Read the background to these posts here
In this post I want to deal simply with the facts of the Daejeon massacre, and Winnington’s report nearly seventy years ago. As much as these statistics are upsetting, I believe this post to be necessary as there is such limited information out there. There is an old CBS article on this by Charles Hanley and Jae Soon Chang, which can be viewed here. For background, there is much research by Gavan McCormack and Bruce Cumings also. But in this post I want to explain more about Winnington’s specific role in all this, which is often reduced to just a footnote.
In the course of “I Saw the Truth in Korea” Winnington put the figure of those killed in Daejeon at 7,000. This is the highest figure available, and stands in contrast to a figure of 1,800 that relies solely on leaked American sources. Winnington’s figure is much higher because he claims that throughout the month of July (war broke out on 25th June) a single valley in Daejeon was used as a mass grave for political prisoners. This wasn’t a spontaneous event. It was a calculated slaughter planned with full access to governmental bureaucracy, and practiced with the utmost military efficiency. After the Northern advance Daejeon was made a temporary administrative centre, so that is perhaps why this location was chosen. In this post I want to consider Alan’s report in the context of the time, and then write a little bit about the site today. This will also involve a reminder of a few sources Winnington discovered during the initial stages of the war rarely discussed in the present.
To consider Alan’s reporting it might be best to step back for a minute and put ourselves in his shoes at the precise time of writing. There is actually a journal available that details Alan’s journey from Seoul to Daejeon (hereafter “Taichun” as he phonetically transposes it) where there is unpublished information about what he witnessed. This is a full itinerary, including attempts to amass as much information as possible. For instance, in the file of notes are a series of (unanswered) questions to Kim Il Sung including one on “atrocities”. Winnington’s brief was to examine places like the West Gate Prison in Seoul for evidence of torture, but also assess reports of war crimes carried out under American supervision. There were plenty of these, and his notebooks contain references to what he witnessed. But the notebooks are also interesting because they start with the aim of documenting not just “atrocities” but “heroes” on the North Korean side. It is clear at the end of this documenting however that no “heroes” are to be found. In fact, not a single “hero” is even isolated for the purposes of praise, except for Korean civilians going about their daily lives in the midst of the fighting. The journal is most interesting not for its jingoism, then, but the account it gives of ordinary people's suffering. These observations are incredibly important and remain some of the only ones in English extant from the war.
It is possible to see from the image below the amount of massacres of non-military personnel that took place at this time:
This is basically an entire territory of internecine murder and reprisals. If there is a single "truth” of what happened when Winnington first set foot in South Korea then this is as close as it gets. Some were massacres of those deemed to be pro-Japanese or “collaborators” by those on the left, but they genuinely pale in comparison to the state-sanctioned slaughter initiated from the top levels of command by Rhee Synghman. These "state sanctioned" massacres are most evident in Daejeon, which is why the Peace Park is to be built here in the future. Of these massacres initiated by the South Korean state (and this is a figure that will always have to contain an element of guesswork) Alan came close to the "unfinished" work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his own estimations:
“This was only one of the massacres carried out at American instructions. Every town, even every village has its murdered democrats to mourn. The lowest estimate puts the number of dead political prisoners at 200,000 since June 25th, but the figure may be as high as 400,000”
Kim Dong Choon - one of the commissioners for the original Truth And Reconciliation Commission - put the figure at 100,000 - 200,000 people, whilst admitting there are others who believe it to be in the range of 300,000 or more. This is quite incredible accuracy on Winnington's part, and shows the consistency of his journalism. One place Alan often came unstuck was when he had to consider the complicated issue of American Involvement, something I will cover in much more detail later on. Alan makes the assumption above that the massacres were completed under “American instruction”. Given what is known today 'supervision’ or “observation” might be more appropriate terms. But documents Winnington recovered from Seoul after the Americans left in haste made it possible for him to put two and two together. This was a brutality the United States Army (specifically, their fledgling Korean Military Advisory Group or KMAG) allowed to take place. Whatever bespoke terminology is used it is clear nothing was done to curtail this slaughter whatsoever.
The details are completely shocking, and even if the numbers are impossible to confirm, they serve to give a true awareness of the climate of fear permeating the early days of the war. People in Korea would have heard these figures by word of mouth, and I cannot even imagine the sense of injustice and fear they must have created at the time. At Incheon Alan writes of 1,000 prisoners simply having their hands and feet bound and being thrown into the sea. At Suwon he writes of a cave about 3km away where 260 people had been shot and buried. He actually includes a vivid description of this scene I will intentionally leave out. These are just endless tallies of the dead essentially, and the state in which Winnington and the KPA found them. It must be remembered that nobody in Korea was able to talk about what happened for 50 years or more, even if the killings existed as some kind of “folk knowledge” in the interim.
