Breaking Margins in Allen Fisher’s SPUTTOR and Rhys Trimble’s Hexerisk

‘I do not believe in things, I believe only in their relationship.’ – Georges Braque

‘It is not things that matter, but the relations between them.’ – E.T. Bell

I was reading Allen Fisher’s essay ‘Breaks Margin’ when his recent poetry book SPUTTOR arrived, so I began reading the book with those ideas in mind. ‘Breaks Margin’ was published in two parts: part as ‘Post-Modernism as Package’ in Poetics Journal 7, Berkley, 1987, and part as a discussion of the work of Harry Thubron and Ulli McCarthy in First Offence 8, Kent, 1993.

In the essay, Fisher questions whether relative and arbitrary are congruent terms, taking dispute with George Steiner’s comment that ‘The relativity, the arbitrariness of all aesthetic propositions, of all value-judgements is inherent in human consciousness and in human speech.’ Fisher argues that aesthetic propositions are not arbitrary, that relativity is in fact a ‘site of non-arbitrariness’.

Arbitrariness for Ferdinand de Saussure means that meaning is not intrinsic but relational. Signs are not essences, but a network of relations. The elements within a system are themselves arbitrary, but their relations are not. A sign is arbitrary if not for its relativity – it’s the relativity that gives it meaning and this is not intrinsic and can be changed.

The link between relativity in linguistics and relativity in physics is identified by Roman Jakobson, beginning with the concept of invariance:

‘The problem of invariance, according to Bell and other mathematicians, became particularly important in the 1870s. Simultaneously, Baudouin de Courtenay arrived at the concept of the phoneme, discovering that to operate scientifically with variations, we must establish the invariants… As we read in the history of mathematics, the full import of invariance was perceived only after the discovery of the principle of relativity, after 1916, with the book of Einstein on the general theory of relativity. The same may be said about linguistics, where precisely in 1916 the posthumous Cours de linguistique generale by Ferdinand de Saussure appeared, defining the basic entities of linguistics as relative and oppositive, and presenting the problem of relativity as fundamental for linguistics.’ (‘Pattern in Linguistics’, in Word and Language)

Invariance refers to elements which are left unchanged by transformation. Relativity shows that what is invariant is not the things in isolation but the relation between them. Linguists, like mathematicians, would identify and study relational invariants from a flux of variables. Topology would become the study of those qualitative properties which are invariant under isomorphic transformations. In Fisher’s essay, isomorphisms are similarities of shape, echoed recurrences: ‘Rather in the way that memory works, perhaps, a piece can be criss-crossed with connections and correspondences’ (Derek Bailey, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music).

Fisher draws on Jan Mukarovsky’s proposition that aesthetic function is dominant in art and that it requires the audience’s engagement to produce it. To this he adds Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s suggestion that ‘The discourse of emancipation was, to a great extent, born within the discourse of aesthetics.’ These patterning processes found in art and emancipation are, as Gregory Bateson suggests, the same patterns of connectedness that constitute consciousness. Fisher proposes that this relational patterning preempts and transforms the arbitrary:

  • ‘practice where the aesthetic function dominates transforms part of the arbitrary into the specifically connected or implicitly repatterned.’
  • ‘Relativity becomes a metaphor for the potential patterning processes that preempt the arbitrary.’

Fisher’s idea that both the aesthetic function and consciousness result from patterns of connectedness is comparable to Roger Penrose’s suggestion that consciousness is the result of the collapse of the quantum wave function, when one particular pattern is chosen out of a multiplicity of superposed potential states.

Penrose offers a suggestion of what these superposed states may be. Following Einstein’s theory of relativity and gravity, where mass is a curvature of space-time, Penrose treats each superposed particle as a minute and evanescent change in the curvature of space-time.

However, Penrose’s model of ‘objective reduction’ (OR) differs from Fisher’s use of ‘decoherence’: OR is ‘self-collapse’, while Fisher’s favoured quantum model, decoherence, is caused by the interaction of the quantum superposition with the macroscopic environment.

