Luke Fischer: A Personal History of Vision

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 100pp.

The first section of this, Luke Fischer’s second book, is called “Retrospect” and begins, significantly, with a poem in which the author looks backwards.

The setting is a gallery and the object seen is a head of Zeus:
Turning to see
if you’ve missed anything
in a quiet room in the gallery,
you’re startled by a marble head . . .

But what follows is not so much a description of the head (although it is that) as an unusual move in which the head seems to expand to suitably cosmic dimensions:

His locks are swirling cumulus; the curls
of his beard, entangled waves
whisked by winds. The dome of his skull,
the perfect ceiling above the clouds
from where he looks down at this tumult.
His wide cheeks hold the atmosphere.
Slightly unsealed, his lips are pregnant
with the pre-storm stillness, electrified air;
while his eyes sharpen on a toy ship
rocking unawares – in an instant

Disoriented, as ever, at the beginning of a new book of poetry, the reader (well, this reader) isn’t entirely sure what kind of shift has happened here. Either the head has expanded to fulfil the requirements of the god which it portrays or the poet’s imagination has expanded – liberated or prompted by the statue – into a more cosmic perspective. It’s ultimately a matter of whether the power driving the expansion is divine or human. At any rate, this idea of retrospect as a physical turning backwards is complemented by poems which exploit the word in its more usual, temporal aspect. In “Rain and Memories”, for example, the rain prompts a series of memories of childhood including one in which, interestingly, learning about the various Norse gods enables those gods momentarily to enter the contemporary world and wreak havoc in a schoolground,

. . . . . 
and one recess, as though a stormcloud had migrated

from the legend into our minds, we all turned
on each other, wrestled, threw stones -
girls and boys were injured, in tears.

Not spirits whom one wants to invoke casually, any more than one does Zeus. And later in the book, memories recur which are not of childhood experiences like this but of lost friends and mentors – elegies in other words, another kind of retrospection.

A Personal History of Vision could be read as something of an anatomy of seeing, a mode perhaps fitting for a Rilke scholar. There is a fascination, for example, with what is sensed at the edge of vision. A poem about the “Annunciation” of Fra Angelico focusses on the odd sight lines of angel and Madonna commenting that “Her vision reaches beyond the normal boundary / of the human mind”. And though this seems merely one of the portals towards transcendence, other poems in the book worry about the balances involved here. Much is contained in the idea of “double vision” which can be taken to mean the simultaneous apprehension of both the mundane and non-mundane (ranging from metaphoric and symbolic to divine) aspects of any phenomenon but which comes out as a little more complex in a poem with that title. Here various different experiences of double vision are recorded: the poet’s wife and a friend, met in a local café, are suddenly Isis and Osiris, weighers of the soul; a new environment has an odd familiarity; an unreligious self finds intimations of the divine; tiny petals twirl like dervishes and seem to mimic galaxies; and a poetry reading merges with an initiation into one of the ancient Greek mystery cults. Whatever the exact pathology of this kind of seeing – it seems related to synaesthesia where normally separated paths of interpretation get connected somehow – these are experienced as welcome “openings-out”: “Though you’re unable to explain / these double visions, in the long interims / the world feels confined”.

“Double Vision” in followed in the book by “The Novice” which emphasises the fragmentary nature of these moments of double seeing, calling them “Luminous fragments, crumbs / from the gods” a description which seems to accede to the idea that revelation from above is what makes it all work rather than the active achievement of a kind of seeing on the part of the observer. And later on there is a poem, “In Wait”, which is a kind of wry gloss on Rilke’s first “Duino Elegy”:

We know that if the great poem comes
it will come like an eagle riding a gale
while the gulls, sparrows, finches
hide in whatever shelter they can find . . .

finishing with the author’s failed attempts to get much more than fragments of the great moment of revelation:

            For days, perhaps years,
we’ll return to the manuscript
held in a desk’s top drawer.
This thought comes to light -
it’s been lingering in my shadow
for some time – as I sit at the end 
of a jetty on a quiet lake, put
down a book, and a few ducks
approach, expecting crumbs.