This is why Alan’s account of Daejeon is so important. It is the only complete picture of what happened here that remains after a cover up and the failure of the English or American authorities to investigate the truth. But his words must not be removed from the context in which they originally emerged, neither should they be treated with the automatic contempt and dismissal of those seeking a rerun of the Cold War. This is something I can sense in the toxicity of international relations as I write these words, and makes the need to objectively engage with this history of paramount importance. So, instead, merely picture the scene……
Alan arrives in “Taichun” at 2am, the city is utterly demolished with American B52s pounding the ruins. The remnants of South Korean troops have taken to the safety of the mountains, reduced to “bandits” as Alan calls them. This will have included General Dean, the highest ranking soldier in Daejeon at that time. Things are genuinely bleak. Daejeon is a city in name only, just piles of rubble where houses should be. “They tell us nothing can move on the road to Seoul during the day time now” Alan writes in his journal on arrival. Then in the morning – after sheltering in one of the only remaining houses left standing at the edge of the city – he is taken to the massacre site in Daejeon. What happens next is covered in great detail in the pamphlet itself. But what isn’t explained is how local people reacted to his visit. In the journal there is a smaller piece of paper that contains all the notes. Spilt into three sections these give us most of the information that eventually went into the pamphlet. It seems that Alan was getting most of his news from local partisans and people in the village of Rangwul by the site itself. The main details are explained to him by the partisans, but then Alan also investigated the scene – “pacing the pits” as he calls it – and speaking to local villagers via his interpreter. It seems that the final section of notes where he spoke to the villagers was a bit overwhelming. His handwriting becomes rushed at this point, like he has nowhere to rest his pen and paper. Most likely there are facts and figures flying at him from every direction. “Families were rounded up and killed”, Alan writes in shorthand of one villagers reflections, “Some tried escape. One succeeded. Others shot”. He puts an asterisk next to the line reading “US officers supervising”. But overall it is far too much information for anyone to process. It might be worth mentioning that as well as the trauma inherent from simply being in Daejeon at that time, Winnington suffered in later life as a result of these experiences. The search for heroes was to be quest that ended in failure almost as soon as he put pen to paper.
Alan’s account may be controversial given its proximity to North Korean narratives at the time, but it remains the only attempt to cover what happened. Quite honestly I think that the opposing side knew he wouldn’t be believed, so they simply ignored his assertions and chose to deal with them via a series of omissions and exaggerations that created an entirely separate narrative. But before we deal with this it would be wise to look at Winnington’s account of events. I have decided to reproduce these in table form, so that what was originally reported on can be seen as clearly as possible. After his visit to the site in Daejeon Winnington published the following account of what happened in that valley in July 1950. It must be noted that the final three days were left out of the information in the pamphlet, because there wasn't much substantial information to impart other than it was "heard.... single truckloads of prisoners were being taken in':
These bleak statistics are mostly gained from witnesses at Rangwul village who lived by the massacre site and were forced to dig the pits and stamp dirt down on the bodies afterwards. I have much more to say about Alan’s journalism, but for now it is best to let this table stand as starkly as possible. To this day Alan’s account is the only testimony to this tragedy, other than that gained from leaked documents I will cover in the next post. It is a sound bit of journalism rather than being the “atrocity fabrication” it was claimed to be by politicians in London and Washington at the time. As can be seen the figure stands at 6,700 without even taking into account the final days of July when prisoners were still being driven to the valley to be killed. As war approached the vicinity of Daejeon we can see that less information becomes available. It seems that the chaos of the approaching KPA made observations more difficult.
The following picture (again, from the Newstapa documentary) is the clearest image I have with me of how the site looks today.
At the moment there have been only 52 bodies recovered in Daejeon even after two separate excavations in 2007 and 2015 respectively. This is for many complicated reasons. But for now it is enough to say that there will be many more attempts to recover the bodies of those missing. This is being done purely through witness testimony - much like Alan's own - and a combination of ultrasound tests above ground which will hopefully be followed by excavations in September. The last I heard it costs over 100,000 KRW (currently around 83 US Dollars) to retrieve even one set of remains. Also, in some places in the valley these excavations are impossible due to changes in topography and development. This is the first time this has been attempted whole scale, and it is no small task. But it must be done before the Peace Museum is completed and is in the very capable hands of Park Sun Joo, the anthropologist who has dedicated much of his free time to finding out the truth of the Korean War. I hope to include an interview with Mr Park on this website sometime in September, where we can finally get a more accurate sense of what is happening. Sometimes it seems hard to explain that this isn't an historical problem we can resign to the past, as much as a phenomenon very much rooted in the present. It was my good friend Yoonyoung who used the word "fatigue" to describe her feelings about this place back in 2018. This term sticks for me because it conjures up the sense of an endless battle for recognition, manifest in a decades long appeal for justice still underway. It is hoped that by sensitively dealing with sites like this in the future another English word - "healing" - might take its place.
