Still Life, Other Life: Michael Sharkey Examines the Poetry of Barbara Fisher

Barbara Fisher

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Rescued from Time, Barbara Fisher’s 2016 collection of poems, takes its title from a comment by American novelist James Salter’s comment, in his 1997 collection of essays and memoirs, Burning the Days: Recollections: ‘Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time’. It’s easy to see why Salter’s sensibility resonates with Fisher. Salter’s extensive experience, as fighter pilot, novelist, film writer, expatriate in Europe and extoller and lover of women, is revisited in evocations of favourite locations and people. In his novels, women and men characters are hearteningly presented as complex and engaging individuals, and he has a special regard for the strength and abilities of women who, like his male characters, succeed or fail in enterprises including love affairs that demand commitment and honesty. Salter’s memoirs record his delight in works of great writers he admires: Flannery O’Connor, Marguerite Duras, Pauline Réage, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Dylan Thomas, and others whose lives also fascinate him. Among other textual pleasures, Salter’s Burning the Days is a guide to European (chiefly French) and American literary sites that provoke his intellectual wanderlust.

Barbara Fisher shares Salter’s literary, cultural and geographical curiosity, and her experience of travel in fact and in books and the arts makes her all the more appreciative of Salter’s characteristic empathy for characters who lead lives unlike his own. But there’s nothing imitative about her style. Her experiences, as well as her subtle affair with the English language, are demonstrated in the poems gathered in Rescued from Time and three earlier collections published over twenty years.

Fisher’s work is appreciated by several poets and reviewers (myself included), and she has a following particularly among writers in several Sydney circles as well as poets and others from further afield who first encountered her in national workshops run by Ron Pretty at Wollongong in the 1990s. Her poems have won prizes and appeared in most anthologies and journals worth the name since her self-avowed late re-commencement in publishing poetry in the 1990s. So it’s a mystery to me why her poetry is not more critically acclaimed.

Many people have known of Fisher’s interests through patronage of her antiquarian bookshop in Cammeray. She specialised in architecture, culinary and domestic arts, sharing a passion for good design with her late husband, the renowned heritage architect John Fisher (1924-2012), to whom she dedicated her three major collections. A glance at any of these reveals her sophisticated engagement with language, travel, and the history of culinary, textile, performative and other cultural markers.

My first encounter with her poetry occurred at one of those Wollongong workshops around twenty years past, and ensuing contact has been sparse, punctuated by long hiatus. A couple of years ago, I published a poem by Fisher in the Australian Poetry Journal. I hadn’t read her second book, Still Life, Other Life (Ginninderra, 2007), nor her 2012 Picaro Press chapbook, Rain and Hirohito and other poems, but the depth and variety of Rescued from Time provoked me to read all her books and check anthologies like The Best Australian Poems (2004 and 2006), The Best Australian Poetry (2007), the Young Street anthologies When the Sky Caught Fire (2008) and This Strange World (2013), and The Quadrant Book of Poetry (2012), to see the company she kept. Almost incomprehensively, she appears neither in the 2014 Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry nor the 2016 Puncher & Wattman Anthology of Australian Poetry.

I can understand that these latter, and some other more recent gatherings have failed to find space for Fisher and many others on grounds of space alone. But I trust they have not excluded her out of ignorance of her work. Editorial preference for work by more overtly experimental and—or—younger poets, or work selected because it fits non-poetical topical criteria such as ethnicity, race, gender, class, and other themed considerations I can comprehend, because that’s the way the rules of the poetry game shift, sometimes glacially, and sometimes in an eyeblink, like alterations in trouser lengths, beards, haircuts, language, accents, and other badges of self-identity.

I do wonder, though, at the exclusion of her work in the more prominent national anthologies. I’m puzzled why the AustLit research website lists no reviews of Fisher’s first book. Accordingly, my reconnaissance of her collections starts with the first, Archival Footwork. I own a special interest. The cover blurb by three writers asked to comment on the manuscript of that book gave every sign that the work was accessible and engaging, and was headed for at least a succès d’estime if not some major award. Elizabeth Webby, Kevin Brophy and I, when asked to comment on the manuscript of Archival Footwork, commented on Fisher’s mix of domestic and universal topics, her ‘sensuous precision’ (Webby), control of tone that brought ‘wildness to the mildest subject matter’ (Brophy), her ‘intelligence and craft’, ‘taste for taking risks with classic forms’, and her memorable light verse and demotic speech (Sharkey). I wouldn’t withdraw a word of my commendation.

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For a first collection, Archival Footwork was unusually mature in the language, knowledge she brings to subjects diverse as art, ravel, history and politics. Like subsequent collections, Archival Footwork is arranged in sub-sections, which, though unnamed, group poems thematically and to some extent topically. Immediately evident concerns of poems in the opening section are art and travel, and Fisher draws on first-hand experience and connoisseurship of the literature relating to both.

By way of a pleasing derangement of the senses, the first poem (‘Displacements’) reconstitutes the shock of seeing George Stubbs’s extraordinary 1763 painting of Queen Charlotte’s zebra. Fisher considers that apparition’s effect on viewers of the period and later, and compares the response to the 1794 exhibition of a live kangaroo in a London theatre. The poem goes beyond ekphrasis (a mode in which she is adept) to image the dreamlike nature of encountering such phenomena; she further speculates on the animals’ supposed response to their alien circumstances. The poem’s a tour de force that discovers the scene in slyly understated opening lines: ‘I suppose we had got used to monkeys / at the edge of baroque painting, / furnishing a festival like blackamoors / in yellow turbans’. Fisher heightens surprise by this salutary reminder that much that we consider conventional is very strange. The detail of her final image of the kangaroo scratching his fleas and chewing ‘the strangely sweet grass’ in his urban English enclosure brings the phenomenon right up to date. Fisher knows Australian fauna and flora from first-hand observation, as well as she knows that of other places she has visited and lived in. I can’t think how many readers will wish they had written such an understatedly thought-provoking poem on disorientation.