That is, the ducks expect crumbs from the poet as the poet expects crumbs from the angels of inspiration.

The issue of seeing, in the poems of A Personal History of Vision, isn’t completely exhausted by topics like retrospectivity, seeing beyond boundaries, and experiencing moments of double insight. Many of the poems, for example, are about “seeing” landscape, and the landscapes seen range from the mountains of the European Alps – home of the German sublime – to the homelier vistas of Australian beaches. The former group are interesting because they seem to require a different sort of focus to that even gaze into the middle distance that Australians are supposed to have bred into them. And in the spectacular scenery of the mountains above Lac Leman (in “Translation” and “Horizon of the Alps (K)”) where there is a kind of double vision in that the mountains are reflected in the lake, a quite different sort of vision is required. In the former, there is a drive towards interpretation which imagines the skyline to be a seismograph – “I follow the grooves / like the needle of a phonograph, / attempting to translate / feeling’s contours”. In the second, which begins with the remark that the mountains are “Always at the boundary of vision, of thought / even when we look the other way”, a series of metaphors are thrown at them in an attempt to define their unyielding solidity, almost by accretion:

. . . . . 
Frozen tsunamis, primeval modernists
their abstraction rises above the lake and
its scattered sails – white chips in blue paint - 
above the foothills’ sprawl of villages, the tangle
of forests and human lives, above emotion.

Resembling a heterodox order of monks
great mathematicians . . . 
. . . . .
Still epics, skeletons of mythic creatures, crystal skulls
pure forms, the moral law, metalogic, consonants
isolated from vowels . . .

The metaphors here move in a number of directions. One – the idea that the mountains are figurations of the stones that make them up, leads towards a poem like “Stones” from later in the book which derives a lot of its ideas (as the notes explain) from Heidegger’s meditation on stones – objects which when broken open reveal nothing. Thus the mountains are stones writ large. The second – that the mountains are like pure abstractions – leads towards a poem like “Power Tower” where the power lines are held up by a kind of abstract human being: “A man of steel, / with its head and arms / it holds up thirteen power lines”. This particular abstraction has, unlike the non-communicating mountains of the Alps, a sinister quality though, recalling a stormy Sumerian mythology:

. . . . . 
Perfect copies, bodybuilders posing for a mirror,
their iron fists suspend the weight of wires,
whose arcs, inverted rainbows, have harnessed
lightning. Up close, the clenched hands resemble
bulls’ testicles – hunting trophies
won from Adad.

And then there are the birds, an irresistible subject in a poetry that tends to focus upwards towards the sky and the mountains, rather than parallel to the ground (in a focus on the social activity of humans). Birds were a major subject in Fischer’s first book and they appear here, inhabitants of the middle heights: the crowd at the beach in “Sunday” simply never sees the goshawk which hovers high above them. And birds have intimations of the divine, not least because they seem, if looked at with “double vision”, to be prefigurings, or metaphors, of angels – the beings which mediate between the upper, divine world and the lower depths of the ordinary. So it’s probably no coincidence that in “Annunciation” the archangel tasked with delivering the good news has “parrot-feathered wings” or that the Christ child in “Madonna of the Goldfinch”, looking as he does not at John the Baptist but “past his appearance / into another space”, should have this interaction take place over a goldfinch.

All of this description thus far probably makes Fischer look like a poet obsessed by a group of essentially philosophical issues, especially those relating to how we apprehend the world (seeing) and what the relationship is between the divine and the mundane: is the former, as in a materialist perspective, simply an illusion of the latter or is there really a realm of the numinous, experienced by human beings. But there are other issues, perhaps homelier ones, in these varied poems. There is a mild confessional element, for example. A poem like “Deadwood” focusses on the subject of depression or those depressive episodes in which whatever in the past sparked the much sought-for sense of an expansion of the world, no longer works. Remembered moments of excitement – ie magical moments in which it seems a god or angel has “pressed its deep blue seed / into my mind” – when seen in retrospect, “fail to convince”, leading to the obvious question “How is it possible / in this infinitely varied world, / this multi-dimensional universe / to accrue deposits of apathy?” The poem, “I”, focusses on the upright figure which becomes no longer a figure of the self-confident self guided by its own star but rather “a charred post / in a vast waste.”