But for this to be achieved there is much to be clarified about Winnington's original report. In the picture it is possible to see three separate massacre sites that would correspond to the information given by Winnington in his pamphlet. The figures on the right are those worked out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2010, before its activities were halted by the Lee Myung Bak administration. They are slightly different to Alan's in terms of the figures, but also in how they state the massacres began at the end of June. Regardless they give a very accurate account of what could be found there. The prolonged wait of ten years to continue the investigations has complicated things further, but it is worth stating that their extremely professional assessment of the valley is close to Winnington’s own. Actually, in Im Jae Guen’s Korean language book on this history from 2015 he identifies eight separate massacre sites in the valley. These consist of the three main ones covered by Winnington and others that were most likely identified from witness accounts given at the time of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Actually, the 2007 excavation was one of these identified by Im Jae Guen, and it is horrifying to think that there are at least four more of these at various points in the valley. But this is the scale of what needs to be dealt with here before something like the “truth” of what happened can officially be made public. There is a new sign at the massacre site as from June this year that gives the figure of those killed as somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 people. As much as this wrangling over statistics seems ultimately futile it has to be attempted for the historical record. One thing I have recently learned is that - as can be seen depicted on the sign below - massacres are known to have continued at this place until 1951. This reflects what happened in the Korean War when territory changed hands a number of times, and is indicative of a continuing pattern of reprisals throughout the conflict. As will be seen later on, this timeline can now be stretched even further back (thanks to information in the Winnington archive) to 1949 before the beginning of war proper. This is a developing situation, and I expect more information to come out shortly.
But it might be wise to say a few more things about progress at the three main sites Winnington uncovered. The first (labelled number 1 on the Newstapa image) is where the journalist most likely stood with his camera in August 1950, whereas the other two (labelled 2 and 3) represent the massacres that occurred later in July. At site number one there is a church built over the end of one of the pits, and it is likely that some of the remains were found during the period of construction, but had to remain unreported thanks to the suppression of information. Likewise at site two (the longest of the trenches) there was a road built at some point in the Sixties that could well of obscured the remains under asphalt, or the dictatorship of the time could have disposed of them during construction. This could possibly be confirmed by further excavations, because when a test pit was attempted in the past no bones were found but there was much "material" (ie buttons, glasses, personal items and clothing). In the same sense trench number three has been actively ploughed and farmed land since after the war. There are also multiple other issues to do with land ownership and local politics that make complexity a byword for the entire project. The picture below – showing the memorial stone erected in 2010 – gives a sense of some of the animosity and resistance with which this project has been subjected to by local residents in the past:
As is perfectly visible, the stone carries a series of chips on the surface that are said to result from protesting landowners five or six years ago. This animosity may have evaporated now because of compulsory land purchases by the central government, but it stands as testament to how fractious and bitter this history remains. Apart from a few moments in history – of which the current moment is hopefully one – this has generally been something not to speak about in anything other than a whisper. I hope to do justice to some of these experiences in a later post on the poet Jeon Suk Ja, who has published much on the Daejeon Massacre and how it affected her directly.
But this is not to say that Alan’s journalism starts and ends with just this one report. There are also bits and pieces missing from this story that have largely been forgotten as the cold war progressed for the next forty years or more. One of these concerns a memorandum seized from Seoul by the People’s Army after the American retreat, that shows that the CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) were supervising these killings as far back as 1949. Alan actually sent a telegram to his Peking office about this communication, and said he was trying to “get a Photostat”. This may have happened, because I found a copy of this memorandum at the Marx Memorial Library when I visited in 2018. For some reason it seems to have been omitted from the narrative in the west, or simply forgotten about. It is even alluded to in the pamphlet itself. These are very important documents, contributing to a narrative on the Korean War that is incredibly damning for the US and its allies. Actually, in Winnington’s notes from the time, it was stated to him by “Han Chung Suk” (a leader of the local militia) that people had been killed in this Daejeon valley (to use Winnington’s words “on the same spot”) since 1949. These are thought to be prisoners from the Yeosu and Suncheon resistance that year, and may have included other prisoners from the Jeju Uprising (more delicated phrased as the 4.3 incident) in process since 1948. It is this kind of information that will be incredibly important in the search for truth at Daejeon in the future. This is a process started with Winnington’s bold assertion in his pamphlet nearly seventy years ago, and will only end with the investigations these blog posts are an intrinsic part of.
There is excellent background to all of this in Bruce Cumings text The Korean War (2010), but also in Gavan MacCormack’s book Target North Korea (2004). MacCormack’s attempt to piece together what happened via accounts from servicemen at the time is particularly interesting, whereas Cuming’s section on the Daejeon Massacre provides more focus.
 I will talk about these documents briefly at the end of this blog post. But specifically I am referring to a telegram sent by Winnington to Peking before he arrived in Daejeon, and some recovered Counter Intelligence Corps documents about executions committed under American supervision.
 Actually we now know that this was a popular method of execution used by the police at this time. You can see in the following video a memorial ceremony taking place on a boat this year for people who know that their relatives were dumped in the sea at Changwon:
The bodies in these instances were never found. This happened especially in the far south of the peninsula in townships surrounding Busan.
