D A Prince is impressed by the deft and distinctive use of words in Janet Fisher’s latest collection.
This is a second full-length collection, following on from Brittle Bones (Salt, 2008), and two pamphlets from Smith/Doorstop – Women who Dye their Hair (2001), and Listening to Dancing (1996). Many poetry readers will know Janet Fisher as a long-standing collaborator in The Poetry Business, and co-editor of The North, an environment that shapes her own poetry. She has all the strengths evidenced in every issue of The North – directness of language, truth to the subject, an avoidance of surface form and artifice that lesser poets sometimes hide behind – and, occasionally, some of the weaknesses: a few lapses into near-prose, and at times a commitment to the domestic world at the expense of imaginative exploration. But these are infrequent, outweighed by the strength of the individual voice that speaks from the page from the outset.
On the first page she sets the bar high by taking four lines by R.S.Thomas (from ‘Period’) as an epigraph for her opening poem ‘Advent’, itself a short poem of only two six-line stanzas. It allows her to work with his ideas of wise men set among the vast noise of the world, and books that were not read; it starts, however, in a decidedly different register –
Who reads books anyway? Kindle can always satisfy our need for words.
How do we hear the tone of that first question, along with the distaste for reading on screen which follows? There’s defiance, certainly, but then something almost churlish and pugnacious in her dismissal of electronically-transmitted words; it’s the same stubborn resistance to new methods that I hear in my own grumpy-old-woman’s voice. But the second stanza shifts the mood completely, into the calm of outside space, waiting for snow:
as if the world held its breath poised for the silent coming, and wise men are set to follow their starmap, deaf to the noises’ vast algorithms spinning the net.
Fisher is strong on personal starmaps, that real and everyday world which is the context for identity. In ‘Actuality’ she shows the creating of a reconstructed Anderson shelter for an exhibition, ending with This is as real as we can make it. – a line that could stand for all of her work. This poem is followed by the reality of the soup in ‘Invitation’ – courgettes, potatoes, mint,/ all from the garden/ whizzed in the pan/ with my new blender. The short lines give an urgent enthusiasm to the invitation, and a rare note of carefree happiness. In subsequent poems she looks without flinching at the domestic detritus which the dead leave behind: The condom on the dressing table/ still in its packet, perished. in ‘Ground Rules’; ... Photos of aunts/ and unknown friends of aunts ... in ‘Ancestors’; The carpet is what holds the room together,/ stops the plunge to the cellar/ through timbers eaten by rot’ in ‘Letters from the Gold Coast’. She gives her dead sufficient detail to anchor them as individuals but not so much that she blocks the reader’s own memories of dead aunts, dark houses, dubious carpets. These poems allow us to share their space, to recognise their truths about the scraps remaining after someone has died.
For Fisher, Death shares its habit of hanging around, barely visible, with Life and its tendency to creep up behind you: compare ‘To Death’ –
You stand with your back to me, staring into the garden. What are you waiting for?
with ‘Millennium’, and a party as 1999 tips over into 2000 –
Like nothing happens till your back’s turned, life creeps up on you and wow, it’s that time again, another year, another century, another party ...
Placed at opposite ends of this collection, these poems are complementary, underlining the personal need to keep ever-watchful, even in apparently-safe domestic settings; they are quiet (Fisher is not a shout-y poet) intimations of the pressures we live under, constantly.
Some poems of personal history are perhaps too anecdotal, too close to prose; one quotation (the opening lines), from ‘Oxford Days’ will suffice –
Oxford was somewhere mum and I went on a Saturday once a month as a change from Banbury for the shops or a panto
This lacks the energy and verbal acuteness of her stronger poems. ‘God’s wife’, a riff on the demotic since god were a lad (and in the same vein as Carol Ann Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife) has a sustained concentration of wit and relish for Yorkshire speech –
He was always restless, spent hours in our back yard, fettling. He’d come up with all sorts – animals you’d never seen the like of, bits of stars.
It’s ‘fettling’ that seals this poem for me; reading the Book of Genesis will never be quite the same again. Dialect words like this, words that need no footnotes, give a poem roots and a grounded sense of place. I’d have liked to see more in Fisher’s work – but perhaps that’s for the future.
The careful weighing of words is something Fisher acknowledges openly, as in the title poem, ‘Life and other terms’. The multiple meanings of ‘terms’ – a sentence (as in ‘life sentence’), or a block of time (as in ‘school terms’), or as a synonym for ‘noun’ – suggests layers of possibility even before we enter the poem and its details of the heavy gardening that autumn requires. Are we meeting a life sentence, or other words that define a life or a lifetime? Associations are flickering in the corner of the mind already; and this reader’s attention is fully engaged – and that’s a good start for a poem. The perennial plants, being split before winter, have names that could imply a human narrative as well as being simply a list of what grows in the garden – … heels of rosemary,/ lad’s love sweet and sad,/ bitter rue and yarrow. But it’s the final stanza, just three lines, that draws the metaphor into the open –
and I see living’s a job like any other, and there are no true and perfect implements to trim the edges, only working usages, like knives.
Usage, the precise tuning of each word, is what Fisher is alert to, and encountering this word, in a poem close to the end of the collection, suddenly sheds a light on much that has preceded it. In the same way ‘knives’ captures her own wariness, edginess, discomfort. There is an underlying unhappiness – a very recognisable feeling – that haunts this collection; but it is an emotion that fights back, countering the world’s setbacks with stubborn survival, wit, a refusal to back down, and a steel-edged precision – like knives. We work with what we have, Fisher tells us, and these are her implements. She uses her implements – words – well.
D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her first full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, was published by HappenStance Press in 2008, and a second collection Common Ground appeared in autumn 2014.