Review - No Longer Alone" by Allen Fisher

Alan Baker

"No Longer Alone" by Allen Fisher, pub.  Spanner Editons.
74 pages.

This collection is a sequence of twenty-eight poems, in loose quatrains, accompanied by a series of colour photographs, "Power Displays: New York Lights (2010)", by Paige Mitchell. The poems use Fisher's technique of constructing poems out of technical vocabularies; those of physics, the fossil-fuel industry, ecology and others. Despite the use of technical jargon, the poems are not cramped or difficult to read, and they manage to convey both a cool analysis of, and an emotional response to, the most pressing issue of our times; the climate emergency, and our collective response to it.

The title "We Are No Longer Alone" is ironic. One of the themes of the sequence is the notion that mankind can escape earth to other planets; this idea is parodied and debunked:

     the erasure cycle is a function of our tipping point...

     small populations plan to get off the planet before this

               their baggage remains on the runway"

The term "erasure cycle" comes from information technology, referring to the multiple iterations required to remove data from hard drives and similar stores; the poems combine these terms with medical vocabulary referring to human brain and body function, thus alluding to another illusory means of escaping the crisis on earth via technologies such as teleportation and "mind uploading". Ultimately, the poems say, such measures are futile:

     there is no next time

          we are all in this together

     the erasure cycle is a function of our tipping point

          we are no longer alone"

That last line alludes to the question about whether humanity is alone in the universe, but ironically inverts the phrase to indicate that the climate crisis means everyone will be affected, the acts of each person and government affects everyone, and so in that sense "we are no longer alone".

The book includes ten striking colour photographs by Paige Mitchell. The photos are distorted images of New York City lights; they enhance the sequence by their implication that the electric lights – which are beautiful to look at - produce carbon emissions; thus encapsulating one of our current dilemmas; our lifestyle, which brings us many benefits and pleasures, is exactly what’s degrading the environment. The photographs are an integral part of the overall work, and are referred to in the text.

The effect of the technical language in this sequence is to keep reminding the reader that the cause of climate crisis is the exploitative use of the planet's resources; it deploys terms like "vapoured crack formation" from the oil-processing industry, and "tipping point" from ecology. In a similar manner, medical jargon ("homeostatsis"  and "epithelial pathologies") remind us that human agency is behind the climate crisis, while also alluding to one of the difficulties in the way of tackling the crisis; the fact that human psychology, perhaps with roots in pathology, causes us to turn a blind eye to what's happening, to be incapable of facing up to it.

The sequence operates on many levels, and, as mentioned earlier, can use the hard-edged jargon-based language to convey emotion in what at times amounts to pathos. Poem nineteen for example, is a poignant piece on humanity, asking

     who are these travellers ...

     in unknown spacetime

           unable to manage

     countless murmuring dead"

The sequence mixes different registers in a seamless whole that includes humour, as in poem five:

     thank you for your support

         but your response was not needed

     we're in a jellyfish lounge

         and the cookies are about to burn.

The meshing of different discourses in this text is characteristic of Fisher. In his major work “Gravity as a Consequence of Shape”, Fisher uses the metaphor of “entanglement”, a term from quantum physics that refers to the way particles remain connected so that actions performed on one affect the other, even when separated by great distances. This works on many levels in Fisher’s texts, and in a metaphorical way, it works is by the parallels thrown up by discourses which a reader wouldn’t expect to find in the text as if distant registers are somehow connected.

The sequence is also political – how could it not be? – with references to world leaders, and those attending the COP talks, as being “beyond dominant hearing loss”.

There's much that could be said about this sequence, including, among other things, its engagement with the physics of teleportation and of bird migration, and the way it wrenches lyricism from types of discourse not normally associated with lyric poetry. The sequence is a recent instalment of a lifetime's endeavour by Allen Fisher which has given us one of the major works of contemporary poetry.

copyright © Alan Baker,2020