Allen Fisher's SPUTTOR arrived here last week. As poem, and image object, it is truly astounding. The quality of production makes Veer the perfect platform for its distribution. The entire piece is deftly inscribed and pasted over Andrew Wilson's Space Shuttle Story (1986), which was originally produced in celebration of the ill-fated Challenger space mission, or rather the history of technological advances that made it possible. This was a text that in its own words "trac[ed] the history of the Space Shuttle Program from the early days of rocketry to the destruction of the challenger in 1986". This makes it a strange book in reasoning and conception, as if there is an alternative narrative perpetually simmering in the background. As text and image, the original book traced a process that ended in failure. It has to be assumed that Space Shuttle Story was initially conceived as a celebration of the space race, with the disaster itself something of an afterthought. The idea of 'getting off the planet' and 'space orbits' - which Fisher defined as the main themes of the original text in an issue of Sugarmule - become something much more provocative and rich as a consequence. Language that was once complicit in the infrastructure of the state becomes a living entity subject to a variety of 'transformations'.
The beauty of Fisher's work comes in how it reorients, and interferes, with that original text (or how he 'defamiliarizes' its content, to use a term more suited to his other recently reissued text from Veer). The sonorous adulation that defined that mission - coming as it did at the cold wars peak (all 'Red Dawn' and Reaganomics) - is rendered entirely suspect not just by Fisher's poetics but the tragedy that ended the mission itself. SPUTTOR is both SPUTnik and the hope of UTTerance: a stORy inclined to reveal and build on the original monologic narrative by means of the reader's participation and imagination. Alternative possibilities are allowed to emerge from within the tragedy of the dream. The text wonderfully merges the language of progress that defined that mission - as political project and eventual disaster - with alternative histories constantly weaving in and out of the mainframe. Like all of Fisher's work since the seventies the text examines 'where we are', in ways that would be impossible without poetry itself. These are poetic imaginings for a new age, that take into account not only political reality, but the immensity of our human condition. 'There are so many theories', as Anselm Kiefer would put it, '[but] all they describe is our lack of knowledge'.
Fisher's text will be a focus of mine over the next few weeks as I try my best to come to terms with it via a series of investigations of both text, image and their intersections. I will begin this shortly with a look at the opening pages. This is an ongoing project, so a bibliography will be provided in my final post. For now I will simply reproduce the 'contents', which go some way to giving an initial glimpse of what is at stake:
Human legacy 1
Human legacy 2
Human perception 1
Human perception 2
Human contradiction 1 & 2
Human contradiction 3
Read SPUTTOR (2) here
Alex Davies begins Londonstone (2009) with a curiously incomplete line from Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man (1965). ‘Though I know’, as the famous song goes, ‘that evenins’s empire has returned into sand’. Wedged assuredly in the cultural memory, these lines are often said to gesture towards some form of hallucinatory urban experience – the ‘cold turkeying’ of drug users as they negotiate the streets. But Dylan is rarely such a transparent artist. ‘The sand’ the ‘evenin’s empire’ ‘returns to’ in the song also ‘vanishes from his hand’ in the same verse. The experience is not only ‘urban’, but entirely transitory. ‘I have no one to meet’, Dylan continues later, ‘and the ancient city streets too dead for dreaming’. Dylan’s famous lyric strikes a mournful note in terms of Davies’ poem. Rather than an aimless wandering, Dylan is searching for direction ‘far from the reach of crazy sorrow’. ‘Let me forget about today’, he quivers, ‘until tomorrow’. It is at this moment, perhaps, that Londonstone is most deliberately registered. Hallucination is present in the poem, but there are no drugs in sight. It makes sense, therefore, that Davies’ text literally begins with an explosion. This ‘bomb’ represents the terror attacks that took place in July of 2005, when four individuals detonated explosives in their backpacks leading to the deaths of 52 people. ‘AVOID LONDON’, read the signs on the M52 that day, ‘AREA CLOSED’. Davies’ city is not only hallucinatory, but devoid of effective habitation. It is into this maelstrom that Dylan’s need for guidance, his need to forget, seems so urgent. ‘Each noise/ a massive point’, writes Davies of this anxious city space, ‘each person/ a pendulum’ (5).
This is the reality of London post ‘7/7’ as the strangely imitative abbreviation now goes. Full spectrum dominance is registered in a spiralling cycle of violence on the home front. Sealed bins, and trigger-happy policemen, attest to this unreality. ‘Terrible times’, as Davies writes, ‘expect bleeding’ (7). Bill Griffiths weighs heavy on this urban scene, his Spilt Cities (1999) a deliberate assonantal score in the background. ‘Pavement musk tossers’, writes Davies in full Griffiths mode, ‘tug-lust-horse-tail-till-shit-tusks’ (5). ‘This is not the smooth language of the managed word’, William Rowe once wrote on Griffiths’ own work, ‘things jut into consciousness, where the formless meets shaping forces: goal, psychiatric hospital, city’ (158). Londonstone is in the grip of events that bring this anxiety to the forefront of public life. ‘Madness’, as Davies divines it, ‘madmen’ (7). The text takes its cue from Griffiths’ own plastic language formations. This is an urban language morphing with the demands of the city – shrinking and expanding under its very conditions. ‘Spooling conundrums’, as Davies writes, ‘bony Carbonite Maneuevers,/ hansom cabs & Deerstalkers’ (6).
