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What to do with the word 'Home': Absence and Elegy in Robin Fulton's poetry

(a revision of the essay originally published in Lines Review, 131 (Dec 1994): pp. 5-13)

Robin Fulton's poetry is a poetry of travelling, of remembering, and of restlessness. He is a poet, especially, of absence: looking at how Fulton writes about "not being there anymore" (emigration and death), how he writes about "being somewhere else now," is a good way into discovering how good a poet he is.

I am particularly taken by his last two books of poems, and in these the themes of elegy and emigration are in the foreground. Fields of Focus was published in 1982 by Anvil, when it won a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and, a book which sounds like two books but isn't, Coming Down to Earth and Spring is Coming Soon was publshed by Oasis/Shearsman in 1990. The eight-year gap between these volumes is deceptive in that the poems for the last book took a long time to find publication; poems published in periodicals since show that Fulton is actually muich more prolific than his book publications suggest.

To clear the ground, some details about Fulton's life and work. He was born on Arran in 1937 and was brought up there, then on the periphery of Glasgow (1944-48) and finally in Sutherland. From the landscapes and place-names in the poetry, the Sutherland background would seem the most significant but Fulton spends some time in the autobiographical piece in the American directory World Authors explaining how his years on Arran were "lucky and happy". Experiencing the Second World War there, he recalls, made "the outside world [seem] haunted by deadly anxieties I couldn't understand." (See Venita Colby (ed.), World Authors: 1980-1985 (New York: Wilson, 1991), 321-3). Interestingly, this description of being in a self-sustaining environment but of being aware, too, of profound disturbances just beyond it characterises many of Fulton's poems. Indeed, rather than tracing this sensibility to his infancy it may be that his way of recollecting in maturity his Arran life is in fact the product of underlying preoccupations developed slowly; these are more apparent in his later work.

The poems of Fields of Focus and Coming Down remember again and again the more northern landscape of his parents after the flit to Helmsdale in Sutherland, often, though, as a place Fulton visits from afar. In one prose-poem this psychological geography seems to have taken on the importance of an initial experience, practically erasing Arran and Glasgow: "The highland scenery told me I had now reached my first phase." That piece is fiction but has such an "authentic" feeling of autobiography I take the elision as significant. The Nordic roots of Sutherland mean that it was not only the fact of Fulton's move to Norway in his mid-thirties (he still stays in Stavanger) which physically reinforced the Scandinavian influence on Scottish arts (this association can be seen in all its variousness in the poetry of the Shetlanders Robert Alan Jamieson, Christine de Luca and Christie Williamson and of Orkneyman George Mackay Brown, in the novels of Neil M. Gunn, the paintings of Neil MacPherson and in the films of Margaret Tait). Fulton's translations of the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer (among otherScandinavian authors, though he has translated authors further afield) show that the influence and draw continue.

A childhood love of trees, reinforced by time spent in Sweden, seems to have provided Fulton with tree and forest as objects upon which to test no less than just what existence means. His landscapes are psychological landscapes, and the object/subject divide is, as with Norman MacCaig (whose poetry Fulton admires), a pre-occupation - "What is so strange about a tree alone in an open field? / You never really answered. And I never insist." ("A Tree Alone", FOF 16); "I don't confuse myself and the lenient fir. / No objection. The forest swallows me up." ("Frontiers" FOF 12); "I drive past forests with so many shades / of green I ask, could any language list them?" ("On not saying much" CDE 13). Fulton's fascination with trees is certainly idiosyncratic, the arboreal theme right across the collection binds poem to poem and individual meditations take on the resonances of previous pieces and pass them on the next. Two very different Scottish poets create similar expectations: Thomas A. Clark and John Burnside. Their books and Fulton's need time, and reward it.