In the quantum world, wave function is a superposition of multiple potentialities or realities, and decoherence is the process of collapsing this to a single choice or reality. Fisher’s treatment of decoherence is the opposite: for him, decoherence refers to a confidence in the necessity for a range of choices; it is a state of superposition, which offers multiple potentialities or realities. In the quantum world, in contrast, coherence means multiplicity – the coherent superposition of multiple possibilities – and decoherence is a kind of friction or dissipation which collapses this superposed multiplicity to a particular pattern.

While both objective reduction and decoherence are not induced by human observation or measurement, Fisher retains Heisenberg’s idea of the observer-dependent collapse. For Fisher, patterns of connectedness initiate a process of production in the reader. The wave function collapses as the reader collapses the multiple potential meanings of the text to a particular reading by making connections. Many texts try to limit the number of potential interpretations, but Fisher’s poetry seems to suspend it at the point of collapse, so that the reader becomes aware of their role in the process.

Unstable centres: SPUTTOR

Ideas of intrinsic, fixed properties and meanings are connected to notions of stable centres. In ‘Breaks Margin’, Fisher takes issue with an observation registered (but not endorsed by) Gayatri Spivak: ‘Humankind’s common desire for a stable centre, and for the assurance of mastery – through knowing or possessing’. Fisher says that this generalised aspiration for a stable centre misrepresents the asymmetry of the human form’s proprioceptors and organs. In Sputtor, he takes this stable centre as a space to disrupt through the breaking of margins. As Rudolph Arnheim says, ‘The boundary indicates what belongs and what does not…’ (The Power of the Centre). Frame and margin are elements that can be used to produce relational and gravitational force and dynamics.

In visual art, facturing margins and then breaking those margins is a method for creating tensions, lines of force, varying weights and dynamic geometries: objects are partially cut off by the frame, a head crosses an inner border, an arm leans over another.

In a poem, the page is a field framed by its edge. Stable centres and idealised margins can be employed in order to display their breakage. Various methods can be used to stabilise meaning and make it appear more or less fixed and intrinsic: punctuation, stanzas, line lengths, consistencies of font and presentation. These offer a potential for exactness, and opportunities to resist it.

In Sputtor, Fisher plays with ideas of centre and margin using techniques similar to those of visual artist Harry Thubron whose work is described in ‘Breaks Margin’. In fact, the layout of some of pages of Sputtor, particularly in the images of stacked housing and shed doors, remind me of Thubron paintings.

thubron fisher

Like Thubron’s paintings, Sputtor uses collage to investigate the gravitational forces of the page, heightening our proprioceptive sense of weight in the reading experience as lines leap across tears and gaps and launch across page edges. Like Thubron’s layering of various papers, cardboard, wood, fabric and other found materials to create an asymmetrical dynamic within the frame of the work, Sputtor juxtaposes and overlays strips and blocks of text and image, combining cut and torn edges, as textured planes that break and interrupt the margins of the page.

Fisher takes a found text, Andrew Wilson’s Space Shuttle Story (1986), and uses it as a scrapbook, physically pasting papers into the book. He works with the grid page layout of the shuttle book as a stable centre in which to improvise, while the ‘Human Poems’ that are pasted into the book make use of the sonnet form. There is no more stable centre in English poetry than the sonnet form and Fisher’s improvisations and transformations of the 14-line shape here are nothing less than a sonnet sequence for the human species at the end of the anthropocene.

Both page grid and sonnet form act as idealised margins which Fisher disrupts in a variety of ways to explore the gravitational forces of the page. Minimal punctuation (often none at all) and syntactical glitches encourage the reader to read across breaks, leaps across page tears, enjambments across stanza breaks. Phrases bleed into one another not bounded by punctuation. Lines break page margins encroaching onto next page. Font size squeezes and stretches to fit the page and sonnet shape. In ‘Human Conditions’, for example, the sonnet is interrupted by a strip of text from the Shuttle Story beneath. The page is cut on an enjambed line-break: ‘a long range reaction that acts / as personal enhancement in a long scream’. In the gap between stanzas we see a fragment of The Space Shuttle Story beneath: ‘black of space, and the pilot could see the curvature of the Earth and experience a few seconds of weightlessness’. This aptly evokes the proprioceptive effect for the reader as the leap across the gap induces a feeling of weightlessness. This is given ethical force later on by quotations from Mayer Hillman’s How We Can Save the Planet about ‘weightless’ forms of economic activity, which place no burden on the environment. It emphasises what Fisher says in ‘Breaks Margin’ about aesthetics being linked to emancipation and art being for survival, combating entropy through the initiation of patterning processes in the reader.

