EP&M Online Review

John Fuller
The Illusionists
Chatto & Windus,  1980.
(Slightly less unavailable in Collected  Poems,
Chatto & Windus, 1996.  480 pp. £20.)

Dr. Robert Darling

John Fuller is known in this country primarily  for his masterful W.H. Auden: A Commentary, but  he is probably the most adept poetic craftsman  of his generation.  By the time his Collected  appeared to mark his sixtieth birthday, Fuller  had published twelve collections of poetry, four  novels, two collections of short stories,  several books of criticism and six children's  books in addition to editing numerous  anthologies.  Son of Roy Fuller, he is a more  achieved poet than his father and has been a don  at Oxford for several years, winning both the Whitbread Award in fiction and the Forward  Poetry Prize.

In addition to writing the lyric in many its forms, Fuller has a strong narrative impulse he  has not confined to his prose.  One of the  finest narrative poems to have appeared in the  past two decades is The Illusionists, an 81-page tour de force first appearing in 1980.  The  Illusionists is written in Russian quatorzains,  iambic tetrameter sonnets rhyming  ABABCCDDEFFEGG.  The A, C and E rhymes are  feminine.  Fuller keeps this pattern seamlessly  for a total of 224 stanzas spread over nine chapters.  This is the same stanzaic form that  Vikram Seth used in The Golden Gate, but Fuller  preceded Seth by six years.

But The Illusionists is far more than a mere  technical exercise, however impressive.  There  are several developed characters and an involved  plot dealing with art forgery, one of several  illusions Fuller deals with.  There is much here  that is not what it seems.

The main character is not a player in the plot  at all but the narrator.  He is nearly as chatty  as the one in Byron's Don Juan, which is a major  influence on the work.  The narrative jumps  around a bit, but is held together as much by  the narrator's voice and opinions as it is by  the plot.  The first actual character introduced  is Tim. The narrator describes a typical youth  at length, only to add "Tim wasn't quite like  this." We really pick up Tim's story when he is  an undergraduate with an interest in art, poetry  and women:

 Now Tim had left his latest lecture
 With notes upon les Symbolistes
 Idly scrawled as in a deckchair
 Upon the outside of a creased
 And second letter from his mother
 Which asked why he'd ignored the other,
 Now sandwiched in his copy of
 The Student's ABZ of Love.
 Though he was reading Modern Languages
 The proper study of mankind
 Is--woman. Tutors must not mind,
 With such a rival, if work languishes:
 Why slave to clear up others' doubt
 Of what their lives were all about?
Freud would have done much with this passage, so  it's good he never saw it.  The lecture dealt  with the sense of Rimbaud's vowels, a hot topic  that would "stir a boy's romantic bowels" and is  pithily summarized by Fuller in one stanza.   Notice how each word contains the vowel under  discussion:
 'A: swart as Alabama mamas
 Aghast at Arrabal's drama, tar,
 A Madagascan sans pajamas,
 Black mass, and Sagan's dark cafard.
 E: perfect teeth, sheets, eggs, tents,cheeses,
 Endless Decembers, new deep_freezes.
 I: vivid tilting, prickling hips,
 Lightning in Spring, pink smiling lips.
 U: just cut turf (smug thumbs_up suburb),
 Burst thumb (such pus), bush's plump bud,
 Sputum (lung's mucus), tumulus, cud,
 Fungus, butt's scum, surf's rush, surf'shubbub,
 O: ghosts, ohms (off / on), porno book,
 Photo-room's glow or God's cool look.'
He next remarks: "Perhaps I've lost you here.  Well, never /
Mind. If it really made you blench / At least  give marks to the endeavour / And hurry quickly  to the French."

Tim is recruited for ATI (Art Treasures  International) by Quancy, a devious character  who needs someone in his employ who has a  reputation for honesty.  Quancy is almost  Mephistophelean:

 While every movement of the jaw
 Like a gaunt preacher's in a chapel
 Showed off a monstrous adam's apple.
 His eyes and motives were opaque
 And frequently he nibbled cake.
 The hand to mouth was automatic,
 The eyes attentively on Tim,
 And all the time the rest of him
 (Just like this narrative) was static,
 Relaxed as if he had all day
 In which to pounce upon his prey.
We are next introduced to the rest of the staff  at ATI.  There is the owner Hingeby; the seedy  Distimuth, who actually runs the agency; his  assistant, Nico; the doorman, Old Fredge; and  Mary, the secretary.  Distimuth is under  pressure from Hingeby to increase profits;  Hingeby is always ready to countenance fraud but  does not want to get his own hands dirty.

