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Is Something Taking Place in the Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda by John Fuller?

Quelque chose a-t-il lieu dans Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda de John Fuller ?
Aurélien Saby


Cet article étudie ce qui a lieu dans la séquence de sonnets Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda (2013) composée par le poète britannique John Fuller. Se passe-t-il vraiment quelque chose dans ces poèmes ? Si oui, où, et comment ? Cette suite de sonnets propose d’étranges scènes dans lesquelles des événements apparemment anodins remettent en question la stabilité des repères tout en suggérant une trame plus profonde qui se déploie ailleurs et échappe au poète. Chaque action émane d’une tension entre le connu et l’inconnu, le visible et l’invisible, le monde humain et la nature ou la matière, invitant le lecteur à explorer les mystères de la transformation et de la métamorphose. Ces esquisses sont des œuvres en cours de réalisation laissant entrevoir un monde uni sous-tendu par de multiples liens et réseaux venant contrer toute menace latente de dispersion et désintégration.

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Texte intégral

But all the time, invisible from there
And greater than populated hills can be,
They waited to be seen, in their own air,
Unvisited, too high to please a tree.

  • 1 Henceforth, we shall use GMS as an abbreviation for Gravel in My Shoe.
  • 2 I am grateful to John Fuller for sending this information to me in an e-mail dated 12th September, (...)

1The Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda were first published in a limited edition in 2013 and later integrated as the final section of Gravel in My Shoe (2015).1 They are composed of forty-two sonnets depicting Andalusia from the viewpoint of John and Prue Fuller, a British couple in their mid-seventies who spent three consecutive years travelling in Spain during the summer (from 2010 to 2012) and ended up in a rented villa in the tiny hamlet of Daimalos near Velez Malaga.2 No matter how long the sonnet sequence might seem, the reader is first struck by the fact that nothing important is happening in the scenes or moments captured. And yet, something does actually take place in these poems, but not where we might expect action to take place.

2Just like the mountains in sonnet 17, each sketch is “wait[ing] to be seen, in their own air, / Unvisited” (“Mountains”, ll. 7-8, GMS 87) and to be unravelled like a riddle. Fuller has always given prominence to enigmas by claiming that “poetry is a form of writing that deliberately employs puzzles as a means of engaging the reader in the pleasurable business of solving them” (Fuller 2013b, vii); and the Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda challenge the stereotypes of tourist literature (be they travel guides or narratives) first and foremost by offering uncanny scenes in the sense of Freud’s unheimlich thus summarized by Julia Kristeva:

Freud wanted to demonstrate at the outset, on the basis of a semantic study of the German adjective heimlich and its antonym unheimlich, that a negative meaning close to that of the antonym is already tied to the positive term heimlich, “friendly comfortable,” which would also signify “concealed, kept from sight,” “deceitful and malicious,” “behind someone’s back.” Thus, in the very word heimlich, the familiar and intimate are reversed into their opposites, brought together with the contrary meaning of “uncanny strangeness” harbored in unheimlich. Such an immanence of the strange within the familiar is considered as an etymological proof of the psychoanalytic hypothesis according to which the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar, which, as far as Freud was concerned, was confirmed by Schelling who said that “everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret but has come to light”. (Kristeva 182-183)

3Fuller’s sonnets often depart from the familiar to produce strange visions undermining stable bearings through imagery belittling man’s place in the world. They suggest that something is taking place in the ongoing strain between heimlich and unheimlich.

4One might contend that in these sketches things occur in the deep, unfathomable interplay between the visible and the invisible, through a system of underlying networks that evidences a work in continual progress and expansion. This article therefore aims at highlighting events concealed behind the ordinary activities depicted in the foreground of the texts. How does the poet’s fascination with stillness make writing happen? Isn’t the way he engages his reader in exploring mysteries and blank spaces left on the surface of the canvases an event in itself? Important events in Fuller’s sonnets originate from various forms of tension, particularly between the human world and the ungraspable worlds of nature, matter and things. The more the poet examines processes of transformation – whether it be the ripening of fruit or the metamorphosis of objects –, the more they escape from him. But such tension also generates new forms and new verse. It allows the reader to sometimes glimpse other worlds that complete themselves elsewhere. Elaborate word combinations and associations coupled with inner echoes and networks reinforcing the unity of the whole sequence make up for the sense of loss. Not only are such connections what is most fundamentally at issue in Fuller’s sonnets, but they also cause the artwork to happen, in particular through continuous interaction between the poems and the reader, thereby erecting verbal walls placing the threat of dispersal and scattering at a distance.