The sonnet form, such a recognisable structure, allows such breakages of the stable form to be more visible. We read the detached fragments of text as stanzas. We can see where a poem has been broken across pages, as in ‘Human Health’, where the octave discusses the evolution of perception in chreods (the sixth and seventh lines of the stanza printed on a separate strip of paper which cuts across the page) before leaping across to the opposite page for the sestet, which begins with a quatrain on the disposal of nuclear waste then jumps back in time in the couplet to prehistoric use of stone to scrape flesh from animals. On the subsequent double-page spread, elements of the same poem are repeated, but this time pushed to the margins at the bottom left and top right, with the majority of the rest of the page-spread taken up by a handwritten note on lined paper. This isomorphic transformation draws attention to the relational properties of the poem, the shifts in significance as centre becomes margin.

The leaps in context in ‘Human Health’ demonstrate how Sputtor takes place over vast stretches of time and enormous distances in space, from the cosmic to the subatomic over periods of millions of years. One text fragment clipped from Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men describes the approach: ‘Clearly we cannot walk at leisure through such a tract… We must fly… [but] we must also punctuate our flight with many descents.’ Fragments from this 1930s book throughout the text have the haunting effect of commenting on our present situation from an imagined future written in the past. The Stapledon quotation accurately captures the poetry’s disorientating zooms from an intricate pedestrian perspective to the wider horizons.

Fisher transforms dry textbook fragments into lyric moments. They are re-narrated as if the poet is observing and experiencing these things and use of first person plural and second person pronouns encourages an identification of perspective in the reader. Transposition of formal theoretical prose into the page-arrangements, stanza-shapes and line breaks associated with poetry is an isomorphism that reveals the relational variants and invariants of the text in the change of context. Reading these poems heightens the awareness of the body, the organs and proprioceptors, the environment, the cosmos and the subatomic, and the social and ethical issues in play – the complexity of living in the world – while the reading experience itself heightens awareness of gravitational pull of the page and at times jolts us to encourage proprioceptive orientation.

Further isomorphic transformations occur at times in the sonnet sequence when Fisher makes use of his system of rhyming transformations familiar from the Gravity as a consequence of shape project. For example, in ‘Human Anticipation’, the first three lines rhyme with lines 6-8 and lines 4-5 rhyme with 9-10. This also occurs between poems, as in the rhyming of the line ‘moulding into the hassle of a ham string Didley saffron’ in ‘Human Enterprise’ with the line ‘holding onto the tassel in an Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire’ in ‘Human Substance’. The rhyming phonemes are relational invariants in the poem’s flux of variables, criss-crossing connections between different sections of the book.

These textual isomorphisms are paralleled by correspondences of shape in the images used in the collages: on page 33 rocket tanks are placed next to images of insect larvae evoking similarities in shape, and on pages 26-7, rocket engines and thrusters are juxtaposed with images of bells, also echoed at another level in the text extract from Walter Benjamin quoting a passage of Baudelaire about bells. The horizontal lines of the poems rhyme with repeated images of venetian blinds. On page 14, above the found heading ‘The Shuttle Takes Shape’, the ideal shape of the shuttle is echoed in the rough folds of a crumpled page of memopad. The accompanying text on the subsequent page quotes Galileo seemingly describing the poetry’s horizontal motion compounded by accelerated vertical motion as the reading takes flight, lifting from the syntagmatic plane to the paradigmatic through a series of transformations.

Tears as paths: Hexerisk

Fisher’s aesthetic of breaking margins, exemplified in his practice in Sputtor, chimes for me with the energetic messiness of Rhys Trimble’s work, which I’ve been reading at the same time. In Trimble’s Hexerisk, six sheep tracks in a Bethesda field are isomorphic with the six sections of the book. Future polis overlaid on farm tracks: animal path and ley corridor autobahn.

In a blurb on his website, Trimble writes, ‘Hexerisk is about a six-point star-shaped intersection in the middle of the village I live in. The area is a filled-in slate mining quarry pit which is unsafe for building, and so allowed to remain a green area. Its criss-crossed crudely cut paths create a number of star-shaped intersections. One night I found myself looking up at the full moon standing directly on the point where six paths intersected. The sequences are based around a numerological topological concept of 3 major and 3 minor paths.’

