Poly-Parrot(s). Allen Fisher's Birds

Ralph Hawkins

Birds is the title of Allen Fisher's book Birds from Oystercatcher Press. Birds proliferate throughout the poem sequence.


Proposals 16-25

10 poems a sequence of emblems

Puzzling – then most poetry of any interest (for me) is. What are the proposals and what are the emblems?

Birds #16 – mallard – though mallard was once a train with a capital M. In #16 a train leaves a station.

Birds#17 – mistle thrush (on the ground – it's important to note, as if we were looking at diachronic geological strata, where these birds are situated and, perhaps what condition/stage they are in) signals (train signals!).

starlings (rhizomatic in the air)

swan (in his 'my' head)

there's also a flyer (not a bird, maybe a train)

and a dead owl – a tawny white spotted

There are just birds in #19 (they could be unidentifiable because they are high up as they follow a line which contains vapour trails).

Perhaps there is a (truly) emblematic bird on the cover image (a painting by Fisher?) – its wing-like form, covered in indecipherable meaning(s), letters, vomits towards Oystercatcher Press.

A dozen unidentifiable gulls turn up in #20 (they also signal) and after an absence birds return in force in #25.

Grey wagtails, a robin, sparrows and 'swallows on the wing for insects / and the sounds of
unidentified others', presumably birds? But then maybe the proposals are addressed not only to the observing self? I? poet / writer? but to the unidentifiable other / reader(s) – or others who can read the emblematic nature of the observable phenomenological world – the pre-thought of living.

Swallows, roughly, tell us the time of the year of #25 but #16 is full of ice – winter to summer. The forward of #16? But whatever we think of time, whether to do with quantum physics or Husserl's internal time consciousness, St Augustine's aporias or Heidegger's equi-primordial moments – time here, as the poet's plaything, is scattered with birds,

the internal comprehension

of the departure moment (#16)

The next line continues with a return to / a forward seat to narrate the occasion. Complexes of time with regard to narrative are discussed by Paul Ricouer in his Time and Narrative. But there is no narrative here because #18 perhaps tells us to / avoid narrative traps.

Time is mentioned in #22. Or starkly and more specifically, Some think this demonstrates our / spacetime. What is the this some think of? Are these the unidentifiable others who construct a variety of discourses and narratives for other others (I, you, me) to be perplexed by? These poems of Fisher construct their own spacetime(s) – they are poly everywhere, they are polyvisual, polyphonic and polysemic. Meanings fly off and redistribute. Put the end of #21, nuclear explosions, in front of #22 and the world connects with its possible end. Time is burnt out, that's human time (Dasein) and planet time – life is burning.out anyway – it's entropic.

The (emblematic) birds of the poem's (perhaps) metaphorical train journey join us to Naturein the urban and suburban. Whether there is a natural Nature remains problematic.A train is a perfect vehicle for guiding us through a number of changing 'scapes' – land, sea and sky, reflecting the dynamic interchange between man and nature. The dystopian Paradisiacal world (of promised happiness) seems to be urban – detritus of human activity is everywhere, paper in hedges, rubbish tip, breakage, nuclear explosions, graffiti banks / of human remains. On the other side of this mess of our own making are the birds or perhaps what the birds can represent, be emblematic of.

If birds are thematically repeated throughout the sequence (birds and Birds creating loose patterns and figures) then we at once notice or read (interpret) a panoply of interwoven words and word relatives (tropes, puns, motifs, metonyms etc.). Row is such a word and is of course counter to the movement of birds. Rows create (supposed) order and discipline. Rows (plots!) were how humanity imposed order (laws) upon nature. The poem is a dialectic of the free-floating versus the fixed (birds /train).

