Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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The Deal, Annie Fisher

HappenStance Press, 2020   £5.00

People in 'The Deal'

Memorable characters are a highlight of The Deal. ‘In Hiding’, for example, introduces childhood memories of a father who ‘popped out every night / to see a man about a dog’:

and my mother
who saw Christ in every soul
played nocturnes
on the out-of-tune piano in the hall.

Then there are ‘the tall girls / sleek as swans’ in ‘Small’:

how I envied
the beautiful maps of their limbs
extending from Land’s End
to distant ice-blond Arctic.

This ability to capture people opens up some powerful territory, as in the sinister childhood memories of ‘The Gate’, where ‘Uncle Paul came / with red roses for our mother, / the darkest red, / the sweetest-ever scent’:

He’d crook his yellow finger,
croaking foreign words like some ancient
wrinkled frog
from down the well.

Meanwhile, Sister Ursula (‘as plump and reassuring / as a steamed pudding’) is wonderfully evoked in ‘Cold War Supper’ as she introduces her pupils to pigeon for the first time:

‘Chew carefully girls,’ Sister Ursula said with a wink,
doling out unctuous ladles of alien meat.
‘Spit out anything hard; any nuggets or grit.’

She then goes out to shoot a brace of the offending birds:

‘Communists! Heretics!’ she mutters.
‘I can hear what you’re plotting – A coup! A coup!
I’ll give you something to coo about!’

‘A Hotel Restaurant’ perfectly captures the ‘round-bellied corporate frogs / dispatching coffee and full English / with their long elastic tongues’ and ‘two Saga iguanas / […] lipping sweet, stewed fruit / and honeyed yogurt’.

The poet’s wry humour is evident, too, in ‘Insurance Plan’ with its perennially disappointed protagonist:

Let-downs ambushed him throughout his life —
the taste of fresh-perked coffee; aubergines;
live albums; picnics; Camembert; his wife.

‘The Jungle Waits Outside, My Best Beloved’ reveals depths in the encounter between grandparent and nine-year-old ‘extraordinary’ grandchild on a visit to the zoo.

Finally, ‘The Orange Lobster And The Hens’ (complete with pop anthem soundtrack) is a hilarious account of a train journey where a hen party in ‘kitten heels’ and Donald Trump (in the guise of an orange lobster) collide to surreal and pointedly political effect. These are characters not to be missed!

Graeme Ryan 

Using comedy with serious intent

It’s usually the case, isn’t it, that the funniest poets, like the best comedians, use humour to set out universal, melancholy truths. In a manner reminiscent of Philip Larkin (whose ‘The Trees’ she quotes) and Selima Hill, Annie Fisher writes poems of outlandish comedy undercut by profound seriousness.

The first five here address the awkwardness and scariness of childhood. For example, ‘In Hiding’ features parents who do anything but look out for their child: ‘my mother / who saw Christ in every soul / played nocturnes / on the out-of-tune piano in the hall’. Most memorably, in ‘The Gate’, a menacing character, ‘Uncle Paul’, would ‘crook his yellow finger, / croaking foreign words / like some ancient / wrinkled frog / from down the well’, and then, it is implied, do much worse.

Comic, Mr-Bleaney-ish detail makes up ‘Hotel Restaurant’, which ought to be widely anthologised: it’s so exquisitely formed it would be criminal to quote selectively. Other excellent poems touch on dieting/anorexia (‘Ghost’ — ‘She tries to calculate / the calories in birdsong’), the vicissitudes of love for children and one’s partner (‘You Almost Said’), and the everyday bonkers oddness (‘Cannibal’) of a bunch of grapes (somehow believably) eating another bunch within a fridge.

The sonnet ‘Insurance Plan’ is also a Larkinesque masterpiece, perfectly tackling the pathos of middle-aged male disappointment:

Let-downs ambushed him throughout his life —
the taste of fresh-perked coffee; aubergines;
live albums; picnics; Camembert; his wife.

'Insurance Plan' is a note-perfect sonnet, beautifully paced (through judicious inclusion of short sentences among longer ones) to wring serio-comic resonance out of its form.

