Movement in Time: Roy Fisher’s ‘A Furnace’

This is the introduction to an essay I’m writing for an MA application. Skip it if you’d rather read about an incurable romantic and a man who lives in trees.


A Furnace, published in 1986, is generally considered to be one of Roy Fisher’s most significant and ambitious works, a late ‘synthesis’ of sorts, the culminating text in what Barry calls a ‘composite-epic of urban material’, which includes other major works such as City. It is a remarkably dense, charged, meaning-laden poem, representative of some of the poet’s central preoccupations – most notably the city in general, and Birmingham in particular – and signals Fisher’s arrival at a complex and distinctive poetics. It is a memorial to a shared past, a personal history, something of an elegy; but is also a transcript of the forces that constitute what we see as the present. Fisher goes further than in any of his previous work to locate his poetry relative to the time and places he has lived in – to articulate how his imagination moves amongst things.
Indeed, A Furnace is fundamentally a poem in motion, in a constant struggle against stasis. The poem begins on a trolleybus, swinging through the industrial Midlands, and it is kept moving through space and time until its final transcendental image and, implicitly, beyond. Movement is a key motif in the poem, and an organising principle, but it cannot be said to signify anything specific or singular. It is a form of meta-language that enacts the various processes by which we, the readers, arrive at meaning through the text. It describes the structural forces that are at work, gathering things up, expelling them, and eventually depositing them in the shape of a poem. However, in exegesis, the presence of any sort of ‘movement’ raises necessary questions of intention and potentiality: exactly what is moving? What is it moving relative to? In which direction, to where, to what purpose? One way to approach these questions is through the Bakhtinian prism of the ‘chronotope’, which expresses the ‘connectedness’ of time (chronos) and space (topos) in all literature, whereby any movement through space amounts to movement through time. We shall see that A Furnace is an attempt to navigate an infinitely complicated personal and social history in which language has both a dissembling and a substantiating effect.


I’ve recently read The Baron in the Trees by Calvino, about a young Baron called Cosimo who, after an argument with his parents at the dinnertable, runs off to live in the trees and doesn’t touch ground for the rest of his life. In one episode Cosimo finds a French Lieutenant called Pappillon, who has lost himself and his troops in the forest, in the middle of a glorious tirade, howling at the moon like a Jacobin Psalmist. I’ll leave you, wordless, with his impassioned declamation, something of a manifesto:

“O Moon! round as a muzzle, like a cannon ball whose thrust from gunpowder is exhausted and continues to rotate slowly and silently through the sky! When will you burst on us, O Moon, raising a high cloud of dust and sparks, submerging enemy armies and thrones, and opening a breach of glory for me in the compact wall of my fellow citizens’ distrust of me! O Rouen! O moon! O fate! O convention! O frogs! O girls! O life!”


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