Other poems deal with early experiences of loss which mean that “Darkness / found a home / in me” an experience which, if we accept the existence of a divine plane, might be accommodated in the mystics’ idea of a dark night of the soul. “In the Mouth of the Shark”, which takes its title from a geographical metaphor (the shark’s mouth in question is the “jaw of sandstone between Bondi and Tamarama”) lists a succession of dead friends and mentors. And “Matthew and the Angel”, a response to Rembrandt’s painting, which looks as though it will be a celebration of the inspiring spirit that hovers just outside of the corner of our vision, turns out, in its conclusion, to be a poem about lack of inspiration – “All this I felt I knew. // Now I write / to address the absence.” There is an intriguing poem, “Breakdown”, ostensibly about a train becoming “detached from the grid” and coming to a halt inside a conifer forest. I read this as a poem about not being able to move – in one’s writing or one’s life – but there is a hint of promise in the way the sun manages to illuminate small patches on the floor of the forest.

But under this personal bleakness, there is also a strong current of interest in macro-suffering. Those poems that address mistreatment of refugees, victims (“the ravaged / whose screams are punctured by bullets”) and so on (as far as Mother Earth herself) don’t seem really satisfactory to me but this may be simply because the task is so much more difficult – for complex reasons. By far the best of them – because it adopts a mode which is satisfactorily oblique – is, I think, “After the Storm”. It has a quite complex scena in which the poet investigates the fringes of a recent storm. Metaphorically we read this storm as the Second World War and a reference to Anselm Kiefer famous, together with Ingeborg Bachmann, for insisting that the memory of that war be continuously brought before modern Germans only too happy to consign it to the past, leads readers to think that the opening clause “Sheltered, we glimpsed / a fringe of the storm” is about Australia’s status as a lucky peripheral player in the vast event. A poem in Paths of Flight and “Banksia Spikes” in this book, both invoke the poet’s grandfather, a holocaust survivor, who “knew darkness / far better than me”.

Finally, there is “Why I Write”, appearing late in the book and, as a “poem-poem”, occupying much the same position as “Poem” does in Paths of Flight. It’s always tempting to read a poem like this as the centre of the book since it seems to address almost all of the issues that the other poems of the book raise. Structurally it’s a set of negations – “I don’t write to modulate my griefs . . . Nor do I write for recognition . . . Nor is it bibliophilia . . .” – and it goes on to address the issues I’ve raised here specifically:

I don’t write for revelation,
though poetry has opened rooms
in the mansion of world-mind
and led me closer to the hearth
than philosophy has.
. . . . . 
I don’t write to foster the art
of double vision – to sense
the divinity in the morning gleam
on granite cliffs, whispers of the dead
in the fall of snow, the epiphany
in a stranger’s friendly glance,
the way a gull floating on a thermal
becomes the singular word for grace.

I don’t write to ease my conscience,
redress the past, though in moments
of recollection, the broken soil of pain
(as if time were a hidden gardener)
is transfigured into a bed of snowdrops,
roses of sublimation . . .

There are two things (at least) one needs to say about this poem. The first is that poems such as this, in which a poet analyses what he or she is doing, might well come out of the analytical/critical part of their minds rather than the poetic/creative. They may represent no more than a writers’ day-time brooding over the issues that their night-time work seems to raise – in their own practice and in the context of poetry generally. Secondly, this is a skilfully constructed piece simultaneously denying and then qualifying, built on the pattern of “I do not . . . though”. In other words, the function is to raise the very issues that it goes on to reject as the purpose behind the poems. At any rate, the final stanza, as one would expect, is outright assertion: “I write for the expansion of the present . . .” and, as far as a writer and reader are in control of these things, this seems an eminently admirable ambition.