Insignificant events? Stillness and Siesta

5The events mentioned in the sonnet sequence span over the course of a single day, from the early morning when the speaker wakes up (sonnet 1, GMS 79) until the couple falls asleep and starts dreaming (sonnet 38, GMS 98). The present tense chosen in most of the poems introduces us in medias res into the retired holiday makers’ daily routine which seems all the quieter as their activities mainly consist in observing local workers and scenery, natural elements like cobwebs, insects or birds (79-80, 93, 94, 95), in eating (82, 85, 95, 96) and sleeping (93, 97). “Siesta” (93), the sonnet dedicated to napping, epitomises the paradoxes involved in writing about inactivity. Any writer faces a major challenge whenever they tackle the subject of stillness, especially if they do so in the very first lines of a new work: “In the hot silence of the afternoon / Everything is still” (“Siesta”, ll. 1-2). Stasis pervades the Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda through 25 occurrences of the words “stillness” and “still” (80, 81, 82 x2, 84, 85, 89 x7, 90 x4, 92 x2, 93, 94, 96 x2, 98 and 99), although the main argument put forward in the poem entitled “Stillness” is that such a state is impossible to reach: “Stillness is relative: […] the merest / Pebble sings its implicit past and the / Unlikeliness of ever being still” (89). And the never-ending quest for stillness soon proves both puzzling and fruitful as it discloses unexpected events analysed below.

  • 3 “Basic to the sonnet is simultaneity. Fourteen simultaneous lines, strongly indicated as such by in (...)

6But beforehand, one should focus on the form chosen to express stillness, i.e. the sonnet, regarded by Paul Valéry as the epitome of the “stationary poem”: “Le sonnet est fait pour le simultané. Quatorze vers simultanés, et fortement désignés comme tels par l’enchaînement et la conservation des rimes; type et structure d’un poème stationnaire” (Valéry 1957, 676).3 In an article dedicated to the semiotics of the sonnet, Adolphe Haberer stresses the programmatic dimension of this short poetic form containing its own end from the very first line:

  • 4 My translation.

Where do the strength, efficiency and success of the sonnet lie? They are probably partly due to its strictly limited length characterizing it as the best instance of the short poem – “this poem per se – this poem which is a poem and nothing more – this poem written solely for the poem’s sake” (Poe 893) –, the only form indeed deserving to be called a poem according to Poe. I would add that what makes it unique is that one can grasp its limits on the page at once, and that it will be recognized as a sonnet by any well-trained reader through its dense, sharply delineated shape. […] Moreover, when one reads or listens to a sonnet, one will see – or expect – its very end programmed in advance, as early as its opening.4 (Haberer 106-107)

7This is particularly true of the sonnet “Siesta” whose title announces both its subject matter and its ending, when the speaker gives in to sleep: “The mind that goes on struggling […] worries […] for a while, then gives in” (ll. 12-14). This hardly leaves any room for suspense or any noteworthy event. The action observed may even be considered as a non-event since it boils down to the biting of a leaf by a cricket (ll. 4-8), and such examples are numerous throughout the whole sequence. The poetics of stillness ironically implies renewed effort on the poet’s part to lure us into a mood of summer idleness, otium, siesta; so that writing about stillness eventually imposes itself as a daring act, a tour de force indeed. Stillness makes complex writing happen.

  • 5 “John Walsh meets… John Fuller”, The Independent, Saturday 12 October 1996.