Much like in Griffith’s original formulations, then, behind this chaos lurks an unmistakable odour of menace. ‘Our idols’ idols’, as Davies has it, ‘sculpted/ recycled’ (8). Those behind the levers of power in London are secured within an historical imago of their own making, ‘recycling’ a vision of themselves forever played back in the grand exteriors. Indeed, Davies’ texts make perfectly clear where the violence visited on London will be felt after the smoke has cleared:
War ceremonies paint one colour,
St Paul’s furious boudoir,
Crossed out ad nauseum,
All who attend
Are four score and more (9).
In the grip of the ‘war on terror’ London becomes a distinctly monochrome place. The Manichean battle of the future is between the dysfunctional dictates of St Pauls and the rest. ‘Sputum / Mucus’, will be the raw materials that determine the health of the body politic, ‘cheek swabs / shoeprints’ (9). As a consequence Davies’ London is a phantasm of nervous voices. The real measure of the city only comes into being via the witterings of its inhabitants. ‘I’m petrified of having a fat Labrador’, confesses one, ‘damn you and all you stand for’ screams another (8-9). In the schizophrenic tension between these voices lie not only the key to Davies poem, but also the heart of any city. Privilege, and disconsolate rage, exist discretely together as point of fact. ‘These are the things’, continues the poem, ‘that keep me awake at night’ (13).
Amongst a range of other determinants Allen Fisher’s Gravity as a Consequence of Shape (2004) is an attempt to perceive of the city consistent with what Robert Sheppard calls in his introduction to Future Exiles (1992) ‘late twentieth century realities’(11). This is poetry that foregrounds its immediacy as part of the conditions that surround it. Loath to repeat the mistakes of various late modernist conceptions of urban space, this is a long poem that attempts to approach the ordinary subject matter of the city via an extraordinary technique. This meant abandoning the reticence over urban social being that came to typify romantic and modernist representations of the city, whilst at the same time developing a poetics that takes into account a breadth of experiential possibility. In Place (2005) – a text completed over a ten year period in the seventies – a similar attempt at an epic was realized utilizing both Olsonian and Poundian approaches to the material. In conversation with Andrew Duncan, however, Fisher makes clear that he considered this inheritance far too prescriptive. As he puts it, explaining the ‘reactive’ origins of his own working practice:
I’m much more interested in the poem than where it’s sending me. I think I was responding in some way, this idea of openness is a response to the way Pound and Olson had handled it. It’s kind of like saying, I didn’t think that was necessarily the only way of handling it. It gave me quite a bit of difficulty. I started reading the Cantos when I was at school, and I found it very, very hard (“A Tour” 146).
In all his work Fisher has privileged the importance of the medium over the message. Seen through a purview such as this the city would no longer become the projection of a single imagination. By utilizing ‘damage’ as an effective strategy towards creative ‘transformations’ in his work, Gravity hopes to fundamentally side step these difficulties in composition. The aim of the following essay is to explore this term ‘damage’, particularly in how far it helps to account for the city beyond the totalistic pretentions of a single, authorial voice. The innovations in Fisher’s city, then, come in how explicitly ‘open’ it remains to creative perception.
Gravity proposes not only the relief from one-dimensional structures of meaning, but new ways of conceiving of ‘mapping’ in itself. In the poem the ‘archetypes’ of the Mathematician, Poet and Engineer that appear throughout the text are shown to be repeating the logic of closure. Of these three figures, however, it is the Mathematician that seems to be the primary target for Fisher. ‘Thus through reflection and analysis/ the Mathematician distinguished values’, writes Fisher, ‘as a formal criterion for understanding/ narrative structure’ (77). It is logic that is the unruly element in western aesthetics and the Poet and Engineer as representations of poetry and the city are suffering from something of an infection. The problem with such systematic thinking is its failure to recognize the damage or discontinuities that structure the basis of knowledge as immediately presented. Or, to put it in the correct terminology, a rejection of ‘fractals’. As Fisher continues:
the wet and the solid were in a fractal dimension and
required a dialectical procedure of domination and attribution.
It burnt his eyes and gave him an erection.
In embarrassment he relaxed back at the map table
and began to show hysteresis as a problem
of percolation between the movement and the lattice
where transformation of the virtual to the actual
became substituted as domination and the desire to be dominated (77)
The Mathematician rejects the multi-layered perception favoured by Fisher, even though it amounts to erotic stimulation. Retreating to his ‘map table’ with his coconspirators he is tacked assuredly to numerical certainties, he privileges ‘hypothetical blur’ as linguistic fact. This misrecognition replaces what actually ‘is’ with what the Mathematician now ‘wants’ or ‘desires’. ‘It meant the introduction in the surface of his perception/ of a wanting’, writes Fisher earlier on, ‘a perception that included a guessed at seeing,/ a wanting that prevalourised the solution converted/ into a description, then into attributive utterances’ (76). Undergirding this logic is always the ‘desire to dominate’ or to ‘tag’ natural phenomena with words. ‘A naiveté between what is thought and said’, continues Fisher, ‘irrespective of social life’ (77).