#16 straight rails north

#17 smacked dead on rails

#18 delineations

#19 distant rows of paper trap hedges

aircraft rows of vapour / trails echo rows of slime

#20 Distant rows of paper trap hedges

out of line with eyesight colours (not really a line? but alludes to the line of sight which seems to be 'one directional' instead of perhaps multiple and peripheral, the edges and blurs of an ambiguous or poly-vision noting that the word is colours and not colour)

#21 you look out at a horizon


Grey here

many greys but sometimes

you look out at a horizon

and see glimmers

of yellow or orange

you think it must be Paradise

or some kind of promised happiness

better than it's been here

turns out to be a series

of nuclear explosions

(horizon line – a real horizon melded with an imagined horizon, Paradise an earthly Paradise (the natural world because of colour because of Nature (Man's nature, if we have a Nature, turns out to be problematic) as opposed to an in the air (?) (heavenly Paradise). Thus the earthly virtuous paradise, a social / harmonious paradise turns out here, in reality to be an (imagined) catastrophe.

#24 hop rows

earth and burnt strips

Order(s) clash with disorder(s). Both the virtues and tyrannies (#24) are on show (to vision and thought). The tyrannies of economic damage as of and against the virtues (beauty of nature). If (sometimes) we are on a train then we are observing / thinking / and passing through (a) dynamic landscape(s). Speed, movement and time, on a number of synchronic and diachronic levels, are interrelated here (not to say also, they can be detached, separate and isolate). It depends on the present at hand.

#20 looked at in detail can be seen (falsely / arbitrarily) to be pivotal to the gone before and and the yet to be.

Distant rows of paper trap hedges

alerted by a dozen gulls signal

sea coast and rubbish tip

locked in a land basin by hills

of crushed stone and burnt crystals

the sounds of breakage and ease

out of rhythm with breath and weather

out of line with eyesight colours

demand a damask bench

beside representations of virtues and tyrannies

Distant rows of paper trap hedges, line 1, is a repeat of line 3 of #19. Normally we would read / see this as its reversal, rows of hedges trap paper. Here we are looking at the familiar in an unfamiliar way. We have been alerted to and by a number of perceptual points. Consciousness is alerted and intends towards the hedge (land) and its significations and the gulls (in the air / sky) signal (like a train signals on how to proceed). The gulls signal both the sea coast (a seascape which now joins the landscape and skyscape, also a horizon line – the eye travelling yet another line) and a rubbish tip from which the hedge has been decorated. Vision is replaced by sound, 'the sounds of breakage' and breakage links us with a damage which is both social and environmental. Line 7 could be read as Being being out of rhythm with that which surrounds us. Line 7 and line 8 repeat out of (rhythm and line), and of is used four times in #20.

All of this sequence seems to run on an order and balance of lines (rows) except #24 which contains an extra line (which?). It may well be line 8; the single word, stop. Here the visual pattern and presentation is cauterised and the mental puzzle (reality) becomes momentarily a focus of attention – only to continue. (I find the patterns of phonation and the line relationships fascinating in Birds.) However this semblance of order, is as it is, disordered through content, we have both

linkage or its subversion (line 10 #19)

From the beginning, #16, the world is both distant and near, both aurally and visually – distinct and indistinct. It is at once, in its perceptive plenitude, identifiable and non-identifiable. Sounds are particularised and associative, one sound reminds us of another (imaginative insight, internal comprehension, joining sound to image). In the distance we have, sound of mallard a moped./ a sheet of ice skidding / down a roof hitting / the pavement. These (associative) sounds may well relate to / be similar to the earlier mentioned engine screeching and slipping on the rails as it exits the station. As #18 implies these poems demonstrate sonic coherence and by implication their opposite – and further, all such possible dualities or contradictions within a socio-economic landscape. Also, as #19 informs, not only do we need to reflect on our aural and visual perceptions of our (nature) scapes but with #18 we also have to look out on a culture which, Fisher implies, is too / late for recovery (again the line break here is dramatic, too also hangs in the balance). What we see (experience) is a parody of fairness, fairness in the social web of being relates directly to happiness and (earthly) Paradise – and to virtue and tyranny – the landscapes / horizons of possibility and loss. We can see all this from a train – we can metaphorically see many (broken!) narratives on our journey of our journey(s). The out and the in (of journeys, of motion, of being) are referenced throughout the sequence (and the physicality of being, breathing, the in and out of air, again draws attention to the levels (layers) which the birds (Birds) inhabit). A brief perusal brings us