Following poems (‘Debussy in Rome’ and ‘Postcard from Edirne’) also upset preconceptions of place and history. Debussy’s loathing of Rome, which led him to curtail a three-year prize-residence after two years experience of the city’s ‘daily awfulness’, may strike a chord with anyone who has failed to be charmed by the city’s grandeur as a result of the dementingly mundane distractions of climate, noise and company. Preferences for the coolness of churches, ices and evenings bring no lasting relief to the composer who longs for the bracing North.

Another poem of peregrination, ‘Postcard from Edirne’, also responds acerbically to touristic expectation, by recreating the unsettling conjunction of moods provoked by a hospital where music was formerly played to lull the lunatics, including violent inmates chained to the walls. Fisher concludes, ‘there’s no record as to how / the treatment was received’—a remark that is less an abandonment of the poem than an opening for readers to reflect on the vagaries of anticipation.

Ensuing poems consider the grim hospitality of a country house hotel in Yorkshire, the suffocating blandness of Ibsen’s house, the banal fabric pattern in a Hangchow silk factory, and the alienation of Dr Elsner, a refugee in a migrant camp in Australia—‘Another Country’, with its detestable ‘mutton chops’, mysterious ‘Devon’ sausage, and ‘formless drift of an outer Sydney suburb’. Such images, familiar to the native-born, lead to Elsner’s distracting meditation on the cousins he played with as a child: they too disappeared, into other ‘unknown camps’ in Europe, and he asks ‘Paul and Maria, can you forgive /my living?’

In such a way, as in poems elsewhere in the collection, history and autobiography are unshakeable elements of the present. In a poem on her own travels, ‘Returning to Vienna’, Fisher wonders why, ‘in this stylish town / I feel as if I’d rung a bell / and nobody’s home’. The stylish town has its own answers in accounts of former times when citizens peered from curtains as their neighbours were arrested: those watchers behind the curtains wondered ‘what will happen to all that good furniture?’ Human misery in its mass-produced manifestations cohabits with marvellous music, so in Vienna ‘even mass is a concert’, and galleries are ‘thick with Brueghels’, and shops are full of ball gowns.

Throughout Fisher’s poetry, contrasting ideas of tolerant and revisionist mores are played against each other in poems involving ostensible reportage of world events, or which, when she turns to Australia’s centuries of migrant history, recreate experiences of actual or fictitious characters such as Dr Elsner, living in challenging or hostile circumstances. (A late example, in the final section of Fisher’s 2016 volume Rescued From Time, constructs an analogous history of an imagined deraciné migrant, Joseph Bergin.)

This probing of ideas of what constitutes normality and expectation extends to all the poetry of Archival Footwork. In the first section of the book, ‘Breakfast Creek’ playfully notes the profusion of creeks bearing the name, and offers a solution in a supposed explorer’s diary entry: ‘It having no distinguishing features, / I have named it Breakfast Creek’. The mood of this resolution could as well fit the exiled Dr Elsner’s view of his new country’s society and culture, but the absurdity of some Colonial-era traveller’s attitudes is sanctioned by our post-Colonial familiarity with the sceptical views of even nineteenth-century realists (such as Joseph Furphy, whose bullock-driving philosophes in his novel Such is Life remark on John O’Hara Burke as ‘a real burke’—with all the innuendo that the epithet contains). Fisher is well acquainted with the record of opposing visions of Australia in Colonial times, and of their persistence even into more recent times. A later poem in Rescued from Time, ‘Considering Fred Williams’s Landscapes’, notes

Odd that we never really noticed
how our trees look
straggling up a hillside,
ragged against the sky.
Until he showed us.

And Fisher adds ‘Perhaps we’d always known’—a judgment articulated long after such poems as ‘Another Country’ in the Dr Elsner sequence in Archival Footwork, with its bleaker, Patrick Whitean vistas of Australian landscape and suburbs.

Generally, Fisher works in free-verse forms, where her sense of the surprise effects a precisely broken line can spring on a careful reader provides successive pleasurable encounters and recognitions of the extraordinary in the banal. A balladic poem, ‘Demolished Residential’, creates surprise another way: it’s a droll listing of the experiences of the inmates of the house. It’s worth quoting a few stanzas:

Fat Mrs Cruse and her shivering dog
Found refuge in a tram,
Marooned in somebody’s paddock
With a present of melon jam.

Mr Roscorla was put in a Home,
Where he sat in a sea-grass chair,
Looking all day at the ocean
And wondering why he was there.

Mr Dinwiddy of butterfly collar
Found board in Neutral Bay.
Dinners were not undertaken;
Cornflakes came in on a tray.

But Miss Annie Agnew, pamphleteer,
Was far too busy to care;
She could write letters to papers,
Be angry, anywhere.

The lightness the verse resides in the detail as much as in the whimsy of the rhymes that nevertheless testify to Fisher’s endorsement of each resident’s individuality. Does ‘light verse’ fit the bill? I wonder. Fisher’s easy turns of phrase pick up both the Australian demotic and more formal expressions while revealing the capacity of both registers to contain a broad vein of benign fellow-feeling.