The reality of perception simply doesn’t matter in this dominant purview of social being. Moreover, ‘society’ – or life in Brixton – completely undermines such a perspective by its resistance to such interpretations. As Fisher writes in ‘Birdland’:
Challenges the closure of meaning
So far removed, nothing will have taken place, but the place,
flattening houses for ecological reasons
fuses with a beyond,
a successive clashes in
formations, memories of bodily contact, but
warmth and nourishment do not underlie the air (82)
During the riots Brixton is a place that challenges the dominant discourses that seek to give it a particular vibe or explanation. What exists in this section of south west London is the eruption of violence as something of a singularity. Even then, this violence was founded on spontaneous energies that can neither be recreated nor duplicated in any form. This is not ‘nourishing’ or ‘warming’ to think about, but the simple consequences of Brixton as a self-referential entity devoid of any attempts to subsume place into aesthetics. Interestingly, in this section of the poem such an ‘opening’ is juxtaposed to the figure of the Mathematician perhaps as he sets off to work the morning after:
gets on a subway in a pinstriped
with a microchip blackboard. A spotted handkerchief
matches his tie. On the back of his head someone
has singed a domino it
matches his ear rings ('Birdland' 82-83)
The Mathematician is a fusty figure when contrasted as he clearly is here with the tumultuous events of the previous night. Black and white he is the very epitome of the either or polarity at the root of systems of closure. He is the limited possibilities of Lawson’s mouse trap made flesh, or a physical representation of the binary logic sketched out by linguistic traps. More than this, he attempts to engender some kind of equilibrium or harmony into last night’s ‘race riots’. Something for which – at least if the singed domino in the back of his head is anything to go by – either the locals are less than appreciative or he must remind himself of in the most masochistic fashion.
Bullied, isolated, the Mathematician exists in a Brixton that is the opposite of his monopolizing desires or ‘wanting’. To those that live there Brixton is completely understandable, but to the Mathematician who sees ‘hypothetical blur’ as closure it is a decoherence that must be pacified at all costs. ‘It is that blur, which has to be presented as measurement’, writes Fisher, and attempts to ‘dominate’ it seem like subjugation in this context. When the Mathematician begins to take some time away from his formulas and ‘accounts’, for example, the effect appears to be one of carnivalesque revelry:
As he starts to leave
his accounts, he pulls the arms from his jacket,
sets them alight.
The effect is laughter
an imprint of an archaic moment,
a threshold of
spatiality as well as sublimation.
Suddenly a path clears Sleep relates the squeezed
State to a lack of community. He leans
towards me, last night, he insists,
I had a strange dream (83)
The response to a truly spontaneous action by the Mathematician is laughter. The unexpected moment, which Fisher describes as ‘archaic’, remains the only acceptable one. But this moment only lasts for so long. The ultimate – atypical even – reaction is to envelope it in denial and closure. This is certainly what is implied in the great narrative ‘cop out’ that suggests his actions were “just a dream”. The Mathematician, insistent, retreats to a trap of his own making for both healing and sustenance. In doing so, however, he simply repeats the ‘black or white’ dogma that has plagued aesthetic decision-making in the west. ‘[It] is important to notice that notions of healing are semiotic not pragmatic, that is mainly illusory and at best figurative’, writes Fisher in his revealing lecture ‘aesthetics is still a young discipline and not a science, but imperfect fit is the more appropriate machine to engender our active enquiries’ (“Traps” 6). This ‘betweeness’, at the fold between what Fisher calls in the poem ‘naming it’ and the ‘autonomy of the subject’ is the only sincere place for meaning to reside. ‘I become a mere/ phenomenal actualization moved through a burning gap’, Fisher ends the poem, ‘the irrational state insists on control’ (83).
It is in a poem called ‘Cakewalk’, however, that the ramifications of these thematic concerns begin to be understood in terms of the city. Fisher starts the poem with the image of a woman ‘frottaged’ by ‘the Burgular/ to the wall’ (149). This image is important in two ways. Firstly, ‘frottaging’ is both an avant garde ‘brass rubbing’ technique, but also a form of ‘outercourse’ or the act of sexual stimulation without penetration. Whether this is just an artistic image created using these techniques by the Burgular, or an erotic interaction with the image, makes no difference because the telling details come in another archetype – the Informer’s – report:
The informer's report confirms
they are metallic balls of
crystalline liquids sandwiched
in saliva honeycombs and
dynamically disordered into droplets
disturb the gravel (149)
‘Oh what a wonderful world’, the informer seems to exclaim, only for him to follow this up with ‘tries to stop it and cannot’. This image is fascinating, enticing even, but the natural response is to shut this excitement down. At one point the Informer notes how the image has ‘stabilized’, whereupon he is able to approach it in the language of the ‘City’s/ sintered adhesion’ (150). Sintering is a chemical process whereby powdered metal is joined together before it reaches melting point in order to create a solid mass. ‘Sintered adhesion’, then, represents the stopping of the city. Sintered adhesion is the joining together of singularities through a manufactured process that keeps their molecules together and separate at the same time. As the poem notes, this is something the very opposite of ‘natural’:
Away from the perinuclear destruction
in his cell bodies
to the subterranean horizon
his holdings are achieved by macromolecular stabilization:
a vocabulary trench
almost voided by the means to dredge (151)
The Informer’s world is one that rejects the very biological processes that keep him alive. Even his cells are not subject to renewal but a kind of molecular stasis. Just like his alien body his ‘word hoard’ becomes a ‘vocabulary trench’ or the stagnant remnants of a language with no social use. ‘Return to a Faraday Cage’, writes Fisher of the informer’s resistance to the world of experience, ‘dizzy from the static/ metal escalators/ on the way down slope/ defines/ in completeness’ (151).
