Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations

By Peter Robinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Roy Fisher’s Last Things

I

Opening Roy Fisher’s first hardback book of poetry, published in 1969, I found on the half-title page: ‘the ghost of a paper bag’. Leafing over a couple of pages, there it was again, this time looking like an epigraph to the collection, a volume called by its dust jacket Collected Poems, but by its title page and spine, give or take a pair of capitals: collected poems 1968. When I first stumbled upon this slim, eighty-page book I had never heard of Roy Fisher or read anything by him; but then, at nineteen, this was a common experience with volumes of collected poems. Yet his was so short, and since the dust jacket informed me that the author had been four in May 1935, I deduced that he had published his collected poems at the age of about thirty-eight. Nothing on the jacket blurbs suggested that he was dead, so what had happened? No sooner had Roy Fisher opened up shop, than he was pulling down the shutters. In fact, many one-book poets début with their last things, but the difference here was that this writer, who, I noted, had anyway published a prose book called The Ship’s Orchestra, also appeared to know it at the time.

Reading on I came across that enigmatic phrase once more, this time as part of ‘The Billiard Table’. The last poem in a section entitled ‘Interiors with Various Figures’, it describes a scene (partly prompted by a canvas of Braque’s)1 in which an ‘I’ and a ‘you’ confront an unnamed thing that seems to have slept the night on the billiard table. There is a ‘mess of sheets on the green baize’ which ‘Suggests a surgery without blood’, but, while the poem’s ‘you’ keeps glancing at it, ‘the tangle looks like abandoned grave-clothes’. Then comes the sentence including that half-title phrase:

1 Roy Fisher, interview with Helen Dennis at University of Warwick Audio-Visual Centre, 9 May 1984, 130.

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