Tim and Nico become friends and over dinner make  a bet on the best way to win a woman.  As chance  would have it, at that very moment the hottest  new attraction on the London scene, Polly  Passenger, arrives escorted by two men.  Polly  is introduced by an acrostic stanza (one of  three places in the poem Fuller uses acrostics).   As it turns out, Polly's escorts are not quite  what they appear to be -- but, then, neither is  she -- and through a humorous turn of events Nico  and Tim are able to befriend her and attempt  their various strategies.

Quancy, meanwhile, has arranged with a  floundering nobleman, Lord Baltrap,  a scheme to  augment the dwindling fortunes of both Baltrap  and ATI.  They arrange for Tim, who is innocent  of any knowledge of the plot, to find a fake  Hogarth in the attic of Baltrap's estate,  Summershoot.  ATI has access to a fine forger  with a drinking habit: "Give him a bottle or two  of scotch, / He'd even tackle the Night Watch."   Both his drinking and his forgeries are  impressive:

 And when he was completely blotto
 And therefore really up to par,
 Another cognac saw a Watteau
 Or possibly a Fragonard
 Take gradual shape beneath his trembling
 Brush. On gin he'd do a Memling.
 A schnapps tended to make him squint:
 Fine for a Dürer aquatint,
 While grappa brought on Titian's Pontius
 Pilate washing his hands of Christ,
 A work that wasn't overpriced
 Given he did the hands half_conscious
 (Though some de Koonings he had sold
 Had been completed while out cold).
With the plot well_hatched the narrator decides  "Time for the Dedication! / I'm sorry that  you've had to wait: / It's 1800 lines too late"   and writes a celebration of Matthew Prior over  several stanzas before realizing he has ventured  a bit far from the plot:
 Some, I expect, are wishing that
 There was more narrative, less chat.
 Let's stop--and see what's going to happen.
 Write cheques too frequently, the bank
 Gets shirty. Any water-tank
 Will empty if you leave the tap on.
 So put this down and take a rest.
 Go for a walk. Or get undressed.
Next Distimuth attempts to seduce Mary, probably  unsuccessfully, but the narrator can't discuss  it: "Ugh, I can't bear it! Do let's leave them.  / Mary can handle him, I'm sure" and ends the  scene: "I see no reason to prolong / Her torture  for your satisfaction. / You know what Distimuth  intends. / His client waits. The chapter ends."

While ATI would like to sell the fake Hogarth  quietly, its buyer, the Lebanese Faud Warallah,  wants a public showing; his motive for buying  the work is also not quite what it seems.  At  this event, the whole business unravels, though  not in the expected way--one illusion hides  another.  Even the narrator breaks down at one  point:

 The canvas was of course quite sizeable,
 Being a kind of Chinese box,
 The inner subject recognisable
 As Antelope's Leap of the Fox
 (That can't be right, slip of the fountain
 Pen), as Ilex' Top of the Mountain?
 As Axel Slope's Slip off the Rock?
 Lick of the Rope? Rip of the Sock?
 Lack of a Pick? My wits are failing.
 At altitudes like this my luck
 Is almost invisible, like Puck.
 I'm feeling dizzy. Aim I ailing?
 All aches and I peep: 's a rip_off, a lark!
 Excellent paps! Riper, they'll arc!

 Dash it, you must know who I'm after.
 He wrote of fools and country seats
 (No, not Yeats--there's too much laughter).
 He's quite a little chap (not Keats),
 More of a classic (no, not Pindar).
 Her heroine is called Belinda.
 (Wait while I pour another glass
 And let this silly moment pass.)

In this final scene all the separate strands of  the poem come together.  And after this I'll say  no more, no matter how you plead.  I'll not  spoil the ending, even if you have to go to  England to get the book.

Fuller's Collected offers many jewels beyond The Illusionists; being such a prolific poet, he can  be uneven, though the worst I can say of his lesser work is that it simply isn't memorable.   But time after time in form after form Fuller  writes poems that deserve our attention.   Certainly the return to formal and narrative  poetry in this country should bring more  attention to John Fuller on this side of the  pond.  His range both stylistically and  thematically is wide, certainly wide enough to bridge the Atlantic.

                                    Robert Darling