Dominique Hecq reviews A Personal History of Vision by Luke Fischer
A Personal History of Vision
By Luke Fischer
Reviewed by DOMINIQUE HECQ
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand, O to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being—R. M. Rilke
Luke Fischer’s second collection, A Personal History of Vision, published earlier this year in UWAP’s Poetry Series, firmly establishes him as a pyrotechnician of language. This is Fischer’s second collection, and like the first, which was commended in the Anne Elder Award, it brings a dazzling range and depth of experience to his writing. Fischer’s ‘Augury?’, included in Paths of Flight, won the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Prize. Fischer is also a scholar of Romanticism, and this informs his poetry in unexpected and delightful ways. He has learned from Rainer Maria Rilke that an attentiveness to language enhances our understanding of things and therefore intensifies our vision. Like Rilke, his purpose is ‘to say [words] more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being’. In that, he goes further than Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, in his Treatise on Logic, famously wrote: ‘it is words, names, or, if images used as words or names, that are the only and exclusive subject of understanding. In no instance do we understand a thing in itself’. In the poem ‘Why I write’ Fischer lists, and dismisses a number of reasons he might write for. He settles on the following:
I write for the expansion of the present
vital as breath to an empty lung,
for the garden that grows around me,
whether I’m in the city or on a mountain—
an invisible garden of fruit trees, hanging
wisteria and vines, honey bees, angophoras.
In these deceptively simple yet finely wrought lines, we recognise the path taken by the poet who, in Goethe’s formulation, ‘sees the universal in the particular’. We also make out the point at which the path forks out into three romantic traditions through specific images, and we hear echoes of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Novalis, Lamartine, Nerval, Baudelaire, Coleridge and Rilke. There may be more. Or less. (I may be seeing and hearing things). This is to suggest how Fischer’s verse conjures up a singularly-layered poetic world that produces a richness of tones and references.
Fischer’s poetic world is formal, philosophical, historical and, to a lesser extent, ecocritical in engagement and the concurrent romantic vision of the redemptive possibilities of art. His domain is ‘Nature’s Temple’ as immortalised in Baudelaire’s credo, ‘Correspondences’. In it, there is wonder, but also the anguish of melancholy, solitude, grief, suffering, dispossession and death. However, against these his poetry essentially offers life-affirming opportunities for delight—delight in the image-making magic of its own plays upon perception and language and, through these, in the multitudinous variety of nature, culture and art. Often cemented in an aesthetic image, or work of art, many of the poems collected in A Personal History of Vision express concern and empathy for the dead, grieving, lost and afflicted, for isolates driven inwards by their own perceptions. Answers are often gestured towards with empathy, and glimpses of the sublime, but they are more often than not cut short, leaving it to the reader to cope with the affect delivered by the last image. In ‘Waiting for the Train’, the sublime takes on surreal qualities on closing as the protagonist is compared to a fly caught in a spider’s web irrevocably breaking free.
Because of the collection’s lingering melancholy, I first wondered if ‘Deadwood’ might be emblematic of Fischer’s method. Behind the poem which evokes Rimbaud through reference to his limp and poetic vision, is ‘a verse that once set me on fire’. Here, the poet sees himself as a fire thief whose ‘text / looks like a poem’ yet ‘is a torch’ and the poets ‘way/into the heart’s subterrane, / a wavering illumination / of its resistant textures’. Here is Prometheus, classical fire-stealer, the characteristic figure held up by the Romantics (especially Rimbaud and Shelley) as symbol of heroic rebellion, the imagination and poetry. The lessons taken from Rilke are integrated in the poem: acknowledgment of time and experience, facing up to dejection as instructive and potentially ennobling, respect for selfhood in all its particularities, paring the language, finding inspiration in the here and now, and allowing sublime intimations to emerge from the profane.
Each poem in this book is an exploration of the creative possibilities of the poem as self-sufficient construct and affecting world. Each poem strives to bring forth contradictions and resolve them through a controlled expansion of imagery along specific paradigmatic axes rather than an accumulative proliferation of random images, which ends with some unexpected juxtaposition or reversal. The ekphrastic poems in particular, display this kind of aesthetics, focusing as they do on lines of flight. Thus despite his interest in paring back the expression to perceived essentials, in toughening the poem’s fibre, there is no doubt that Luke Fischer is above all an image maker. This comes with a distrust of adjectives and yet a paradoxical reverence for quaint or obsolete ones such as ‘subterrane’ and ‘halcyon’, which conjure up other languages, other traditions, other dimensions. This is the case in the third poem of the collection, ‘Horizon of Alps (K)’, in which ‘halcyon’ refers back to classical poetry via the French Romantics. This poem in fact introduces a whole cortege of allusions and shows Fischer is at his best: the theme is fully developed, the vision complex yet sustained, the convergence of poetic traditions surprising and the philosophical inferences sophisticated. The poem deserves quoting in full:
Horizon of Alps (K)
At the Château de Lavigny, Switzerland
Always at the boundary of vision, of thought
even when we look the other way. Though
often concealed in cloud and mist
veiled in haze, we know they endure.
