A poet casts a prosaic die

John Fuller’s new volume of prose poems are grimmer and harder to read than his previous works

Books Literature
Gnomic: John Fuller's new prose poems make grim reading (photo credit: Paul Stuart)

John Fuller’s earlier poems were almost unfailingly delightful. Many of them were songs and verse letters to friends, packed with wit, affection and the evocation of lightweight pleasures. There was often an unsettling note lurking in them — but in the playful music of the poem we got a hint that this should not be taken too seriously, at any rate while we were young. 

His new volume of prose poems (an odd name), while still full of intellectual energy, is grimmer and harder to read. Fuller’s prevailing themes, at the age of 77, have become far more serious. They are the difficulty of understanding with any real clarity what is happening to us in our lives, and the near-impossibility of controlling any of it. Many of the pieces are allegories of human life as Fuller now sees it. The title piece, “The Dice Cup”, is one of these. It describes a game of dice played with a bone cup. It suggests that the cup is like our skull, and that the few dots on the dice, themselves made of bone, are very suitable symbols for the scanty and inadequate information that we have in our heads when we try to make any sense of the world. As for the gambling game itself, playing it represents our attempt to “control or at least predict” the circumstances that we find ourselves in. “Fine chance!” is the poet’s sarcastic comment on that. This is the merest summary of the allegory, which gets taken further and further, and concludes coolly that “of course, we ourselves will in the end be nothing but bone, and not that for always”. This gloomy piece is elegantly done,  with a certain touch of macabre wit. But it is not a poem that instantly dazzles one with its beauty and insight.

Another section of the book is called “A Terrace in Corsica”. This was exactly the sort of setting of some of Fuller’s earlier pleasure-poems. He seemed to be a great and happy traveller. In one poem here, a lily on the terrace speaks to him and gives a brilliant description of her orange face, which “hangs luminously in flags and tissue like something half-unwrapped, or yesterday’s celebration”. That word-picture could have come from one of his books 40 years ago. But then the lily tells him that her face is not visible today, and warns him that  “perhaps it is always yesterday, and you should have come then. Or tomorrrow.” The poem slips away into gnomic lily-talk. It made me feel like Robert Browning where he writes, “Just when I seemed about to learn! Where is the thread now! Off again!”

The most disturbing section of the collection is one called “The Other World”. Here allegory — as one supposes it to be — comes thick and fast. Fuller is exploring the sea, which has swept up on to the beach, and characteristically “has found nothing and understood nothing”. He grows fins that propel him through the sea, and he becomes, he says, the herdsman and protector of a darting shoal of fish that he follows. He goes deeper down and finds “silent herds” with “winking antennae, jaws like basins of teeth, whole bodies turned inside out”.

At this point I suddenly felt “What are you doing to us, John Fuller? Are you trying to drive us mad with your puzzling allegories?” I recalled Wordsworth’s description of Isaac Newton, “voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone”, and I thought it was very applicable to Fuller here. But there was a difference between the two men. Newton brought back lucid and rational ideas.

I decided that it was no use looking for rational correspondences to Fuller’s adventures in the sea. You had simply to treat these prose pieces as surrealist works. In de Chirico’s paintings of sinister piazzas with shadows encroaching, you just have to take in the general feeling of the pictures, and then let the odd toys, bananas and busts lying in the piazza mean whatever they can to you. Similarly, with Fuller’s underwater adventures, all you can do is to share the swimmer’s strange, contrasting feelings of fear, and at the same time of an affinity with this mysterious watery world, and take all the things that he finds in the ocean for whatever meaning, if any, you yourself can find in them. There will be no further help forthcoming from Fuller.

There is a variety of other pieces in the book. There is a series of paradoxical paragraphs about a figure called “The Great Detective”, who concludes bitterly that the greatest crime in the world is insoluble, and has in practice become a law. There is plenty of food for thought, whether about God, mankind or the Devil, in that. And there is an entertaining but still quite complex passage of speculation, a kind of coda to that difficult dice game, which argues that the discovery of the cube, with its six faces that did not interfere with each other, taught men a new, more civil kind of relationship.

In 1970, Fuller wrote a very useful Reader’s Guide to W.H. Auden, one of his great heroes. Anyone wanting to write a Reader’s Guide to the Later Works of John Fuller will have a more daunting task.