Dr. Robert Darling
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 lectureFreud 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:
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?
'A: swart as Alabama mamasHe next remarks: "Perhaps I've lost you here. Well, never /
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.'
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 jawWe 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.
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.
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 blottoWith 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:
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).
Some, I expect, are wishing thatNext 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."
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.
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.