If there’s a predominant theme to the second section of Archival Footwork, it’s related to coastal and oceanic scenes, with which Fisher has a clear affinity. The sense of gratitude for proximity to such elemental phenomena as waves (whose contrapuntal nature she observes in ‘Pacific Philharmonia’), and with sky and wind is foreshadowed in poems like ‘Saying Grace’ and ‘At Palm Beach’. The former records thankfulness for the company of her husband but asks ‘Yet how did I mislay the feel of my children’s skin, / remember only the birthdays and prizes?’ A sort of holiday poem-cycle, ‘Bluey’s Beach’ contains some of Fisher’s most memorable inventions: ‘Two weeks on the coast / and the mind is bleached’; and, of a hang-glider, ‘suddenly a Leonardo man / hovers overhead, improbable, serene’. Later, the tone-poem ‘Werri Lagoon’ focuses on evening sounds, and ‘In Fading Light’ she writes ‘I think of all the things / I have not done / and the sea / advancing and retreating / is a series of sighs’. ‘Low Tide’ strikingly notes gulls that ‘stand in groups on the sand, / Like Quakers at a meeting’.

These evocative poems amplify the mood of others that celebrate remote forebears and their ‘Empire days’ activities. Reference to ‘imperial’ days occurs more than once in Fisher’s poetry, and for some readers this might complicate the dates of events she recalls. Where do we date the end of Australia’s membership of the British Empire? By some accounts, dates range from 1942 until 1986. Some Australian pre-decimal coins in circulation until February 1966 still carried the image of an English monarch and the inscription ‘by the Grace of God King of all the British Territories, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India’.

Brand names of household products mentioned by Fisher in passing also bookmark bygone times. She recalls a sky ‘of brightest Reckitt’s blue’ (‘Gerringong’), while another poem memorialises a lame aunt who published stories in the Sydney Mail and drowned at the age of twenty-one (‘A Death in the Family’). The Sydney Mail, a Fairfax weekly magazine published between 1912 and 1938, was notable for its journalism, illustration, and fiction. Fisher’s practice in so registering eras and dates is far from idiosyncratic—Gwen Harwood spoke of an obelisk of Reckitt’s blue’, in a poem on childhood memories (‘The Blue Pagoda’)—but Fisher’s ‘Gerringong’ takes its start from the visual conjunction of black-and-white cows standing in Escher puzzle-like poses among lilies on a road to a cemetery, ‘the ultimate place to retire / in marbled luxury, / confined, it’s true, by circumstance, / as the dead tend to be’—an incomparable formulation.

Fisher’s poem ‘Aunt Ida’ pays tribute to another relative, whose stage ambitions were thwarted by parents who directed her to music instead, and whose brothers and sweetheart were killed in World War One, following which ‘She didn’t play the piano much, her repertoire restricted, / since Germans had produced /such quantities of music’. Another poem, ‘Remembering My Grandmother’ reprises those wartime losses, including the death of a son killed in action, the loss of a child aged four, and the termination of her grandfather’s job in a German firm. Fisher’s ostensibly light touch in poems that skirt such tragedies testifies to a sensibility characterised by terse expression and tact.

At times the mood of such poetry is deceptively equable. This strikes me as quite deliberate. Fisher’s poems in Archival Footwork never fall into nostalgia, and melancholy is kept at bay through general brevity of lines, occasional crafty rhyming (‘solitary’, cemetery’, ‘luxury’, in the poem ‘Gerringong’), and sensuous images in such list-poems as ‘Cakes’, which celebrates participation in the ritual of cake-making, handed on by her mother and others.

The food-imagery and aspects of women’s craftwork underline some of the poems in the third and final section of Archival Footwork. Following the introductory poem ‘Vision’, with its comic surmises on everyday life in eras before ‘everyone’ wore glasses, Fisher moves to the luscious metaphorical imagery that suffuses the sequence ‘Salad’. The verbal play inevitably recalls Neruda’s ‘Odas Elementales’, but the surprises owe nothing to mimicry: of a tomato (‘slices of summer’), she declares, ‘I think I’m falling in love with a fruit’; while celery becomes ‘Gothic stalks’ and ‘a forest drowned / in a tall pond’. By contrast, a cucumber is defined almost negatively: ‘such a far cry from / Reading Gaol’. This last, with its contrast between grim surrounds and the milieu of Wildean privilege and wit, also finds echoes in poems about class and privilege closer at hand: ‘Dress Circle’ ponders the paradoxical absence of owners and people, and the presence of so many cars in a rich suburb. She speculates that this due to the influx of cleaners and housekeepers. Conversely, ‘Saturday Arvo’ conveys the mood of a paper-strewn suburb characterised by greyhound-walkers, garden gnomes, the sound of women phoning talkback shows, and the wholly unexpected appearance at evening of ‘incandescent’ frangipanis.

Paradox and contradiction are grist to Fisher’s compositional processes. Oblique references to personal pastimes like reading and solving crosswords give the clue to a mind that revels in the contrariness of mundane activities. Fisher dramatises the female dove that remains in the Ark when the male bird fails to return. The female bird remarks, ‘He never did have any go’ and remarks that she is now a sole parent. This comic invention deserves a place in any future anthology of ‘Ark’ poems, alongside Fay Zwicky’s classic ‘Ark Voices’. The poem ‘Road Toll’ observes that crosses by a roadside mark ‘corridors that lead / to nameless ones / waiting to be named’, and in the poem ‘At Gallipoli’, Fisher muses ‘She’ll be right, they must have said, / busy at their task. / As if it ever was’.