8Although Fuller has long been praised as one of the most technically accomplished British contemporary poets, he maintains that the internal machinery of a poem is not what matters: “I think a lot of the things I do luckily don’t get noticed, and I’m glad. […] A poem should be just a thing you read and it should work on you. You shouldn’t be able to see the machinery.”5 Some readers may not be aware of the complex structure of “Siesta” whose rigorous rhyme scheme (ababcbcb efgefg) coupled with numerous internal rhymes (for examples in [iŋ], [ain] or [ʃ(ə)n]), assonances (more than thirty [i] sounds; five [i:] sounds and more than ten [ai] sounds) and consonances in plosives, bilabials and sibilants turn the sonnet into what Dylan Thomas calls “a formally watertight compartment of words” (Thomas 8). While strengthening the sense of stasis, these tight verbal networks contribute to foreclosing the poem as a small world ruled by its own laws. They “work on the reader” who is soon absorbed by visions and sounds that ease an identification with the speaker, himself mesmerized by the repetitive enthralling activity of the cricket “Biting in circular bites with plated cheeks” (l. 6). So much so that the concealed cogs of the poem have us almost overhear the creaks of the insect; or at least this is what the poet makes us believe through the clever ploy of apostrophe: “Listen: you can almost hear the creaks” (l. 8). Trivial as the event shown in “Siesta” may sound, one can thus argue that in this instance the crux of the “happening” matter does not lie in the narrative plot. It has been displaced elsewhere, in the interplay between the text and the reader, so that something sonorous subsequently happens in the reader’s mind.

9Another paradox in “Siesta” is that however tight the “compartment of words”, its walls are cracked and the leaks open a breach towards unheard-of worlds. On this point, it is meaningful to underline that “Siesta” is an Italian sonnet, characterized by “the unequal relationship between octave and sestet” (Fuller 1972, 2):

In fact, the [Italian] sonnet’s origins support the idea that the bipartite form is the result of a prosodic sleight-of-hand. The eight lines of closed rhyme produce a certain kind of musical pace which demands repetition. Any expectation of stanzaic continuation is, however, violated by the six lines of interlaced rhyme which follow: the sestet is more tightly organized, and briefer, than the octave and so urges the sonnet to a decisive conclusion. (Fuller 1972, 3)

10In “Siesta”, the bipartite structure is one of observation and conclusion, and the blank space between octave and sestet leaves room for a meditative break. It allows the reader to better imagine the smells (“The jasmine reeks”, l. 2) and visualize the formal beauty of the scene (“Soon / You notice a slight stir. A cricket seeks / A firmer hold upon the leaf it grips”, ll. 3-5) while releasing the tension of such a poise heightened by enjambments and a number of monosyllables. Any entomologist – or child, for that matter – will be fascinated by so much natural grace teaching mankind a lesson in humility while reminding us of the multitude of events that escape our control:

You faintly understand behind such things
The outline of a notion drawn so fine
It has no boundary with the world it moves in. (“Siesta”, ll 9-11)

These lines chime with the poet’s father’s later work about garden wildlife and immanence, exemplified by the description of the ladybird in “Notebook”:

A seven-spotted ladybird
Toddles across the sheet
To which I feel I can’t add a word.
Then opening like some cute
Trinket by Fabergé,
It flies with angelic suddenness away. (“Notebook”, ll. 1-6, Roy Fuller 456)

11Neil Powell’s comment on Roy Fuller’s verse could equally throw light on “Siesta”: “Fuller is not merely saying that the observable world of suburban wildlife is enough; he is saying, far more ambitiously, that it possesses consummate qualities which are quite beyond us” (Powell 262). Following Thomas Hardy, both poets investigate the transcendent potentiality of the simple natural scenes they are beholding, like four insects landing on a page:

  • 6 Italics mine.

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
– My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
‘God’s humblest, they!’ I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.6 (“An August Midnight”, ll. 7-12, Hardy 147)

12We can sense through such lines that something “quite beyond us” is happening. Other natural worlds – and works – , which the poem can only hint at, are in progress elsewhere. And when faced with immensity, and so with his own limits, the speaker would rather self-deridingly recommend wine and a nap, ending the sonnet on a note of comic relief:

The mind that goes on struggling with it brings
Up reinforcements in a glass of wine,
Worries about it for a while, then gives in. (“Siesta”, ll. 12-14)

13The insignificant act of falling asleep is here preceded by tension and anxiety (“struggling”, “worries”), and it makes the poem move forward to its own end. However, the final event is a false ending – a failure of sorts: “then gives in” –, a loophole heralding new action elsewhere (“gives in” connects to another “world it moves in” through the rhyme), in dreams or unheimlich scenes.

