Review of Toby Fitch Where Only the Sky had Hung Before.
(Vagabond Press, 2019)

by Helen Moore

“Retweets are the new/Realism”

The cover of Toby Fitch’s latest collection features a painting by the Australian constructivist sculptor Robert Klippel made in 1950. A curving, spiky form composed of fragments of colour, it juts into the sky like a bird crossed with a light aircraft at the moment of take-off. This mosaic image relates well to Fitch’s book, characterised as it is by found elements, such as Internet memes and factoids, characters from Disney films, text messages, newspaper articles, phrases from an insurance form, elements of poems by Thomas Hood, T.S. Eliot, Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery amongst others, as well as lines from prose writers including Patricia Highsmith and Ursula Le Guin.

In poems which are largely an exploration of consciousness, language is foregrounded as both the medium and subject of poetry. The opening poem ‘Sapphic Birds’ has generic birds as a repeat-pattern wallpaper to daily life (with only pigeons and seagulls being distinguished), while other named birds are those that have entered idiomatic language: “another day to quail”, “where love swans” and “breakfast was a lark”, which might once have had a literal meaning too. The poem has a dizzying quality, with an element of disturbance/violence, and distinctions between the natural and industrial falling away – “factory birds pipe like an alarm”, “funeral birds break the sky’s white/mortar”. Similarly Klippel’s art relates forms of nature to industrial machinery, and in a statement said he sought “the interrelationship between the cogwheel and the bud.” The same seems to go for the title of the collection, Where Only the Sky had Hung Before (part of the final line of ‘All the Skies above Girls on the Run’, a supercut of Ashbery), with the Fitch poem incorporating aspects of industrialised society (a sonic boom, planes, buildings etc) that are unsettling the natural order, so that the moon is “waxing as it waned into delirium tremens on the birdbath night” – a disturbingly beautiful image.

Capitalism’s continual appropriation of Nature as resource (literally and metaphorically) has created phenomena like ‘clouds’ of data, and in Fitch’s work reality and its simulation become largely indistinguishable, creating a world of poetic hyperreality, where the attunement of the lyrical voice/s is predominantly towards the hyperreal – such as the media, Disney, the Internet – over the physical world. Nowadays we live in a so-called ‘post-truth’ era, and in these poems the word ‘fake’ abounds – even a child’s wail is fake, although there are touching references throughout the book to aspects of childhood, parenthood and pregnancy, which are nevertheless quickly undercut with irony, as if making such utterances were unsafe. References to scientific ‘factoids’ about the natural world regularly surface, and the poem ‘Poetry is 99% Water’ satirises this. ‘Fractoidal’ begins with “A blue whale’s heart is the size of a Volkswagen/you could swim through its arteries”, but this astonishing information is subverted through nonsensical juxtaposition and accumulation of other factoids, while tellingly the poem offers the etymology of the word ‘fractal’, the Latin for ‘broken’.

At times the poems express an ominous sense of the global ecological crisis (and concomitant social injustice) – “the polar bears bassooning their discomfort/over the heat that echoes to the poles/and back of the plastic gyre squelching its dulled mirror – its floating shadow – on the oceans/of the indebted and gravity-locked.” These powerful lines are ‘In Memory of My Furlings’, a ghosting of a Frank O’Hara poem ‘In Memory of My Feelings’. Here Fitch replaces O’Hara’s “My quietness has a man in it” with “My anxiety has a dog in it”, and mental/emotional disturbance, which as Deleuze & Guattari (referenced by Fitch) argue, is co-existent with the capitalist system, recurs in this book. In ‘Life Stream (A Pathetic Confession)’ the “generically so wrecked” stream of consciousness of “solipsistic daddy” is ironically exacerbated by consuming products – here the lyric subject refers to “self-medicating on anything made by MARS”, and then wonders “maybe the colouring in M&Ms is what’s causing the pain in my lower region”.

In a world where notions of truth and identity are complex and contingent, where “Retweets are the new/Realism” (‘Life Creep’), and where social activism is seen as fadish (“tweets that summed up what most people felt/about the latest trends in intersectional social activism”, which are lines from a poem where the title appears to be redacted), the dis-ease of what has been termed ‘the postmodern condition’ is heightened to fever-pitch. In ‘Memememememememememe’, the meme is not a political tool for subverting the system (in the mode of Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters), but instead is an existentialist statement endlessly twisted so as to become nonsensical. And in ‘Often I Am Permutated into a Mermaid’, which draws on elements of Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’, Fitch plays humorously with notions of gender – “gloved up fussily in the likeness of a mere man/unfurling his inner lady” – but also points to the groundlessness of this lyric voice: “often I am permutated into a mermaid/as if it weren’t a given that my mind’s made up/to be uncertain of its preposterous hold against chaos/which first gave me permission to get lost/in whatever the water wants.”

Of course the element of water is traditionally synonymous with emotions in poetry, and indeed the subsequent poem, ‘Poetry is 99% Water’, alludes to this, and indicates poetry’s capacity to affect the reader – here the emotional is conflated with the physical: “poems can pull/blood up narrow vessels in your body/against the force of gravity.” Do Fitch’s poems achieve this? I’m not sure this is actually the intention – rather the aim seems to be to unsettle, even to alienate the reader. The poems’ intensity is reflected in the final lines of ‘Fractoidal’, which borrows from the prose of factoids, and provides the only metaphor in the poem: “If prose is a house,/poetry is a person on fire running breakneck through it,/knowing without knowing how/moondust smells like burnt gunpowder.” I love this image, yet it is, as much of the book, deeply ironic – I find it hard to imagine any of the voices in this book being at all familiar with gunpowder, except as metaphor for the relative iconoclasm of irony.

Instead, amidst all the uncertainty and discomfort expressed by “another form of paranoid I” (‘Argo Notes’), where even the body is problematic – a site of fleeting sexual pleasure and more consistently of pain – Where Only the Sky had Hung Before serves to reinforce our malaise. Only poetry itself seems to be offered as terrain, albeit quicksand, in which the reader may find their feet. With form as deliciously hybrid as identity, free verse is juxtaposed with traditional verse forms, such as the sonnet, the pantoum and Sapphic verse, as well as ‘amorphous caligrammes’ and Fitch’s visually arresting play with white words on black backgrounds (through the recurring ‘/ Strange Rain /’ fragments). At the same time Fitchean intertextuality draws the reader’s attention to just how extreme the world has become in the decades since the likes of Duncan, Ashbery and O’Hara were writing.














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