Luke Fischer, Paths of Flight. North Fitzroy: Black Pepper Publishing, 2013. ISBN 9781876044855
Paths of Flight felt undecided as I first encountered it—at turns caught and contradictory, bent sometimes one way and sometimes the other, strung between and among competing ideas—but, in the end, seemed to achieve a certain balance and reconciliation, that was perhaps its destination all along.
There is a dynamic of tension and reconciliation in the poetry that can feel at some points like the poet is sending contradictory messages, unsure of what he wants to value with his words or the way in which he wants to use tropes to do it. Individual poems can certainly be read and enjoyed on their own, but for me the best way to appreciate the balance of contradiction and unity was to read it as a collection: from start to finish, allowing the progression to lead me on its own terms to an overarching interpretation or impression, rather than me looking for a coherent and single-note one from each piece. And, from the beginning, in retrospect, the title gives me a hint that this will be the way it is.
The “flight” of the collection’s name evokes sweeping movement, unrestrained and liberated, arcing like the black birds of Fischer’s Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize-winning poem “Augury?” in swoops and gusts that lift away from the ground, the page. As Fischer comments in the poem “Pedestrian”—his ode to the liberated movement of air—flight is the meandering, flowing and tumbling, lifting and eddying with the gathered leaves: flight is the dancing. Paths, therefore, are where flight is not; on the ground, paths are where, in “Pedestrian”, the park is not. And so, in the collection’s title, the paths both ground the flight and are somehow given lift-off by it. Because a path is a directional space, it has a destination, and prescribes a way in which to achieve it. It does not swoop in unselfconscious eddies like the air above it does, but rather traces on the tangible the way to walk—controlled, yes, but also comforting and giving purpose. The paths in a way give this purpose and tangibility to the flight, but by being traced in air are made light, like a liberating breath, and are seamlessly, invisibly connected to the surrounding air. One cannot, after all, see the edge of a path through air; one can only see it as it is made.
The name of the collection thus, for me, enacts the kind of tension that I find weaving through the book: one of seemingly opposing forces looping around and even occasionally appearing to undermine each other, yet somehow finding moments of temporary harmony. I would hesitate to say that the collection “resolves” in any kind of absolute or permanent way, because it is a journey rather than a state, and the movement that seems such an integral part of the collection—the movement of music, the movement of people across landscapes, the movement of birds through air, the movement of one line seamlessly to the next (one poem, “Walking Instructions”, eschews punctuation almost entirely)—would resist that. But a balancing emerges.
This is a tension that manifests in various ways—almost testing out possible resolutions before moving on to another and then discarding that, too. On the one hand the poems honour the “small” of existence: the birds, small and relatively frail members of the non-human community; within this, individual birds such as one owl, one hawk, two black birds, each given their own materiality and vitality; the radiant atoms of the sky, not as any great “dome of the infinite”, but as a simple primary colour with which one pair of eyes connects like a gentle hand touches a child’s back; the delicate structures of a twig, “touching the smooth current/of a mountain stream” (72); the steps that are imprinted, one by one, into the quilt of new snow. On the other, however, the poems are redolent of high culture and the intellectual theorising of the world: Rilke hovers over the words and appears explicitly as epigraph; European cultural sensibilities are evoked through references to Renaissance painting, sculptural snapshots such as Rodin’s “Thinker” and Brancusi’s “Bird in Space”, mythology and ancient Greek philosophy; and the mass spread of humans across the planet is mapped through poems referencing travels to Damascus, Provence, Germany and Australia. Similar tensions emerge in the contrasts of human and non-human; losing versus finding; the metaphorical against the literal—and even through form, with enjambment and flow against pause, stanza break and punctuation lacunae.
Some pieces seem more focused on the world of humans and culture than on that of the non-human or nature. The opening poem, “Portrait of a Thinker” (1), commences with an avian conceit:
His eyebrows are falcon wings
gliding on a constant current.
His metallic eyes take in the scene
dart to distant prey.
His nose is beak-like –
not the small busy beak of a sparrow
nor the ibis probing a garbage bin
afterwards, moving to a more geological metaphor with:
His face is wind-sculpted,
facetted like a crystal.
And his brow is steep and hard
not sandstone but granite, tall
But the referent object of all this bird-life and land is a sculpture of human art and high culture. The language therefore seems bent towards the reflection and intellectual processing of humans beings, diminishing the value of the natural world being used to illustrate it. Nature is the manifest content, but culture is the latent.
The direction of thought away from the apparent natural object also occurs in “Appassionata”, for instance—where a pianist going over and over his progressions has “movements/like an alpine stream continually smoothing/the stone”; and “We thank the clouds” acknowledges the elements, but in terms of the gifts that weather gives us, thanking the lightning that “splits the dead stumps/our hearts had become”, the mists for “hiding moments of our past”, and the “endless drizzling days” in the way they “incite us/to read a recommended book/forgotten on a dusty shelf” (60-61). In the final poem, “Diptych”, the sky is described as “the blue of a renaissance sky”, somehow subordinating the natural blue to that of the paint it aims to emulate (80).