That sense of the mot juste extends to impatience with imprecision. The poem ‘Names’ observes ‘We move in a cloud of mateyness / as false as that old mantra / How are you today?’ She remarks instead that she wants to know names of things, places and people, ‘so I can nail them with their names’. Aware of ambiguities inherent in language, her poetry seeks out the marginally recorded, the fact behind the legend, the un-famous who appear beside the celebrated and famous in photographs. This is a quintessentially democratic aspect of her style. A poem like ‘The Girl’ pays attention to the servant ‘Madge’, who sees beyond her employers’ vision. ‘The Dressmaker’ similarly records the quotidian cares of Mrs Muldoon and her invalid husband; and ‘Evening Class’ juxtaposes the earnest, mistake-prone ‘victims’ in Mademoiselle’s French lessons and the self-satisfied Mademoiselle herself. A final poem, ‘Looking at Sky’ more equivocally notes the leisure that illness confers on the poet, who can do no more than surrender her body to ‘the paradise of sleep’.

At the end of every reading of this first collection of Fisher’s, I still wonder why such a collection remains in critical limbo. Whatever the reasons, it’s less a puzzle than an indictment.

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In Fisher’s second major collection, Still Life, Other Life (2007), her ability to apprehend and enter into the emotional lives of others is evident in a succession of meditations on the poem-making business and the paradoxes inherent in art’s ability to tease us out of our self-absorption. The first section speaks of delight in the tangible, visual and edible world, including the associations of names we bestow on objects—such as pears in the poem of the same name: ‘Mrs Packham, La Belle Anglaise, / who described herself leniently, / as an actress’—and what we associate with them: a metaphorical way of thinking whereby ‘haunches’ of pears resemble ‘Colette’s courtesans’.

Several poems take paintings as triggers for other conclusions than those intended by the artists. Joseph, in the poem ‘Flight into Egypt’, appears to be engaged in reading for pleasure, ‘unaware / of great events unfolding, / so lost is he in story’. A poem titled ‘Still Life, Other Life’ reflects on the material involved in still-life paintings and makes an unexpected imaginative leap:

Out there canvas cities flap
in a dry wind,
water queues wait in the dust.

Does the poet have to say more? Fisher’s poems don’t explain what they’re about, and I find this agreeable: her poems on art, especially, offer the artefacts as autonomous things or events requiring no elucidation, as, I think, most artists would agree concerning their work. While poems can and do express ideas and feelings by virtue of their existence as language phenomena, Fisher’s walk a line between presentation and communication of ideas as things in themselves. When she broaches political subjects in similar manner: they exist within a unique set of circumstances at the same time as having features in common with other events with the appearance of coherence suggesting narrative coherence. Fisher’s approach bestows an aesthetic quality on political matters that is rare. Jennifer Maiden’s ‘political’ poetry, like that of New Zealander Sonja Yelich (for example, in the latter’s 2009 collection Get Some), can appear to have designs on its readers through mythologising events or otherwise making them symbolic. Fisher seems to me to be less obviously persuading her readers to accept some ideological ‘take’ on event; rather, she appears to put recognition if not love of people before any ‘cause’.

In a series of poems on the wives of famous artists, Fisher highlights neglected features of the actual production and interpretation of great works. A fleeting contrast might be made here between Fisher’s approach and Carol Ann Duffy’s (in the 1999 volume, The World’s Wife), but Fisher is not so obviously concerned with point scoring and deconstructing mythological as well as historical figures. I think the difference lies in a sort of rescue operation, reclamation of reputations of women who had actual existence. Claes Oldenburg’s wife is brought to the fore as the seamstress of the soft sculptures that made his name (‘The Sculptor’s Wife’); John Milton’s daughters, whom he employs as readers of languages of which they are supposedly ignorant, laugh at the poet when he approves their embroidery (‘The Poet’s Daughters: Deborah Milton Speaks’); the Countess Tolstoy painstakingly proofreads her husband’s near-indecipherable writing and prepares his books for the press while he plays peasant (‘The Novelist’s Wife: Countess Tolstoy’s War and Peace’). Dorothy Wordsworth is presented as the greater writer—‘You wrote it down so freshly, / while he composed / a little fib’ (‘The Poet’s Sister’); and Elizabeth Gould receives is given credit for her exquisite paintings that made her husband’s name (‘A Sigh for Elizabeth Gould’). As Fisher’s titles indicate, a history of repression operates in the lives and work of these women.

Not all such history involving art hinges on suppression of recognition. The poem ‘Rain and Hirohito’ portrays the Emperor, dying in Tokyo: ‘Deity long discarded, he was / always more interested in fish’. In like mode, Fisher refers to her own activities in a trio of poems on poetry. ‘Searching the Poem’ playfully portrays the process as an Edward Lear-like pursuit of a butterfly; ‘Finding the Poem’ appears to make light of the writing until

One morning I wake
and there’s a bubbling spring
inside me. Come, small poem,
out of the drawer.
I am ready
to put flesh on your
bones, sift through
those laborious drafts
and write you free.

Of ‘dead poems’ she writes ‘Yet […] there is nobility too—poems / which gave their organs / that others might live’ (‘Burying the Poem’). Fisher’s sentiment might accord with many poets’ experience.