Moreover, when it comes to the city this ‘Informer’ is seen as a divided figure. He encapsulates the tensions typically encountered in poetry when it comes face to face with urban social being. As Fisher writes:
He lives in fear of breakdown
in sensitivity of capture.
His skid turns from calm
back to the consequences
of the city transcendence of its glow (152)
His failure to ‘make sense’ of the ‘frottaged’ image, his failure to reduce it into a recognizable order of things, sees him torn between the ‘city’s glow’ and the ‘calm’ and ‘austere’ garden where sincerity holds sway. The fact that he ‘skids’ between both states suggests a confusion manifesting itself in quite a physical way. ‘Place’, as he finds it, negates the city in any plural sense. Like the image of the woman, its ‘enticements’ and ‘glow’ refuse to be subordinated to any kind of system. As Fisher continues:
He cannot teach himself
to ignore the
screams and riots outside
but evades approaching darkness in both
the garden and the city moves against him (152)
The informer’s hyperactive psychological condition manifests itself in violent fits and starts as the coherence of a world he once knew dissipates in front of him. ‘Poetry and engagement with a Public’ Fisher reminds us in Complexity Manifold, ‘[is] potentially involved with self-deception, or more often, active deceit’ (251). In order to feel grounded, to feel stable, poems have to construct systems that ‘cohere’.
But towards the poem’s end point Fisher – or at least the poem’s ‘author’ and therefore voice of authority and control – switches back on that Faraday Cage. Most importantly, a ‘field of gravity’ is seen to emerge ‘beyond the garden wall’ that has a ‘simultaneity of direction’. This force is ‘stronger than hail’, and like the ‘gravity’ of Fisher’s long poem itself it ‘shapes’ the poem into a predetermined form. The Informer, who had been in crisis only a short while previously, suddenly appears to be on the ascendency. Instead of that almost Puritan fear of the image witnessed at the beginning of the poem, somehow the city has been transformed from its ‘transcendent glow’ into a commodified caricature of its former self:
The city's policy
whiteballed to ensure the informer
runs into the right kind of people
Always a light flashing somewhere
Everybody is very tired
Earning a fortune (159)
Envisaged now as a place of frenetic capitalist activity the city becomes a closed entity where everybody is too predisposed in the totalistic system that surrounds them. As a space this now conforms to everything the informer ever wanted. It is the ‘city of corporations/ glassed in dreams and images’ George Oppen writes of in Of Being Numerous, and as such it resembles the ‘wanting’ or ‘prevalourization’ of the city Fisher has already described (Oppen 114). It is fascinating, furthermore, how that image of a woman that began the poem is now perceived:
Desire and greed are matched
in a "she looks beautiful eugenics"
A chain of electro-chemical reactions
the will to keep up standards
An order to establish
An options exchange encourages favour (159)
The recalcitrant image of a woman that began the poem has now been framed, and hollowed-out, by the “she looks beautiful eugenics” of the presiding social order. This order, however, is nothing more than the chemical imprint of social mores in the brain activity of a small group of people. These are ‘beautiful eugenics’ because they both praise this woman’s beauty, whilst effectively cutting her off from any more nuanced interpretation. Kept in place by the single narrative of the city – and that beloved by the Informer who has all interpretation ‘whiteballed’ or ‘sewn up’ – the potentially subversive image has been emptied of meaning by a logic of closure that drowns all other possibilities out. ‘[A]spirations’ in such a climate concludes Fisher at the end of the poem, ‘[are] considered cohesion’ (160).
To Fisher, aesthetics today are premised on precisely this situation. There are, indeed, inventive formal techniques to create the hope of an opening, but these are soon caught up within the repetitious cycle of closure. ‘As she focuses’, writes Fisher, ‘the Photographer comes to something/ which to her is Beauty/ and stops there’ (156). The constant desire to subsume place, and personality, into aesthetics means that the poem is the site of an eternal battle between these two states of being. To Fisher the present moment is therefore perched between the smallest possibility for hope and a profound despair. ‘The ludicrous concept’, writes Fisher as part of a commentary on Gerard Richter in order to gesture to this situation, ‘that we still think we can consider ways to get through another half century as a civic and social nexus is an optimism’ (“Complexity Manifold” 251). If anything, poetic forms of representation are a particularly acute expression of these circumstances. As the poet continues during a passage from the introduction to a book of essays which is currently due to be published in 2015:
There is a large dialectic undermining this book which perpetuates the appalling logic that has sustained the disgrace of western civilization for more than two and a half millennia, an appalling logic that is necessary for the premise of this critique and its perpetuation. This is the kind of nonsense that these texts, the texts in this book, will be unable to overcome because of the texts reliance on their readability and comprehension by those who will argue for the various fallacies they will discern from what is being proposed. There is nothing to be done about this, if the book is to venture into publication it must be reconciled to this ridiculous position and must stride out into the performance of its presentation. (“Testing and Experimenting” 14).