#16 lean from the / train with internal

out of station

#17 moving in

a swan opens his wings in my head

and I take a deep breath

my chest fills

#18 cough / in breath


#19 I look out

#20 locked in

ease / out of rhythm with breath

out of line

#21 you look out

#23 another train passes in

the other direction (in / out, out / in)

#24 white bull in green field

#25 conversation in genko

in the tea / garden

Passage and passing (through / in Time), the in's and out's, the breath of living, the crossing moments exist here in / on a highly dependent visual realm (painterly?). There is an extensive amount of colour and colour reference. All of this relates to how the artist (poet) sees the world (pre-poem) (perceives) and how the world is told (ex-pressed) in paint / word. These poems are phanopoetically driven. Each one (maybe) a complex cloud formation constantly on the move.

#17 Orchard ablaze with daffodils

mistle thrush

sky / sprayed with hundreds of starlings


tawny white-spotted owl

#18 burnt Grass

#19 burnt Grass

Fireweeds of Paradise

rows of vapour



#20 gulls


eyesight colours


#21 Grey here

many greys

glimmers / of yellow or orange

nuclear explosions

#22 burnt

a better sense of colour

#23 lush spring

Horse Tail Nettle Cow Parsley / Bramble


scratches of bright sun

#24 the light

white bull in green field

elder floats

hop rows

white hammer chalks


#25 is colour saturated

Grey wagtails one with a black smock

fledgling robin and sound of sparrow

conversations in the ginkgo and daisy

grass on a bend in the tea

garden grey

wood and darker stones hold shadows

of black earth and lime

ferns interrupted by rasps of

swallows on wing for insects

and the sounds of unidentified others

Here, if not Nature and if not Paradise, is a garden-like destination (to be continued?) more or less devoid of human presence.

The Strain(s) of Paradise

If there are narratives in this sequence (and here I simply take narrative to be a story and therefore there are no stories!) then they are at once undisclosed and disclosed only through reference and implication. Narrative doesn't drive this sequence – neither does it reference it – the narrative(s) are what we bump into, collide, clash with – indeed, perhaps, they are Negatives – ideology is being shoved into our reflections (#19) (down our throats, throat sores #19).

So Birds poses another problematic in its use of capital letters. All the poems begin with a capital but why the other capitals?

#17 Orchard (ablaze)

#18 (burnt) Grass and

Fireweeds of Paradise (Fireweeds are the first plants to grow after the land has been burnt.) (Renewal / resurrection!)

#19 (burnt) Grass (again)

#21 Grey

it must be Paradise

#22 (burnt)

#23 Horse Tail, Nettle, Cow Parsnip,


(ashen air)

#24 (burnt)

All of these capitalisations (many already referenced to other significations within the sequence on other levels, flows and folds, many of which I've left in abeyance and many of which I may well have by-passed) relate to a fundamental narrative and obviously to the (passing) life (view/s) of railway embankments as they make and transform close urban and suburban landscapes – but unlike the birds we would expect the plants to be lower cased (Gehard Richter has a series of photographs of railway embankments in his massive work Atlas – however these views are the opposites of Fisher's and seem to be more concerned with time and speed in the way the image creates an ineffable uniqueness [the viewer / photographer is static – the photos freeze time, this is the theoretical 'instant', movement is not movement, time is not time, space is collapsed and specific] – the incidentals, plants, buildings, skies are not of import in themselves but only to the image distort of time).

If the plants were lower cased they would be the incidentals of the journey; the reading of what is seen rather than the creation (the writing) through capitalisation of dysfunctional meaning, linkage and its subversion. This subversion is at once a reading / writing creation or assemblage of (the) meaning of landscape(s) (natural, cultural and political). Nature is capitalised here because (perhaps) it indicates Narrative complicities. Paradise was of course an Orchard and Grass (seed, wheat, bread) are ultimately associated with biblical life and death – sin, redemption, resurrection and growth. Anyone who has viewed the panpsychic films of Terrence Malick, especially The Thin Red Line, will have noted his use of grass, earth, and the significance of grass to the Songs of Solomon.

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