In poems that bring familiar circumstances and localities to the fore, Fisher sketches the bare locative data and makes the scenes memorable through images and turns of phrase that highlight absurdities we take for granted. Her ‘Lament for a Town’ could refer to any bypassed country town; what makes such live, so to speak, is a result of particularising images, such as that of streets formerly ‘herringboned with utes and Holdens and Fords / parked in pepper-tree shade’. The poem ‘Sydney Weddings’ focuses on parks with their weekend ‘snowfall of brides’, concerning whom, Fisher adds ‘some will jettison their photos / along with a partner / found lacking’. ‘The Red Coat’, a later poem that comes closest to autobiography, records an encounter in infancy in a Melbourne street, where Fisher and her mother suddenly see Fisher’s father escorted by a woman dressed in red. Fisher comments in retrospect, ‘How wretched you made us, old charmer, / and how good to have you around / when we felt you belonged to us’. Whatever suffering the family endured is kept private in controlled spare speech that highlights the unsettling irruption of the strange in everyday life. One could search far in contemporary poetry of domestic relationships to find as admirable restraint.

Pain of another sort, resulting from her mother’s illness and death, is as efficiently managed in concise vignettes: ‘Kurrajong’ records, in interesting shifts of tense, the former routine of Easters in the hills, drives, afternoon teas and lunch on the grass, ‘you dying and we still in denial’. ‘Legacy’ also resorts to gerunds: ‘The last intrusive act: sorting your clothes’ while ‘the camellia you loved’ has ‘put out its immaculate flowers. / They are so pale in the cold garden’. Fisher’s shifts in tense are worth revisiting: they’re models of verbal tact.

Two poem-sequences, of the three that expand Fisher’s subject matter and approach, comprise catalogue or list poems. One, ‘Concerning Clothes’, ranges over precise associations: childhood horrors such as shrunken bathers, school uniforms, and the occasional party dress; op shop sorters’ methodology; Judith, ‘Dressed to Kill’ on her way to meet Holofernes; ‘Discards’—clothes washed up on beaches (‘We think the worst / of clothes without their owners’); the task of ironing a nightgown for her mother’s funeral; a woman, dressed in her ‘best sari’, subject of a tour guide’s demonstration of how the poor live. ‘Without Clothes’, the concluding poem in the sequence, unsettlingly juxtaposes Adam and Eve with leaves, Auschwitz, and a ‘calm reclining Venus’ who ‘wears her nudity like a dress’. Such a conjunction recalls those poems (in Archival Footwork) that compel readers (and observers of the visually familiar) to take stock of the ways in which conventional interpretation masks the alluring strangeness, and sometimes absurdity or horror in the familiar.

A second catalogue type of poem-sequence, ‘Considering Sand’, that comes as the culmination of a number of poems on oceanic and atmospheric effects, similarly invites readers to contemplate associations of the word ‘sand’. The introductory poem speaks of holiday homes and how ‘walking on sand can be like /crushing biscuits’. Further along, ‘The Bible is full of sand and beards / and hot weather. Years later I’m amazed / to learn it’s snowing in Jerusalem’. Other defamiliarising images include those of the sandbags associated with disasters; of the pre-industrial writer whose ‘film of sand / veils that sonnet to his mistress’; of the shallow beach grave of a murdered girl; of the peculiar suggestiveness of ‘sandwiches’; of the ‘subversive’ sandshoes of the eccentric Sydney character Bea Miles. Fisher adds the sand masking the deaths of one bull after another; Schumann’s ‘sandman / scattering his most melodious dust’ on sleeping infants; and her own mining ‘the dunes of language’ and thinking of Blake, who’ saw / time fall silently in the glass’.

The poem is a series of transformations of the familiar, and I again reflect on the apparent absence of critical response to her work. Could it be that her publication by such presses as Indigo and Ginninderra obviates serious consideration? If so, I don’t hold with such prejudice, in a period when to be published anywhere at all is such a difficult and even discouraging undertaking. Her publishers merit thanks for bringing her work to light in such attractive editions.

A final poem-sequence in Still Life, Other Life is titled ‘Russian Album’, where Fisher continues to ring changes on touristic preconceptions in eight poems that humanise the people encountered during her visit. The Intourist guide lacks the nerve to opine on the Soviet years, much less contemporary times, but is happier with ‘icons / and the domes of Holy Russia, / fairytale forests […] and the scarlet berries / of roman trees / that make delicious jam’ (‘Galina’s Bread’). A member of the Convent of the Precious Blood has even less time for Leninist ‘nonsense’, but is not pleased to have her photo taken while she manually labours in a manner that might suggest visual imitation of ‘the Soviet way’ (‘The Postulant’). An account, as if reportage of an event in progress, of children walking in streams with bunches of flowers to their first day of school, ‘All over Russia’, is abruptly halted with the irruption of news, while Fisher and her husband are lunching in a stylish St Petersburg restaurant, of the murderous siege of a school in Beslan, Ossetia. Fisher’s poem concludes with the restaurant staff wiping away tears ‘as they set down our plates’. Common humanity emerging in times of crisis is reprised in two final poems: ‘Carpentry’ relates an unskilled woman’s experience of making a coffin, from household materials, for a small child during the siege of Leningrad: ‘She was not cut out for this task / but knew it must be done’). The concluding poem, ‘The Fountain House’, brings the entire collection back to the relationship of art and life and women’s experience. The house in question was the poet Akhmatova’s residence for many years, and Fisher relates that, though denied a ration card, Akhmatova survived through the charity of friends who brought chocolate and oranges, ‘“As though”, you wrote, “I was an invalid / —not simply hungry.”’

I concur with Elizabeth Webby’s comment on Fisher’s ‘mastery of the compressed narrative […], evoking the world in a grain of sand’.

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By way of an intermezzo, Fisher gathered sixteen poems in a chapbook titled Rain and Hirohito, published by Picaro Press in May 2012. With the exception of three, these had been published in the preceding larger collections (respectively, 87 and 85 pages). The three exceptions were ‘The Proper Spirit’, ‘Deck Chairs’ and ‘Casuarinas’, which all appear in her most recent and compendious (108 pages) collection, Rescued from Time, with which the remainder of this survey is concerned.