Seemingly impenetrable matter
we sense a hidden truth, that they are minds
absorbed in contemplation.
On halcyon mornings Lac Léman
almost renders them as they are
in an image on diaphanous depth.
Their peaks shorn of vegetation, sheer faces
of stone, absolute architecture, prefigurations
of the crystals they hold.
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, geometers whose bible
was Euclid, their enlightenment consisted
in continuous meditation on the axiom
of axioms, the formula of themselves.
With a sister order they communicate
in antiphon. Snow imparts: Out of moisture
air and cold we make your structures light,
lighter than the empty bones of the tiny birds
that nest in your pockets. They reply:
We keep you from dissolving, lend
you a feeling of permanence.
At times dark clouds envelop the summits,
tense as the disputes at the First Council of Nicaea.
On holidays the iconostasis opens
revealing Mont Blanc, the hooded high priest,
as censers spread their smoke
around the lower pinnacles.
Still epics, skeletons of mythic creatures, crystal skulls
pure forms, the moral law, metalogic, consonants
isolated from vowels. Your secret name:
the voiceless occlusive
In a gesture reminiscent of Shelley, Fischer answers the old suggestion that poetry is associated with primitive, indeed ‘primeval’ perception and declines with the advance of civilisation. The poem echoes ‘Defence of Poetry’, where Shelley claims an interrelationship of language, perception and poetry such that poets as contributors to civilisation in all manners aesthetic and philosophical are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (1821). Lingering here is the romantic emphasis on the imagination, truth, beauty and pleasure allied with Shelley’s provocative definition of the relationship between imagination and morality in the form of the good. The poetic faculty creates ‘new materials for knowledge’ and engenders the asynchronous desire for their rearrangement and presentation. Through the emphasis on the paradoxically ‘voiceless occlusive’ in the French ‘blanc’ Fisher deftly suggests that, as Shelley puts it, poetry ‘is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge’ here epitomised by the Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. He also, and not without irony, suggests that poets are authors to others ‘of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory’. The irony pertains to the fact that ‘k’ at the heart of ‘Luke’ is indeed far from voiceless. Besides, after Kafka, the letter ‘k’ is loaded with connotations antithetical to the good. In this poem, the letter ‘k’ goes beyond anchoring metaphoric play: it highlights the classical idea of eternal forms, including the form of the good endorsed by philosophy. It does so only to question and subvert this idea. This is achieved through interplay of semantic binaries.
Diverse in their range and reference, arresting in their statement and wordplay, the poems gathered in this collection are, as ‘Horizon of Alps (K)’ demonstrates, very carefully constructed. Fischer uses the short line and variable stanzaic form with dexterity. The result is a poetry that is conceived with sharp attention to detail, joy in the possibilities of language, and self-consciousness about the seriousness and exhilaration of perception and apperception. This is equally true of the longer questing poems, of the extended ‘Elegy for the Earth’ with its personification of earth as a sleeping woman, and of the shorter inquisitive lyrics such as ‘Glance’, ‘Scene in music’, ‘Anonymous’ and ‘Labyrinth’.
In the poem ‘Certain Individuals’, Fischer ponders what draws us to some people by invoking images rather than traits of character. He begins his meditation proper with the question: ‘But isn’t it that / in one person we sense a clear glinting waterfall / refreshing to sit beside, in another something mysterious / as a fallow field at dusk? I could not resist attempting to qualify his poetry in analogous fashion. Were it a prose poem, or proto-poem, it would be:
Water cascading through a gorge, a pattern of cross-currents forming beneath, around and above stones, causing sudden changes to the water’s flow. The lap and splash of images, nuances, cadences, subliminal rhythms. The attentiveness to form, language and speech: the shapes of words, letters, lines, stanzas. Their resonances, uncanny silences. The larynx’s response to what is heard, recalled and felt, reforming patterns of speech and sense. In winter the snow erases images and emptiness beckons. Calls from the depth of its stillness. Calls for understanding.
With Fischer, the romantic legacy is still with us, whatever modifications are made by changes in cultural perceptions, social institutions, aesthetic preferences and work patterns. In deference to art and in acknowledgement of the metaphoric possibilities of language, imagination allows here for a dialectical interplay of opposite categories that yield a third register. This register bears Novalis’ aphorism : The separation of poet and thinker is only apparent and to the disadvantage of both…’ Here lies the irresistible brilliance of A Personal History of Vision.
NOTE: “The separation of poet and thinker is only apparent and to the disadvantage of both…” –Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) is the key, as it were, that opens Luke Fischer’s website.
DOMINIQUE HECQ is a poet, fiction writer, scholar and literary translator. She grew up in the French-speaking part of Belgium and now lives in Melbourne. Her works include a novel, three collections of short stories, five books of poetry and two plays. Hush: A Fugue (2017) is her latest book of lined and prose poetry.