APRIL 11, 2021
“I TRY TO CATCH myself at the moment / Of not being awake,” John Fuller writes in “Asleep,” channeling his wartime childhood self. This somewhat furtive sense of alertness characterizes the whole of his collection Asleep and Awake, the latest in a singularly prolific, spry, and distinguished writing life. Fuller, born in 1937 and a (now emeritus) professor of Magdalen College, Oxford, has quite a bibliography to reckon with, taking in prose, criticism, and children’s literature — and to his official credentials one might justifiably add éminence grise. Fuller’s direction, example, and friendship has shaped and even made possible significant portions of more than one generation of British poets and novelists. For all his eminence, grise or otherwise, Fuller’s poetry has maintained an ordered gleefulness, with his storytelling, voice-throwing urge sharing something with Browning. This narrative, characterful element is just as important to his work as its often more eye-catching formality, Auden being another of his pole stars as well as a particular focus in his critical prose. When reading Fuller, one is never far from a sense of poetry as intelligent play as well as music, of the poem as argument, love song, and lullaby.
Behind Fuller’s apparently easeful, singing aptitude lies a weight of learning and an intimacy with the poets of the past by now innate. This admirable approach to the business of literature is alluded to in a moving elegy to his old friend and one-time colleague at Buffalo, the poet Saul Touster, “Keeper of the Fire”:
the virtues of Judaism
As a fire in a clearing in a wilderness,
Shedding its light, but rooted to the spot.
Christians take torches from this fire,
Dashing into the darkness to bring its light
To the rest of the forest. But the light of these torches
Would expire unless relighted at the source.
This was your idea of a university:
Keeper of the fire, for torches to be rekindled there.
That this reads like utopian daydreaming in academia’s current era of vulgar commodification, “employability” fetishization, and content provision is no fault of the poet, whose own academic career was informed by such platonic virtues. The elegy also signifies more than a longing for a benevolent past, and that’s a more personal, candid, straight-up Fuller than we’re used to.
The collection as a whole is bookended by two extended sequences, one focusing on his childhood during World War II and the other a sequential, episodic love story, for his wife, Prue. The former sees Fuller’s knack for ventriloquizing and dramatization work in tandem with something closer to home, his own former self, now long removed, both in age and sensibility. This use of a childhood voice allows for several startling effects, not least a bluntness liable to cut through any risk of sepia-tinged sentimentality: “What happens when I get to 100? / And who will make my cake? / Because you’ll be dead then.” At its best, this toying with naïveté and stripped-back visual impressionism creates something newly seen, refreshingly uncanny: “Somewhere else the war goes on / With its dispersal and collapse, / Its hospital beds like wrapped farm gates / And heroic chums in black and white”; “When the pilots return / To the fields their burning planes / Spiralled above, and the past / Will only exist for us / In their unreadable faces.”
This idea of “unreadable faces” is an ongoing cause for reflection throughout the book, not only in its literal sense — although an uncertainty around characters’ motives, feelings, and interiority is central — but also in what it suggests about time and its erosions. “Remember, Remember,” the concluding poem of “In War Time,” sees an unsettling blending of the word “remember” into both past tense and implicit imperative, a creeping urgency as “Ann Clarkson with her red hair and faded greeny frock” or “Michael O’Connor staying on for cod and ice-cream” are recalled and preserved, set down on the page with the same force as the more renowned subjects of the book’s later elegies, Toster and the critic and author John Bayley. The stepping back into this world, done as it is through concrete objects, smells, and artifacts, takes on additional poignancy across the span of Asleep and Awake as a whole; these vital, animated figures become, as per “Photograph Albums” — one of the book’s standout poems — “offerings of a kind. Frail heroes of light.”
If Fuller’s chief asset, in the first sequence, is the poem-as-photo, the capturing of a scene through the first sight of childhood with its objects and frozen tableaus, “Before We Met — and After,” his suite of poems about Prue for her 80th birthday, brings in not only a more adult perspective but also more of his narrative and staging talents. One is reminded of T. S. Eliot’s “private words addressed to you in public,” but Fuller’s version is a less self-conscious, plainly devoted take on open uxoriousness. He tries on various shapes, tones, and voices here, too, flirting with notions of an Austen-like marriage plot as fate: “Given our journeying maps no reason for overlapping”; “My God, we never would have met!” The sing-song rightness of a moment of realization that this was for keeps, in the chiming “Waverley, 4.05,” earns its toe-tapping effect: “A perfect fresh kiss that could never lie, / I knew that I would never say goodbye.”
What marks the sequence out most virtuously, perhaps, are its democratizing gestures, its settling on the ordinary objects and words of love, rather than reaching for rarefied sublimities. Fuller recalls that the notes the courting pair passed to one another in the university library were “[m]uch more fascinating / Than the level lines of lyrics,” and later — in a winningly modest memory of marital life — notes, “We lived / In style, though using the tradesman’s entrance.” As in the poems of childhood, Fuller exhibits a gift for collapsing time via closely observed recollection, along with a meditative openness to it as a porous, living medium: “[T]hat past is still what it was, though no longer the present, / When all their long futures had their own ideas, too.” And though these are love songs in age, he can still generate what Saul Bellow called “youth pollen” when painting Prue in her vital adolescence: “Your hair bleached by the sun / Salty eyebrows, and knees / Brown beneath your shorts: / The whole of life in your fingers.”
Ultimately, for all his shrewd constructions, his enviable ear, it’s the quality of Fuller’s description that most recommends him. The book glitters with memorable phrase-making and seemingly effortless coinages, images at once surprising and inevitable, casting their light back and forth within the atmosphere of frail mortality and ebullient living: a grandfather clock is a “coffin for time,” parents in rain ponchos are “[u]pright as bears in holiday attire,” remembered fathers are “spruce acrobats” or “tender-hearted dandies.” “Art is life perfected,” he writes in “Keeper of the Fire,” and both elements are as important as each other here, the art and the life, twin streams creating well-made objects thick with marrow, earning the poet access to both the “tradesman’s entrance” and that flame of learning.
This evident vitality makes the occasional intimation of infirmity and reckoning up with the inevitable almost shocking. In a further example of the democratizing nature of Fuller’s art he makes mention of poets’ “deaths as men,” and the most affecting of the hints at life being a game in its final quarter are, suitably, drawn from the observable, the material: in “Afresh” life is a book on loan, “The flyleaf stamped, but no chance of renewal,” while in the heart-rending “Warnings” time is concertinaed once again — “your mother has at last finished with you,” we’re told, having “sent you out / To your long play in those once endless days.” Death comes, here, almost lovingly, “the final exasperated shout / That will bring you in at last, at bedtime, / Tired out, yes, but reluctant as always.” The tone is far from maudlin, for as Fuller explains in the excellent “Shadows,” “yes, the shadows exist, but then there is light.” This is a book of both light and darkness, the one reliant on the other for clarity and vividness. Fuller’s work, often unsung and — of late — grievously overlooked, is a subtle testament to ordinary life perfected, backlit by an understanding that “the fire of knowledge / Is also the fire that will one day consume us.”