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Rescued From Time follows the earlier major gatherings in grouping poems around unnamed though more or less topical congruencies. The first section is much concerned with the properties and productions of artists: photographs, botanical models, poetry, historic houses, and the clothes and performances of actors. ‘Deckchairs’, the opening poem, ponders what the ‘confident gaze’ of famous people, photographed at their leisure, conveys. Fisher proposes ‘the witticism just uttered, the laughter / dissolving in the mild, tobacco-scented air’. There is no getting at the gazers’ mystery, though, and I think ‘mystery’ is the unstated element that draws Fisher in all her poetry relating to art. Clues to some of the mystery in ‘Deckchairs’ may lie in the detail of ‘tobacco-scented air’ and references to ‘the famous faces’ (Vanessa and Clive and the Woolves, Morgan, / Lytton and Carrington’, ‘panamas, / early sunglasses or thatch of remarkable hair’, but observers of the photograph can only guess at the gulf between themselves and the lives of those subjects who seem to look straight back at them.

The paradox of ‘life brought to a standstill’ is expressed in other figurative works referenced in this introductory part of the collection. One such is ‘The Breakfast’, a Jacob Jansz painting from the turn of the sixteenth century that, to Fisher’s mind, displays ‘the Holy Family sitting down / to a very German breakfast’. Reading that stark phrase, with line-break and all, I’m struck by the cleverness of it. Ekphastic poems can be lifeless things after all, but Fisher makes hers live by reference to the things that make life good, and her connoisseurship in the matter of food ‘nails’ the meal with exactitude. In the poem ‘On Looking at Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man and his Grandson’, a similar sense of life stems from the details as Fisher shifts focus from the old man’s nose, so often subject of medical and art-commentary, to his ‘hooded eyes’ and faint tender smile toward the ‘radiant’ child who looks up to him, and the uniting warm red colours of their clothes uniting them—‘as if to reflect the blood that binds them’. Verbal language and the language of painting are things apart, so simile has to state what may be self-evident in the actual painting. Fisher adds an editorial comment that pulls the entire experience together: ‘we know something marvellous / is alive in the work’. In this way, the ‘marvellous’ embraces the painting, the painter, its subjects—and the onlooker.

The extent to which Fisher thinks metaphorically and associatively may strike many readers of this collection. She is alert art’s mimetic potential, highlighting the mode (in its pre-Socratic sense of stage-actors’ imitation of actions) in poems like ‘The Proper Spirit’, concerning actor’s assumptions of roles when they put on their stage clothes. Women, Fisher remarks, know ‘the constraints of costume’, and she takes her observation of the phenomenon further when she refers to Mrs and Mrs William Blake, naked while reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, out of their belief that it ‘would encourage the proper spirit / in which to read that great work’. It’s a startling but characteristic move of Fisher’s to include this instance of people getting into the spirit of occasion. In ‘Conversations I do not have’, she recognises the outer shores of performative occasions, in her acknowledgment of a propensity and a wish to break out of frame at times, at risk of social gaffes or greater absurdities. She ponders the effect of speaking truth instead of the conventional lies heard at funeral orations, or when remaining cravenly obliging to hosts at dreadful dinners or when being presented with unwanted gifts.

Variations on the theme of dissimulation and the mimetic impulse take some interesting turns in other poems. ‘Kristallnacht’ considers the German ‘flair for poetry’ that applies such an appealing word to an outrage; to a point of such duplicity, Fisher adds the further contradiction whereby the Bayreuth synagogue was spared destruction similar to the German Parliament, on account of the synagogue’s proximity to the Wagnerian Festspielhaus. In ‘Glass Flowers’, Fisher dwells on the uncanniness (or ‘magic’ as she calls it) of the Blaschke father and son’s work in creating glass flowers for the Harvard botanical museum: ‘so delicate a contradiction’ goes direct to the mystery of art’s preservation of some simulacrum of life (in this case, ‘solidity, / marble hard yet fragile in its cool perfection’). This is akin to Keats’s remark on ‘Cold Pastoral’ of the Grecian urn that teases a viewer out of thought.

Some of Fisher’s poems on art and life are more self-reflexive; the fifth poem in her sequence ‘Hospital Vistas’ includes the following:

I am in a painting by Jeffrey Smart.
[…]
And can that tiny distant figure
be David Malouf, or is it Clive James?
Be that as it may, they are both welcome.

The preoccupation with art and the incidental indications of foreign travels, Fisher moves toward the more ‘domestic’ Australian and even suburban setting of the second section of the book, with ‘Coming Home’: ‘We drink our tea on the veranda / and Europe slides off us’. Two poems directly reference architecture. In ‘Historic Home Visit’, the fictive Professor Fletcher, wearied with ‘motel rooms and carpet-smelling air’, and bored with the ritual of trailing his spouse and their guide and through a grand house, has a sudden flash of fantasy in the master bedroom, imagining ‘his Ariadne seized, flung on the bed, / with all her loveliness arrayed / as if for his own banquet spread’. The image is comic in tone of authorial amusement at masculine overreaching or self-delusion—such as characterises A.D. Hope’s ‘Imperial Adam’ or Gwen Harwood’s ‘Prize Giving’, all three cases employing amusing possibilities of rhyme.

