By ROY FISHER.
with a commentary by
THANKS TO THE mediation of Simon Collings, the following two poems were sent to me by Anthony Griffiths, who wrote, ‘Mary Ellison died not so long ago here in Aberystwyth and had a deep friendship with Roy. It seems her library was donated to a charity stall in the local supermarket. It has now been disposed of. I rescued 4 books and 4 handwritten letters. The books are signed to Mary from Roy.’ He adds: ‘There are 2 poems folded together. The first “The First Footnote” is obviously written by Roy and in Mary’s hand. The 2nd “Inside Out 1990” may be a poem by Roy? Do you know them, were they ever published?’
I didn’t know them, and don’t believe they have been published until now. They do not appear in Derek Slade’s composition chronology for 1990. Both of them are written out in Mary Ellison’s hand. The introductory reflection inscribed above ‘The First Footnote’ reads: ‘Based on a happy marriage to Joyce Holliday Roy is very good at relaxed yet probing friendship. A further new poem comments ever more directly on our friendship. Called “The First Footnote” it muses’ – and the poem follows. This reference to ‘A further’ (the phrase revises ‘Another’) strongly suggests that ‘Inside-Out’ is a first instalment. The two poems appear related to each other in that they both reflect on the different ways in which each can be imagined as more bodiless or less substantial than the other. In transcribing them I have added a couple of full stops (at the ends of the first and last stanzas) to ‘Inside-Out’ and simplified the inverted commas in ‘The First Footnote’:
You say I know you
inside-out; and you say it
with a most secure ardour.
Not many people would want
to say such a thing about such an elusive
character as me: security’s not
what it would bring.
The truth is that it’s the right you give me
to wander about you inside and out – asking, touching,
ignoring, hoarding – that makes me able
to work for you this way. I know
it’s a right I’ve asked for,
foot in your door for years, on my own
that, drawn into where the strange
powers of your nature drift
overhead and all around me,
passing with a warm and curious eye
I could become for you
more substantial than I feel myself.
THE FIRST FOOTNOTE
I suppose it’s that “friend”’s not obliged
to have any body in it – just a notion –
whereas your friendship for me
sizzles the air, like a cat’s fur full of static
xxand now here’s your poem,
light and clear, and
dark, like the lower slope of your voice,
where it’s warmest; the words float
like a prism in a liquid, falling and
turning and rising, so that ‘dangerous’ comes light
while ‘I’ goes heavy, for a minute,
and back again changing all the time. It’s
as if you were to come up to me,
abstract and ethereal that you dissolve
and walk straight through me.
OF GREAT SIGNIFICANCE in themselves, these two personal poems also help illuminate ‘Of the Empirical Self and for Me’, a published poem of 1975 which first appeared, significantly perhaps, in Poetry Wales. It is dedicated ‘(for M.E.)’ and is the only such poem of Fisher’s to be inscribed to someone with initials only. There are various other dedicated poems, but the dedicatees are fully identified, and usually such fellow poets as Peter Riley and Eric Mottram, whose pieces (‘You Should Have Been There’ and ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ on pp. 195 and 213 of The Long and the Short of It) indicate how the private mode of these poems for Mary Ellison would be adapted to such celebratory occasions. Evidently, the ‘M.E.’ dedication is a joke allusion to the ‘Me’ of the title, suggesting again that there is an intimate relationship between the two identities being associated thus. The 1975 poem begins ‘In my poems there’s seldom / any I or you’ and observes ‘you know me, Mary; / you wouldn’t expect it of me’. Yet there would be more of both in future decades, as this poem effectively announces.
‘Of the Empirical Self and for Me’ is also unusual among Fisher’s works for asserting, though not exactly owning, that ‘Even / love’s not often a poem.’ For no sooner has this tacit expression of feeling been uttered than the voice shifts away to describing an overload of static electricity in the air. Seeming to illuminate that darting remark is the following comment from about a decade later, to be found in the first of the two working notebooks for the composition of A Furnace: ‘Whereas within life love seems a demanding and cruel imposition, within love, art takes on those qualities.’ All of which suggests that Fisher’s friendship with Mary Ellison, who had been a colleague of his at Keele University, prompted otherwise untouched layers of sensibility and a way of activating them in writing that would be folded into the distinctive freedoms of his later styles. That capacity for what she calls ‘relaxed yet probing friendship’ was activated, as he puts it in ‘Inside-Out’, by a quality ‘that makes me able / to work for you this way.’
Roy Fisher was an English poet born in 1930, the author of numerous collections of poetry. His last book, Slakki: New & Neglected Poems (2016), and the Flood Editions reissue of A Furnace (2018) were edited by Peter Robinson. The 2021 first issue of the Roy Fisher Archive Newsletter is available here. Roy Fisher died in 2017.
Peter Robinson’s 2020 publications are a sequence for poems, Bonjour Mr Inshaw, from Two Rivers Press, and Poetry & Money: A Speculation, literary criticism, from Liverpool University Press. The Personal Art: Essays, Reviews & Memoirs will be published by Shearsman Books in 2021. He is a professor of literature at the University of Reading and poetry editor for Two Rivers Press and the co-editor of News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher. An archive of his work published in The Fortnightly Review is here.
Note: This page was altered 1 February 2021 to correct a minor editorial error.