Two pieces with flamboyant titles — ‘The Jungle Waits Outside, My Best Beloved’ and ‘The Orange Lobster and The Hens’ — have content that lives up to expectation, respectively concerning a zoo-trip with a non-neurotypical grandchild, and a train journey interrupted by a hen party.  

The title-poem, in which the narrator filmically reflects on surviving a life-threatening condition, is perhaps the most serious, and hints at some kind of Faustian pact with God. Like much of this lovely collection, it’s a delicate gem, in deceptively straightforward, compelling language.

Matthew Paul

On being yourself: the power of idiosyncrasy

Who could smoothly link a book about Donald Trump with a hen party travelling by train to Bridgend? Annie Fisher can and, in the poem ‘The Orange Lobster and the Hens’, she does so beautifully. She is brilliant at outlining her (thought) journey in such simple clear language, however outlandish the turns that journey takes:

I wanted to sing too — was just about to start
when the orange lobster twitched inside
the pages of my book and suddenly broke free.

The poems gathered in this pamphlet are wonderfully varied, at the same time as richly integrated as a group. They’re really enjoyable. The opening poem, called ‘In Hiding’, is about a child, at least metaphorically hiding: ‘I stayed in there for years’; and there are others about feeling ‘Small’ or perhaps empty. I loved ‘Ghost’:

The page gapes
like an empty plate.

But, meanwhile, behind the scenes something very interesting stirs. The poems are full of imagination: like the ‘long elastic tongues’ of those ‘round-bellied corporate frogs’ in ‘Hotel Restaurant’, and something saner than compromise: let’s call it love. There are loads of examples, and many of the poems are funny as well. One of my favourites is ‘The Massacre’, where she suddenly has to do a clean-up job on a mental image: trying ‘to swap the crimson nightmare / for a plain vanilla dream’ (read the poem). Another (‘Perhaps’) explores a memory of a father, and probes a question:

Was that love? I asked the ghost of the man.
I cannot speak about love, said the man
(he could not).

And all of this carries us towards the final pages: ‘The Deal’ that has been agreed (such a beautiful, communicative poem): ‘I watched her walk back home / over the fields and stiles’. And then, to close, ‘Naming This Place’ – by which time she, and we, feel fully acclimatised to this Annie Fisher world – all the richer for being ‘small’, and so utterly her own:

This unmown patch of grass is called The Universe.

Charlotte Gann

The title poem

When a single poem gives its title to a whole collection how do we look at that poem? Why is this one lifted above the rest? Perhaps it gives an insight into how the whole set works together, or maybe it helps the reader recognise a connecting theme?
 
‘The Deal’ is the penultimate poem in this twenty-poem pamphlet. It bides its time. It isn’t going to unlock the collection from the first page. I like that. It leaves space for me to listen — to the nervous child in the bedroom cupboard (‘In Hiding’), to the girl envious of her elegantly tall school mates (‘Small’), to the person justifying herself against the effects of being afraid (‘The Fear’) 
 
Listen, there are known scary things
unknown scary things and scary scary things.
 
I don’t think about any of them.
 
I think we can all shout Oh-yes-you-do! to that. So the opening three poems show us uncertainty and the uncomfortable feelings of trying to grow up — emotions which (though we don’t want to admit it in public) we still haven’t grown out of. 
 
There are dreams and hauntings, too, which can’t be excised. In ‘The Massacre’, a bus-stop mis-heard as ‘Meathouse Place’ might later be corrected to ‘Neathouse’, but, despite the adult’s common sense, mental pictures associated with the mis-heard original persist —
 
In Neathouse Place there still remains
a faint stain on the polished floorboards
and the cat has gouged the table 
with her unretractable claws.
 
So how does the title poem reflect back on these? In its title ‘The Deal’ suggests a strong promise, something clinched. The opening lines are compelling — ‘When I knew I was going to die / I walked up to the church in the Easter sun’. It’s where the poet ‘did a deal with God’. Clear-cut, straight-forward stuff, we imagine; after all, the poet’s survived to write the poem. It looks like a successful negotiation until the final lines unsettle it; five years on she’s ‘hazy on the details’: ‘Who promised what exactly?’ 
 
Doubt, uncertainty, fear; we don’t grow out of them. The title undercuts any expectations of certainty. These poems echo our current fears but delicately and with empathy. 
 
D A Prince