What matters in this context is what Fisher calls ‘the aesthetic swerve, or nerve to carry on’ (“Complexity Manifold” 268-9). The brutal reality is that any erotic potential will always be subsumed under the terms of a ‘self-deceiving’ culture constantly working towards its annihilation. In sketching the fundaments of any aesthetic system it is necessary to note with Fisher how ‘reliance [on] or even aspiration to coherence undermines the process of the proposal and activity’ (268). It is these preoccupations that have unfortunately become our own ‘twenty first century realities’. The damaged city creates fleeting opportunities for Fisher, but these opportunities disappear almost as soon as they are registered. Inventive perception remains an effective technique in exposing these chinks in the hardened edifice of closure, but these methods do not account for an all-consuming ‘system’ in the way that they did for Olson or Pound. ‘[H]ow we continue’, a question posed by Fisher in Place, must simply be answered once again with the refrain ‘I do not know except that/ we must continue’ (230).
Cache, Bernard. Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. Print.
Clarke, Adrian. “Interview By Adrian Clarke For Angel Exhaust, 1987”. Duncan, Andrew. The Marvels of Lambeth: Interviews and Statements by Allen Fisher. Shearsman: Bristol, 2013. Print.
Duncan, Andrew.“A Tour Through The Resources For Stane; Or, A History Of Locks And Weirs: Lulham 23/5/05 tape 1. Duncan, Andrew. Ed. The Marvels of Lambeth: Interviews and Statements by Allen Fisher. Shearsman: Bristol, 2013. Print.
Duncan, Andrew. “Of Mutabilitie: Interview At Roehampton University, February, 2005”. Duncan, Andrew. Ed. The Marvels of Lambeth: Interviews and Statements by Allen Fisher. Shearsman: Bristol, 2013. Print.
Fisher, Allen. “Complexity Manifold 2: Hypertext”. Armand, Louis Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2010. Print.
- - - - “Confidence in Lack”. Allenfisher1.files.wordpress.com. August, 2010. Web. November 5, 2014.
- - - - Gravity. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2004. Print.
- - - - and Mac Cormack, Karen. “Philly Talks 19: Allen Fisher/ Karen MacCormack”. October 17, 2001. PDF File.
- - - - Place. Hastings: Reality Street Editions, 2005. Print.
- - - - “Necessary Business”. Fisher, Allen. The Topographical Shovel: Four Essays. Ontario: The Gig Editions, 1999. Print.
- - - - “Procedure and Process: Talk on Place At Alembic, 1978”. Duncan, Andrew. Ed. The Marvels of Lambeth: Interviews and Statements by Allen Fisher. Shearsman: Bristol, 2013. Print.
- - - - “Testing and Experimenting”. Allenfisher1.files.wordpress.com. October, 2013. Web. November 5, 2014.
- - - - “Traps or Tools and Damage”. Allenfisher1.files.wordpress.com. October, 2010. Web. November 5, 2014.
Lawson, Hilary. Closure: A Story of Everything. London, Routledge 2001. Kindle File.
Mandlebrot, Benoit. “Fractals and the Art of Roughness”. Ted.com. Feb, 2010. Web. November 5, 2014.
Oppen, George. New collected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003. Print.
Sheppard, Robert. “New Memories: Allen Fisher’s Gravity as a Consequence of Shape”. Robertsheppard.blogspot.com. 20 February, 2005. Weblog. November 5, 2014.
- - - - . Intro. “Six Poems From Brixton Fractals (1982 – 4)”. Future Exiles: 3 London Poets Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Brian Catling. London: Paladin, 1992. Print.
- - - - When Bad Times Made For Good Poetry. Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2011. Print.
Thurston, Scott. “Interview with Scott Thurston, 1999”. Duncan, Andrew. The Marvels of Lambeth: Interviews and Statements by Allen Fisher. Shearsman: Bristol, 2013. Print
 It wasn’t that Fisher found Olson’s structural innovations unworthy to his ambitions in Place, but that he worried about the connotations a firmly ‘Olsonian’ influence would have on the semantic qualities of the poetry itself. During an interview with Andrew Duncan, for example, Fisher alludes to a ‘mistake’ in the early stages of the project. ‘I think a mistake I made very early on in Place… was to allude to Charles Olson. And I immediately gave this whole apparatus that was already in existence in 1950 or whenever as an overlay for the work – as a way of reading it’ (The Marvels 56).
 It is certainly no accident that the Mathematician holds prominence in Fisher’s poem, especially given the influence of figures such as Mandlebrot. During a talk on Place at Alembic in 1978 he noted numerical structures in Sir Phillip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella that sees ‘the sun rise’ in the middle of the poem as an example of the mathematical attempts at conceiving of ‘order’ in previous poetry (“Alembic” 45). ‘Those are the paradigms we would change’, insists Fisher, as if gesturing to his later position in Gravity.
 At the time of writing this book has the provisional title of Imperfect Fit: Aesthetic Function, Facture and Reception, and will be published by the University of Alabama Press.