Fisher’s gaze falls on distinctively Australian vistas and subjects in the second section of the book, notable for several catalogue or list-poems. She writes of self-sown bush lemons, with their ‘leprous, aching boughs’ (‘Bush Lemons’); melaleucas (‘Paperbarks’: ‘they make me think of ancient relatives / in dressing gowns, shuffling / to bed with hot water-bottles’); ‘Palms’ (‘a bit like poor relations at a smart party’), and ‘Casuarinas’—a poem that fancifully proposes a saint whose name has been ascribed to the tree (‘like Saint Barbara—of pious legend, dropped from the Vatican calendar but still / revered in certain parts’). Light and sound references suffuse these poems and others that pointedly address garden and littoral scenes frequented by birds: ‘By the Lake’ speaks of fishermen’s boats ‘crammed (appliquéd) / with pelicans’; ‘Light—Late Afternoon’, a poem in tercet form, remarks ‘How they loved late afternoons, / Those painters we love too’.

As the excerpts indicate, Fisher is alert to correspondent images that give point to her observations, and this is also true of poems whose drift is predominantly narrative, such as ‘A Colonial Story’, the twelve-pages long account of a colonial-era suicide, related to Eleanor Phillimore, Writer in Residence a National Trust house, by the nonagenarian retainer ‘old Jim’, who ‘lurks’ nearby. Fisher has some fun with the contrast between Miss Phillimore’s businesslike researches into the story of the original owner’s career and mental breakdown, and the proprietorial fussiness of the National Trust guide who offers her ‘a book’—the Women’s Weekly. The distinction between the two characters’ idea of literary seriousness also embraces Eleanor’s friends, whose talk of her ‘obsession’ she meets with ‘scalding’ remarks. A further character in the tale, Mrs Dunphy, a former servant-woman from Britain is amazed at the lofty rooms of the mansion, thinking ‘oh, the dusting!’ while her husband Bob speaks of ‘all this privilege and old money […] not to mention / Colonial Georgian claptrap’ before stomping back to the tour bus in a huff. Fisher’s reliance on such dialogue to carry the class implications of the story is of a sort with Patrick White’s novelistic (and dramatic) positioning of seekers and sophisticates against the complacent, smug (and sometimes murderously) envious. Fisher’s narrative maintains a similar blend of tragic, comic and satiric elements without interpolative authorial comment.

The fourth and fifth sections of Rescued from Time engage with domestic matters in another way, dwelling on reminiscence, ageing and decline. Some of the poems may reflect particular personal losses, though it would be risky assume all as fact. A poem like ‘Skiing in the Main Range’ might be no more than recollection of the pleasure of the activity and the company whose trails ‘tuned the slopes / into a great expansive drawing’—an image that lends weight to the idea that Fisher employs the world as a canvas or magazine of materials for the creation of art. In a poem relating to a wedding photo from London in 1905, the most arresting feature for Fisher is a brick wall spiked with shards of broken glass, that encloses the focal group (‘In the Picture’). If the figures in the photo are, in effect, ancestors, that detail would hardly lend little more significance to the idea of a marriage hedged with danger.

We may be on safer ground in assuming autobiographical reference with the poem ‘Lost Uncles’, which reprises the theme of the Archival Footwork poem, ‘Aunt Ida’, in recording the deaths of Thomas and William, though it adds the detail of William’s enlistment, at the age of seventeen after being handed a white feather by a woman on a train, and his death in action several months later. The poem concludes with a terse quotation from official notice to families relating to burial of their dead: ‘Particulars not to hand’. Australian poems written in the past century relating to World War One and personal losses are notably prone to lapse into faux-sincere effusions of patriotic gush posing as art, but I think Fisher’s poems on lost uncles easily evade such lapses of taste.

Elsewhere in the poems I’ve classed as touching on familial memories, Fisher distances t melancholy by wishing away certain recollections, such as the sight of an old man living in a Bombay drainpipe, and the poor woman dressed in her best the Bombay poor referred to earlier. Fisher is provoked to reflect on her own experience, and acknowledges that there is no forgetting ‘past insensitivities, / the shaming gaffe, / the hurt received or given’ (‘Forgetting’). Wishing cannot dispel such emotions. A further reminiscence, ‘Viewpoints’ recounts Fisher’s experience of climbing, at age seven, a tall tree in an English garden and looking out the distant hills and fields of watercress by a river, and the ‘mean terraces’ closer at hand. The most accomplished poems bearing on intimate relations maintain a brittle restraint. ‘To an Adopted Child’ concludes ‘when you reach understanding, / deal with me leniently’, and plastic flowers in a poem of the same name the poem refer to her mother’s ball dress: the flowers ‘still will bloom / while we decline, will meet / our last breath / with a bright stare’.

Fisher takes another tack in her penultimate grouping of poems in Rescued from Time. Four poems comprise lists of associations of colours, and several poems consider wayside shrines to victims of road-carnage, a friend’s gift for choosing appropriate postcards for intended recipients, Fred Williams’s landscapes, and Grace Cossington Smith’s penchant for painting interiors with mirrors on open wardrobe wardrobes, and other doors that open to the artist’s veranda and garden: for Fisher, these are correspondent ‘open doors and open mind’ (Grace Cossington Smith’s Interiors’). If Cossington Smith’s paintings are ‘awash with her signature brushstrokes / of multi-hues pigment / and the dazzle of light’, Fisher’s poems are also replete with ‘signature’ turns of phrase and images that highlight the variety and hues of her subjects.