This directionality is complicated at other points, however, where the natural is privileged and the human is the illustration of lesser weight. In “Corellas”, the birds are described as “ladies at a tea party”, “dressed/in white tennis outfits, strolling to the courts”: “A daintier sort of parrot – cockatoos/who read their Emily Post” (35). The marriage here of human cliques and class hierarchies is transported hilariously onto the smooth feathers and high-pitched “squeaks” of the Aussie bush. In “Augury?”, the title of which means a kind of presentiment of the future, the black birds observed by the speaker arc “more smoothly than figure skaters” and flip “far swifter than stunt planes”, bending thus our focus towards the singularity of their flight and away from the planes and olympians (74-75).
In the end it almost seems interchangeable, whether nature illustrates culture or culture illustrates nature, and the language bends both towards the natural and away from it. In “Early Autumn Morning” (64),
you see a eucalypt in the park
with torn clothes
dangling from its limbs,
a grey lamppost standing
at a corner like a lost giraffe.
while in “Dealing with Early Spring” (5),
A beggar cups his hands and pleads for change
while the sun gilds his palms and fingers
like a bowl possessed by Charlemagne,
standing now in a museum’s vitrine.
The tension between high culture and low culture is also exploited, in a way I feel I would recognise in the future as an emblem of Fischer’s style. One striking and, for me, enjoyable example is the progression of “Band of Cockatoos” through “Thoughts on a Walk by the River Sorgue” to the beginning of “Swift”. “Band of Cockatoos” (22) plays on the collective noun pun of the title to paint the group of birds as a punk rock band, starting off with plumage “a bit too white like/the polished teeth of salesmen,” but then breaking into havoc as they “open their gravel beaks” and
alights and hops along
a broken branch, flares
his pineapple Mohawk
while banging his head,
rends his jacket and insists
the members scatter
to the surrounding tiers
where they join
in a punk-rock cacophony.
The page then turns and moves to a reflective walk along the River Sorgue, and we are transported from an Australian backyard to countryside France, picturing high school graduates with heads full of knowledge and philosophising on the fate of ducklings who might, in the patchy fuzz of their feathers, have in their destinies “a form/other than that of duckness” (24). The third poem, “Swift”, then commences with a quotation in French—with no offered English version—from a piece by twentieth-century poet, René Char: “Such is the heart”, it proclaims upon translation, “if he touches ground, it tears him apart” (25).
My favourite parts of the collection, however, are split somewhat likewise: one, an overarching matter of style; the other, one specific line and its prosaic literality.
The overarching matter of style is Fischer’s use of metaphor. Yes, there are some moments for me that are perhaps too much—I do not, for instance, enjoy “Your Eyes” (66),
Your eyes are macadamia
that quickly sprout
under the pour of my gaze
as much as I might perhaps enjoy something either more subtle or more absurd. But I do, however, adore the “humming” of the sun’s radiance in “I can almost hear a humming”, which is so warm and luxurious that, “If it didn’t yet exist/this radiance would find a way/to create honey” (58). And I cannot quite picture the face of the man in “Syrian Desert” (44) from the features attributed to it through metaphor, described as:
dry and cracked
yet tilled by the work
of renunciation – from
its furrows rise vast trees
abundant with flowers
and gliding the blazing gusts
firebirds alight in their branches.
But nor do I want to. Or need to.
The specific line that I will take from this book as I close it comes at the end of “Swift”, and this favourite moment is almost the opposite of the figurative turn of phrase that claims the other spot. “Swift” is a poem more narrative in style than many of the others, and it tells the story of an injured swift being cared for by the poet and his family. After finding the creature lame on the ground they nurse it back to health and, in the process, develop an intimacy that gives the bird something of the human and the human something of the bird. When finally released, the swift like a new baby stammers and trips its way into the air with the speaker racing after it, “obliviously/trampling seedlings” (29), but then—disappears.
Until nightfall we searched,
and still do not know whether you reached the sky,
or landed helpless in the next field.
Not only is this poem a privileging of the material self of one small, vulnerable bird—I read in it no grand allegory of the human condition—but it ends with the notes of trust, hope and fear that love is. Because that really is the heart of devoting ourselves to something: yes, to something as small in the great scheme of things as sitting down and reading a book of poetry from beginning to end, but also to those greater tasks of birth and the preservation of species, lands and cultures. We do not always know what will come of the time and care we have invested, whether the object of that love will reach the sky or fall helpless in the next field, but investing in something is in the end an act of love.
I find that Paths of Flight returns that love.
Megan Blake is a lapsed poet and reformed lawyer who spends her time writing short fiction; undertaking research as part of a PhD project in literature and authorship at Monash University; and teaching VCE English and Literature, happily introducing students to the ecopoetic tradition through writers such as John Kinsella and Judith Wright.