The mystical relevance of the six paths (or three paths) recalls the sacred geometry of Alfred Watkins and Guy Underwood, drawn upon in Fisher’s early work, particularly Place. Situating himself at the centre of the star shape beneath the full moon, Trimble acts as a vertical conductor rod, tapping into a belief system, a lunar effect, invoking a connection with the natural world, as he did in Mynydd when he spent the night on the summit of Cadair Idris, an activity traditionally believed to induce either madness or a knack for poetry. The moon is also associated with madness, physical and psychological transformations.

In a text message to me he writes, ‘there are sort of arguments running through those sequences. Resurrection men is welsh wales stuff and the anti tesco one vaguely marxian. The smaller cut-ups are meant to complement the open field bits! Also 6-star metaphor for the whole macro-sequence.’

I look at a Bethesda satellite map on Google and you can see the six tracks cutting across the field and intersecting in a star-shape.


The town stretches and splays eastward and northward of the A5 (High Street) the main road winding from the A470 at Betws-y-Coed to Bangor. In the middle of the town there is a filled-in slate mining quarry declared unfit for building and allowed to remain a green area. Follow the path east across the hillside from the top of Bryntirion towards Cefnfaes Street. You will find the hexerisk to the left of the path where three crudely cut tracks intersect in the shape of a six-sided asterisk.

The word ‘asterisk’ comes from the Greek word ‘asteriskos’, a diminutive of ‘aster’, meaning small star. The suffix ‘iskos’ relates to the English ‘-ish’ (from the Old English ‘-isc’). Hex means six, so hexerisk might meaning little six, or little sixer. Or maybe, hex deriving from the German for hag or witch, a little hexer is a spell caster. Join the asterisk’s opposing tips and you get a Seal of Solomon, the occult six-star, two intersecting triangles, used to symbolise the hermetic principle of correspondence, ‘as above so below’, as described in the grimoire of spells known as the Key of Solomon. These idealised geometries are stabilising structures, like the sonnet form in Sputtor, used to give the text form as six sections, but within these stable centres Trimble improvises to destabilise any sense of ideal margins.

The asterisk is one of the various soundless typographical symbols Trimble dots his pages with (even back in ‘afanc’ in his first published collection, Keinc). In Swansea Automatic, a book published, and perhaps written, roughly alongside Hexerisk, Trimble discusses the uses of the asterisk.

‘now I know what star is for…

*=not recording

*=not writing

*   *   *

=sexual encounter

(tastefully elided)’

Asterisks denote gaps, jumps, breaks. Hexerisk’s book cover illustrates this with an overhead image of Bethesda torn into six pieces along the lines of the six paths. The torn edges evoking the ragged margins of the poems: if the six-shape is a stabilising structure, it is a rough, ragged stability. The paths for Trimble are tears; as connections, they are also fissures. As well as denoting habitual activities, they are unofficial routes cut into the land: shortcuts across fields, making unsanctioned connections between Bryntirion and Gray Street, Pantdreinog Industrial Estate and Cefnfaes Street.

The tracks work as metaphors for the intersection of thought-processes in the poems. As in Skine, the notebook is used as a form and structure, a stabilising containing device in which words and phrases are gathered from various places and times, as Trimble’s journeying from place to place creates a set of paths, overlapping trains of thought. Field-tracks document durational performances – Richard Long walking back and forth in a straight line in a field in 1967 – recording a passage of time in space. Hexerisk scores a relational action for the reader in inviting us to trace these thought-tracks like tears through the map. In our patterning activity, we make tracks through the poem like feet wear paths into the field: walking as damage.

The prose cut-ups work as lenses through which to read the open field sections. They suggest routes, though there are no definite links. These lenses provide another stabilising structure, and they are supplemented, as in Sputtor, by a bibliography offering secondary reading as maps for the reader to use if they wish in their navigation of the text. The open field presentation of the poems leaves the reader to make patterns of connection and suspends the wave-function collapse in a diffuse word-cloud to allow for multiple interpretations. Each line is a miniature vocab-cluster, a cryptic notebook shorthand. You need a few good dictionaries, or a search engine, to navigate the text, with words such as protasis, roşie, albastro, perochiate, epitasis. A Welsh dictionary is also handy. And some words I couldn’t find anywhere – presumably Trimble’s own neologisms: radikalenerlass, dest, sussur, vrest-uh. Looking up the words sends the reader on a trail, a dérive of denotation.