Poems like ‘A Survivor’ and ‘Toast’ serve well to illustrate the sort of detail that emphasise the insistence and intensity of memory. Both poems celebrate bygone or enduring vernacular Australian food. The former poem imagines a museum of Australian staples including carpet-bag steak, tinned-spaghetti sandwiches, and neenish tarts. Depending on readers’ ages and tastes, the list will beggar credulity or bring tears to the eyes of those who lament the days when they were young. Fisher’s poems on colours also couple sensory experience and further illustrate her precision with language (words that ‘bear such a load of meaning’ as she says in the poem ‘White’). Thus, among the images conjured by ‘Yellow’, Fisher bundles Van Gogh (‘Vincent did not have / a jaundiced view of yellow’), Chinese silk, the Yellow Book, the Yellow House in Potts Point, wattles in bloom, yellow box honey butter and eggs and other phenomena. ‘Red’ speaks of wounds, rage, the ‘red-letter day’ when reds are not found under the bed but ‘when the rednecks / all got their comeuppance’. These collisions of images release energy in what incurious readers might otherwise consider flat ‘lists’.

Perhaps the most interesting extended sequence of poems in the book is that which brings it to a close. The ten poems that comprise ‘Fragments of a Life’ purport to stem from ‘the unposted letters of Joseph Bergin’ whom the unnamed editor and narrator of the letters identifies at the outset as ‘my father’ (‘A Daughter’s Note’). The letters are supposedly discovered in a tin, and are all addressed to an anonymous woman whom he loved before migrating to Australia. A footnote provides background to his sophisticated Polish Jewish background, his Viennese and Parisian education and training as an engineer before he fetched up in Australia, worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, founded a construction company, married an Australian woman, established a family and ended up ‘immensely rich’

The narrator guesses that the letters address the woman whom he loved in Paris, though the extracts provide little clue: it’s clear that the woman was married, and his earliest impressions of Cooma (‘like some sort of frontier, all fractured English’) contain the remark ‘You would not like it here’. The letters reveal his friendship with fellow Boggabilla camp inmate Eric, a charmer who has opened a café in Double Bay and calls himself a count. The poem ‘Householder’ informs Bergin’s absent lover ‘How you would smile to see me now, / living in a suburb, mowing a lawn’. The cultural gulf widens with revelations of his current wife, who is ‘young and beautiful / but does not know it’, and whom he loves, but ‘Not as I loved you and was consumed’. In the letter-poem ‘Lost Ones’, Bergin writes that he tries not to think of his Aunt Etta ‘with her ample figure exposed / waiting, naked in a line’.

Fisher moves the Bergin narrative along through a collage of her fictional character’s self-depictions. In ‘Housewarming’, he writes of a party in Australia even while he presents memories of his lover and his aunt. In ‘The Vacant Bed’, he obliquely alludes to his wife’s death by remarking on wardrobes full of her clothes. The second last poem, ‘The Painting’ recounts his purchase of a small picture at a gallery, where ‘they were very polite’, but ‘they’d hoped I buy the Brack’. Fisher implies a degree of sensitivity in Bergin’s emphasis on the picture’s origin: it was painted ‘by no one anyone’s heard of. / Young, I suppose, just starting’—but he values it because it recalls to him the smell of ‘dry grass and burnt trees’ when he first came to Australia.

It occurs to me at this point that I should return to Fisher’s poetry to note the olfactory sense-references, but I’ll leave those for others to discover; her poems have slyly included every other sensation and taste. The Bergin sequence ends with ‘Leaving’, in which he writes of himself in a nursing home where he looks from a terrace ‘at the boats and ferries / until it’s time for tea’. His ‘bosomy, not to say bossy nurse’ gives him a friendly pat, and he remarks ‘I control my irritation; / she means well. They all mean well’.

Subtlety is the keynote of ‘Fragments of a Life’, as it is of so much of Fisher’s poetry. At the same time, there is toughness of thought behind the Bergin letters and many other poems that do not flinch at sadness close at hand or misery in the world at large. There’s little point in trying to ‘locate’ Fisher among her peers, whether male or female. Her achievement is distinctive. I’ve though of other poets whose range might parallel or coincide hers: Hewett (whose autobiography is wrapped in mythology: no comparison; Fisher is not so driven); Wright (not quite: the ecological, philosophical, scientific and social justice themes are more insistent than Fisher’s allusiveness); Dobson (art, yes, and suffering, but so tightly wrapped in received forms); Harwood (close, in tone, wit, sense of poetry as an art that can easily embody philosophy, friendship as well as love and another beloved art form); (Zwicky: now there’s a thought: openness and clarity, yes, though consider the weight of family and European and Chinese history—and put Zwicky’s ‘Deckchair on the Titanic’ beside Fisher’s ‘Deckchair’?); and so on. No, Fisher is an original. And it’s a pleasure to encounter such an active and open mind.

Works referred to

Archival Footwork. ISBN 1 74027 096 7. Charnwood ACT: Indigo/Ginninderra, 1997.

Still Life, Other Life. ISBN 978 1 74027 442 5. Charnwood ACT: Ginninderra, 2007.

Rain and Hirohito and other poems. ISSN 1444 8424. Cardiff NSW: Picaro, May 2012.

Rescued from Time. ISBN 9781760412333. Ginninderra Press, 2016. RRP $20.  http://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/rapidcartpro/index.php?product/page/1165/*+Barbara+Fisher+%2F+Rescued+From+Time

 –  Michael Sharkey

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Michael Sharkey: Photo by Winifred Belmont, Bologna, October 2017

Michael Sharkey lives in central Victoria.  He edited the Australian Poetry Journal from 2014 to 2016. His latest books are The Poetic Eye: Occasional Writings 1982-2012 (Leiden & Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2016) and In the Real World and Other Poems (Hobart, Burringbar, 2017).