By J. Fisher
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
It’s my first review of Year 3 on blackcoffeepoet.com and what a perfect choice: iii by J. Fisher. After taking three weeks off in August I got back in the swing of things by going to a reading in downtown Toronto. I met Fisher there, heard him read, got his book, and taped him reciting poems in a laneway. After hearing his poems I realized the laneway taping was a perfect fit.
Fisher is raw. He digs deep into places people don’t want to go and guts the reader by a poem’s end, if they make it that far. An easy comparison would be matching Fisher with Charles Bukowski, the dirty old man who wrote lots of notes. Yes, there are similarities but the difference is that Fisher is his own poet and his words make that clear. Many young white men try being Bukowski and fail miserably. Fisher brings it; he punches you in the stomach whereas Bukowski slaps you in the face with his limp cock. You go into a thought process as opposed to being stunned.
Some think it’s easy to write about drunken sexcapades, fist fights, and way too many litres of beer from an “aluminum nipple” as Fisher puts it. Those are the poets who are a dime a dozen and might find a spot in Bukowski’s shadow. Fisher is creating his own shade in all his shadiness.
For example, in leaning in, a prose poem about shitting, Fisher writes a paragraph that has you laughing in disgust. But there is more than just crap going on. It seems to me that while Fisher is releasing in “knee buckling glory” his stall mate is trying to let go of a load that includes more than poo and can land him in the shitter for a few years.
Fisher cleverly brings you in through familiarity—“I hate pissing in urinals”. No one likes using public washrooms. He then gets you laughing while writing of farts and facial strains. The poem ends by Fisher bringing you to his scary reality: “if they search my stuff a full bladder will be the least of my worries.” Fisher isn’t leaning on Bukowski, he’s leaning in to his own set of stories and pulls you along for the ride.
There is also irony in Fisher’s work that can be found not only within the body of his poems but the titles too. With so much alcohol consumption found in iii it’s no surprise that a poem would be called happy hour. Really, the many minutes that make up happy hour(s) are moments of sadness that can lead to tragedy. It’s fun to read about the bar scene until someone’s head gets blown off. And there’s nothing happy about that.
If writing is about what you know, and if the writer writes in such a way, then Fisher, who is white and not from Toronto, has much in common with me, a Brown boy who writes poems. The beauty of literature is that it can take you places you’ve never been or to places you know all too well. In hand pressed hard to walnut Fisher takes me back to “fumbles with cuffs [that] cut deep”. I see bright lights shining as my eyes scroll the black ink that live horizontally in iii. And I remember going down as I read left to right the words that Fisher writes, of which I know all too well:
i slide down the cruisers door
to the sobriety of the concrete.
In our racist society that likes to lock up Aboriginal man and men of colour more than anyone, Fisher shows that white folk do crime just like everyone else. Through writing what he knows Fisher brings to light what many don’t know: it’s not just the Black guy on the front page of the newspaper that is involved in crime.
Most of Fisher’s poems are hypermasculine. They are about street toughs, drunks, and rough man on woman sex. iii is filled with lines that can be critiqued. I definitely questioned many. I’m sure that university Women’s Studies courses taught by first wave feminists would have a field day with iii. But Fisher does show a gentle side to his rough and tough stories in some of his poems. In blessed damnation Fisher writes:
I respect the sadness
of the flesh trade
on the street
on the cuff
In little dolls along the government strip Fisher writes of sex workers as being strong women on the down. He writes of their physical and emotional injuries and pushing through the pain to hustle for cash. Still, as I read his sympathetic lines I felt uneasy. As an ally to sex workers I don’t label them as broken or talk with pity in my voice. Fisher’s poems about sex workers are well written and well intentioned but there is still that ‘poor them’ feel to his words.
queer is another poem that shows Fisher cares about people and uses his art to punch oppression with a left hook to the liver. Homophobia is Fisher’s prey in this poem, and a friend lost is Fisher’s beef. “He died in four square feet” writes Fisher. A closet can hold many things including people’s lives. Fisher cleverly, and sadly, writes of a man who never lived the way he wanted by using a hot kettle as a metaphor: “his perverse poverty never let the air out of his kettle.” Fisher ends with:
man love kept my friend
from attaining simple decency
on his way out…
I’d have written “man love in a world fixated on hate” but it’s not my collection of poems.
I enjoyed iii with all its clever lines, familiar scenes, problematic stories, and jagged realness that is this space and time we call life. Fisher is no dirty old man but he will be. More importantly, he is his own man, his own writer, with his own stories.
Tune into Black Coffee Poet October 3, 2012 for an inclusive interview with J. Fisher!!!