Camilla Nelson comments that in these poems ‘You can’t find a language to stand up in steadily’. A proprioceptive, gravitational connection is felt here between language and standing. This feeling of being flattened by the planet’s gravity could equally be described as weightlessness. Relativity equates inertial motion with free-fall: staying still we are falling through the universe, an effect described in Fisher’s ‘Human Cosmos’ poem in Sputtor – what is stationary is relative to the observer. Nelson goes on to comment, ‘once words may have meant something simple, something more akin to the apparently smooth surface of the page, a table top or something that had some clear sense of direction like a flight of stairs.’ The page’s stable centre is the smooth surface of a table; the text’s is the linear syntactic directions of a staircase – but such stabilities are refused in Hexerisk. Asyntactic, paratactic juxtaposition of words highlights their relational potentials.

The opening poem, ‘Redizblue’, condemns Labour and Tory as the same thing (‘same old / blueprint redprint’), comparing them to the graphical displays (red-blue plots) used to study and measure population density – a perhaps homogenising mapping that is challenged in the heterogeneous spatial patterning of Trimble’s text. In the corresponding cut-up prose, ‘Tesco Ovipositor’, it is the red and blue of the Tesco logo, against which Trimble enacts an act of occult resistance by reversing it to the hex ‘ocset’, an echo of redrum/murder. Combining vocabularies of commerce and biology, Tesco becomes an ovipositor, an organ for laying eggs. In a surreal juxtapositional method akin to Fisher’s visual collaging of rocket tanks with insect larvae, the supermarket chain becomes a fused hybrid creature (‘we two … & we like parts’), itself composed of segments like the collage text. Through relational play between juxtaposed vocabularies, body and finance merge, progeneration and economic growth, natural forms with commerce, to create an insect capital, laying its red-blue homogenising clusters across the socio-political map.

‘Blacklittle taffBodies’ traces the etymological evolution of the surname Cumberbatch (cymru bach – little Wales), commenting on how a name attempts to maintain a stable sense of belonging at a time when boundaries are being redrawn. The identity rooted in placenames is juxtaposed with references to ‘Resurrection Men’: graverobbers and body-snatchers. Corpses stolen for medical experiments become analogous to the excavated etymologies of Trimble’s frankenstein neologisms. Words glitch and flicker as other words and fragments of words burst out of their middles: fAcialellow, signifWaicance, inhabzophitants, immediitionallately, redrawnyddon, demonstrablyaidd. The poem critiques the disproportionate use of illegally exhumed African-American bodies in nineteenth-century medical research, implicitly comparing it to the tracing of isomorphic invariants through etymological chains to regain some imagined original, stable form, yet finding only a relational flux of language particles, transitional forms, plurilingual mutations midway between English, Welsh and other languages.

Sputtor and Hexerisk demonstrate the varied ways in which poetry, where the aesthetic function dominates, transforms the arbitrary into the connected. Fisher’s and Trimble’s aesthetic propositions are not, as Steiner might suggest, arbitrary. Their aesthetic challenges to cultural norms are not an arbitrary choice. Their aesthetic practice challenges and counters the arbitrary by inciting the reader to make patterns and connections. Their decision to embrace this relativity is not arbitrary – it is not interchangeable with a non-relative approach – because it is a resistance to notions of intrinsic value and stable centre. They show that aesthetics and consciousness are patterns of connectedness, structures for ethical, moral and social understanding, which change and can be changed, through the renewing capacity of patterning.


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  1. * allenfisher1 says:

    Dear Steve,

    First, thank you for the Z book which works out really well. Second, thank you for the Breaking Margins article,

    Am in transit and back on Sunday. Meanwhile thank you for the really engaged work. I will look at this again soon. Meanwhile, have a great seasonal time and new year.

    Best wishes, Allen

    Allen Fisher Sent from my iPad


    Posted 1 year, 8 months ago

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