In "Museums and Journeys" (Fields of Focus 10) Fulton recalls visiting "An exhibition: a hundred years of Edinburgh life," an experience he finds places him in isolation and in a state of vulnerability. As so often in Fulton he eloquently articulates clumsiness, insecurity, a feeling of being in slow motion, as he relies on human-ness and its inventions to protect him from what he sees. He moves as "heavily as a diver / on the ocean floor: one step, one breath / against the weight of the invisible dead." In the same way that the museum and the dead of the Edinburgh photos have "no time for me," the next stanza suggests that the journey of the title, "one I didn't want to take but took / shutting my eyes - a child again hoping the needle / wouldn't hurt," may bring him as little solace. The second stanza also makes it clear that this journey is a going back, a temporal as well as a geographical journey, the child simile is apt, and the past that Fulton is going back to has become indelible but almost inscrutable, too: "My view of the past stays clear but hard to read / like a radio-map of a secret corner in the night sky."

I like this comparison because it is suggesting that Fulton's previous home, the place presumably of childhood he is travelling back to, is too sophisticatedly encoded for him to interpret now. The radio-map image confers a richness on the past, a sense of that home being available only to those with powerful and intricate means of tuning in to it. Fulton admits that he has become incapable of interpreting home's messages but he is still receiving them. More than that, the modernity of the "radio-map" suggests that going back to an old home is not going back to a past that is dead in the water; the life one's old home once had has of course continued and, a recurrent touch in Fulton's work, is every bit as modern as the new home that one has created in the new life. Though he does not dodge his separation Fulton's feelings of "exile" are generous. The simple title of the poem introduces a simple structure, museum in the first stanza, journey in the second, then the two subjects are brought together in the last, third, verse:

Museums and journeys. We meet as strangers do
at the end of long ellipses over continents.
We exchange histories. Our view of the present is clear
but the landscapes go on sliding past. So many
memories, I try to say "One at a time!"
They keep piling up like unanswered letters.

I say "simple structure" and should say here that Fulton's poetry is invariably unflashy. Characteristically it is unrhymed, for example. It usually appears to take on a form emerging as if organically from a meditative state of mind. Fulton is nevertheless close to being a formal writer of free verse: though his poems take on many different forms Fulton's lines have a sense of rightness of length and number, the rightness of the carefully uttered poem. Small runkling or pausing effects are used that both naturalise the text - because they suggest the human voice's changing tempo - and heighten its artifice (because it goes against (one) poetry convention of a semantic unit being completed by the end of the line). The enjambement of "So many / memories" is a good example: the line-break dramatises the enormity of the remembrance Fulton is describing and prepares in abstract form for the striking panic-attack image of of the last line, Fultonian detachment finally let go. Even the falling stress in the word "letters" seems to admit to failing, an admission of inconclusiveness, and the humility of the simile shows that what MacCaig's poetry does to space and the thing perceived Fulton does to memories and time.

This is captured again in "Home Thoughts" (Fields of Focus 20) except that this time Fulton's persona is back in the place to which he has emigrated:

If I were to return now after
"an absence"? But while absent I have gained
too much presence. It's where I live.

Substance is the locus of qualities, as the Sufi aphorism has it and Fulton is surely moving quietly through a similar if more personal philosophical forest here. Next stanza the letters image of "Museums and Journeys" is picked up again but this time the letters aren't headache-making: "I post letters to the past / and answers come, always up to date." The "past", the "Home" back there of the title, is not a backwater, is not backward - ideas which are too easy for emigres to form and which Fulton always resists. Rather he again recognises without patronisation that "Home", wherever it may be, has its own space, its own kind of now. As he says in "What to Do with the Word 'Home'" (Fields of Focus 46), "The people who still live here - / they've been moving as fast as I."

Fulton's poems often finish with a change of direction or a refocusing, and in "Home Thoughts" that means coming out of thinking about the country he left and turning to look around his adopted surroundings: "It's dusk - but for a pin-hole in the clouds: / a ray of sunlight glares on an empty field. / Something I can't see is being interrogated."

