Robert Hampson & cris cheek (Shearsman Books)

The Allen Fisher Companion Eds: Robert Hampson & cris cheek (Shearsman Books)

For readers interested in the complex and challenging work of poet Allen Fisher, this publication provides a useful, and very readable, range of resources. The essays trace the development of Fisher’s creative output, from early Fluxus-related pieces, through the major projects of Place and Gravity as a consequence of space, to the more recent SPUTTOR. Together they offer an informative set of commentaries on the poet’s working practices, influences, and values.

The introduction by Robert Hampson provides a helpful initial survey of Fisher’s writing career, which began in the late 1960s with links to the ‘British Poetry Revival’. The essays that follow discuss the evolution of Fisher’s work in a more or less chronological sequence.
The first piece, by Will Rowe, provides an interesting analysis of Place, the poet’s ‘decade long investigation of the limits of knowledge and truth’ (as Rowe describes it). Rowe examines how Fisher deals in this poem with different types of ‘knowledge’ and their relationship to ‘desire, will, politics and truth’. Some of the key influences on Fisher are usefully traced, including the writings of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. Rowe also offers interesting reflections on the differences between Place and Fisher’s second major project Gravity as a consequence of space.

Pierre Joris follows this with a focus on the extent to which ‘health’ (both bodily and societal) is a key theme in Fisher’s early work. Redell Olsen’s essay, ‘Start Place in Flux’, offers insights on Fisher’s early work with a detailed account of his involvement in Fluxus-influenced activities in Britain in the early 1970s. Olsen traces the connections between Fisher’s performance-based work and texts produced during this period, and how these ‘find their way into the synthesis of materials that make up Place.’
Performance and its relation to the text is also discussed by cris cheek, in an account of a reading of ‘Vole’ and ‘Volespin’ (two of the poems in Gravity) which Fisher recorded on video tape. The nature of Fisher’s performance of these poems, which includes visuals and an element of improvisation, and the status of the recording as ‘documentary’, are discussed in relation to concepts of stability, damage, and process, key preoccupations in Fisher’s work.

The essays which follow mainly focus on Fisher’s magnum opus, Gravity as a consequence of space, ‘factured’ between 1982 and 2005. Particularly interesting are Will Montgomery’s examination of the racial context informing ‘Brixton Fractals’ (the sequence with which Gravity opens), Robert Sheppard’s reflections on Fisher’s Apocalyptic Sonnets, written in the late 1970s, as marking a transition between Place and Gravity, Scott Thurston’s close reading of ‘Mummer’s Strut’ from Gravity, and Clive Bush’s critical evaluation of the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatari on Gravity.

Both Place and Gravity include extensive lists of resources upon which Fisher drew in facturing the work. Sheppard quotes Peter Barry saying that Place requires the reader to ‘reactivate a body of reading’ not as a preparation for reading the text, but as a process in which we ‘read the sources in the light of the poem and the poem in the light of the sources.’ This is a process equally critical to an engagement with Gravity. Sheppard describes Gravity, with its complex collaging and overwriting of source texts, and internal cross-referencing, as ‘no longer content-specific poetry. Fisher is not making references for readers to ‘study’; he is making art for readers to engage with.’
Fisher has provided detailed notes on the use of source material in Mummer’s Strut, and Thurston’s analysis of this poem is a helpful exploration of the poet’s method. ‘To read Fisher’s work,’ Thurston writes, ‘is to experience a complex tension between rapid juxtapositions of different materials and patterns of continuity generated through repetition and rhyme: between discontinuity and continuity. A reader must actively negotiate the jumps and continuities in order to build his or her own reading of the poem.’

The Allen Fisher Companion concludes with an interview with Fisher (and his partner Paige Mitchell) conducted by Shamoon Zamir, which forms part of Fisher’s book Imperfect Fit (University of Alabama Press, 2016), and an edited version of an exchange of texts between Fisher and the poet Karen MacCormack, plus commentary by others, originally published online by the Slought Foundation as Philly Talk 19.

‘Discontinuites and continuities’ extend across Fisher’s major texts, each individual poem being ‘entangled’ with others. Gravity is a highly structured work, as is Place. This aspect of Fisher’s oeuvre is not really addressed in this volume, which for me is something of a gap. Gravity is organised around a number scheme subjected to damage by physically compressing a cardboard tube on which the sequence was marked. The ‘damage’ can be seen in the breaks in the alphabetical sequence of the titles and the parallel presentation (vortex) of texts in the middle of the book.

Fisher uses contemporary ideas of space-time, derived from physics, to structure Gravity, in the same way Elizabethan writers used Neoplatonic number symbolism in the ordering of their work. A contribution on this would have been a useful addition. But this criticism does not detract in any way from the many insightful essays mentioned above. This welcome collection adds significantly to the available resources on Fisher’s work.

Simon Collings 14th June 2020

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