I read this not only as an observation of a light effect but, symbolically, as Fulton's admission that this poem, despite its intelligence and generosity, has not put the issue of home to rest. There will always be something out of reach, something unexplained, something not done justice to in most things and in the notion of home here not least, and that should be owned up to. Similarly, there will always be something in the "now" to distract thoughts of home as "past": the poem's persona has seen something to catch his attention in the world of his "here". Though the poet can smile about the conceit of the beam of sunlight being like a mock-torturer's tilt-poise lamp (Fulton's sense of humour is a dry one) the hardness of that "glare" reveals an austere vision, too.

There are a number of incidents and objects just out of focus in the poems in Fields of Focus, worrying ones, and, like an insomniac who has entered a shaky new state of consciousness, with flickerings at the corner of his eye, Fulton continually registers doubts about the explainability of things. In "Ancient Timber" (33) that means asking "is skin-deep deep? / Beyond touch, where do we find each other?" The last line seems to suggest human beings are held to each other "merely" by biological necessity but for Fulton (making me think of both Neil Gunn and Hugh MacDiarmid) that adds up to a kind of grim but wonderful tenacity: "Something between us refuses to let go."

Coming Down to Earth and Spring is Soon opens with a return to Scotland, "Arriving by Train, December" (CDE 9): "My father's waiting shape watches / five strangers alight, one / of whom stops and becomes me." Fulton has remembered his father very fondly as a gentle and just Presbyterian minister, and he asks for Scotland not to throw the possibilities of Protestantism out: "the Christianity of my parents, while definitely Protestant, was undogmatic and humane; goodness was a matter of doing things, not of talking about them. Later contact with a wider and richer Catholic tradition made me realise how impoverished Scottish Protestantism in many respects is, but still I am grateful to have brought up on the assumption that materialistic and rationalistic ways of seeing life leave much to be desired." (In Venita Colby (ed.), World Authors: 1980-1985, New York: Wilson, 1991, p.322)

In the double-columned piece "Wakeful, Thirty Years Ago" (CDE 21) this considered approach to a remaining Scottish legacy is seen in Fulton's two quite different memories of life as a son of the manse. On the one side of the page "no human chance / against biology / with the Old Testament / at hand to pack its punch,"; on the other, "I would imagine God / as a candle-flame / fragile in extremis / but inextinguishable." Do these two side-by-side stanzas suggest co-existence of, rather than division between, these apparently contrary ideas? Either way they allow for a kind of austerity living alongside a kind of celebration.

Fulton's father is a strong presence in Coming Down. Visiting his parents' old home the poet thinks of himself as perhaps "a diver on the ocean floor outstaying my time" ("Home Ground", 12). He admits "I forgot how loud the past could, / hearing it now present" ("Alive Again", 13) but the bitter-sweet of the vivid memories of his father, in other poems and moods at least, seem to bring a certain calm to the initial state of shock. In "Railway Embankments" for example the memory of father and son out on a fishing expedition and using the railway line as a path captures Fulton's sense of admiration for (and shy distance from) the man who now, in other poems, literally haunts him:

The life of willow-herb, rust,
hot stones. My father said
"Walk on the sleepers, not the ash."

The step was too short for him.
Too long for me. The tips
of our fishing-rods bounced at odds.

(Coming Down 11)

Towards the end of the collection Fulton's tribute has a characteristic philosophical rigour but, using a thoughtful, pained short line, is no less elegiac for that.

...now the year
"a parental presence"
is locked in soil
washed down from Marrel Hill
and its strath kin.

I could say, his
presence will now
outlast rocks. I could say
it's his presence
that robs the crumbling hill
of its longevity.

("Marrel Hill", Coming Down 41-2)

The exchange of the normal qualities of hill and humanity, near-eternity for the dead, transcience for the inanimate, is moving and the repeated refrain "I could say" suggests that outwith poetry Fulton would probably keep his emotions nobly to himself.

There are so many fine Fulton poems between those of absence and elegy, and no time here to detail how much he is a poet of praise, how he celebrates "those minutes that outlast the hours" ("Lasting", Coming Down 32). Since there is such an intimate relationship between elegy and celebration, though, I hope that readers unfamiliar with his work will have gleaned something of the qualities which pervade so many of his poems.

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