Departing from the Familiar

14A number of poems draw on tourist literature – tourist guides or local ads – while keeping the stereotypes of local customs at bay, leaving the reader unsettled. For instance, the description of the troglodytes in “Villages” (GMS 80-81) departs from conventional postcard-like pictures through a gothic imagery attaching darkness to mysterious plots reminiscent of The Monk by Lewis or The Castle of Otranto by Walpole:

And there’s a horizontal village where
The darkness goes on being unforgiving
To rich deposits in the vaulted graves
Where all accounts are closed. (“Villages”, ll. 9-12)

15The polysemy of “accounts” induces frustration in the readers who will never know what happened in those houses bearing a likeness to the medieval monastery in Fuller’s neo-gothic novella Flying to Nowhere. This tale begins with the arrival of church agent Vane on a remote Welsh island where he is to investigate the disappearance of pilgrims whose stories / “accounts” will stay “closed” forever as the detective himself dies before finding out what is actually taking place in this obscure labyrinthine world of cryptic vaulted staircases and conduits. Strangely enough, the local Abbot himself is embarked on an absurd quest for the location of the soul, testifying that what matters to Fuller is not so much to unravel enigmas but to raise thought-provoking questions likely to undermine our certainties:

The Abbot had slept on his right arm, and the pain of its numbness was what had awoken him. Turning carefully, he moved the dead arm with his left hand from under his body, laid it on his chest and slowly massaged the life back into it. What, he reflected, if life could be similarly given back to a dead body?

What indeed was life? It was not the body, even though the body itself were preserved indefinitely. It was not motion, for motion could be suspended. Was it, after all, simply the spirit, whose location his long researches were designed to establish? (Fuller 1983, 37-38)

16So, the neo-gothic setting in both “Villages” and Flying to Nowhere merely acts as an elaborate foil to the poet’s pondering over what happens when one dies and over the inscrutable difference between life and death. And the unattainable “rich deposits” keep on fuelling literary creativity by spawning most improbable forms, whether it be an Andalusian sonnet permeated by a Welsh neo-medieval atmosphere or a humorous contemporary gothic philosophical tale.

17Similarly, the sonnet entitled “Almonds” (GMS 82) is bewildering and unpredictable. It first reads as the pastiche of a local recipe translated from Spanish for lovers of good food:

[…] When it is
Whipped up with garlic, bread and oil it serves
ajoblanco, soup of the villages. (“Almonds”, ll. 6-8)

18Nevertheless, the octave is not followed by the expected tasting of the gourmet soup. By contrast, the sestet focuses on the almond leavings after the harvest:

Yesterday’s leavings lie there, everything
Crunching underfoot. Though quieter than
The almond huskers starting their machine. (“Almonds”, ll. 12-14)

  • 7 W.H. Auden is one of John Fuller’s mentors.

19The celebration of earthly delights is brutally thwarted by the overbearing presence of death imposing itself under the form of a contemporary vanitas with a close-up on the broken shells of the almonds, in keeping with W.H. Auden’s principle of poetic disintoxication:7 “poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate” (Auden 27). The striking dynamics of disenchantment at work in “Almonds” might also echo some poems by Francis Ponge, and it is worth drawing a parallel between Fuller’s sonnet and the incipit of “L’ Orange” to illustrate this point:

Comme dans l’éponge il y a dans l’orange une aspiration à reprendre contenance après avoir subi l’épreuve de l’expression. Mais où l’éponge réussit toujours, l’orange jamais : car ses cellules ont éclaté, ses tissus se sont déchirés. Tandis que l’écorce seule se rétablit mollement dans sa forme grâce à son élasticité, un liquide d’ambre s’est répandu, accompagné de rafraîchissement, de parfums suaves, certes – mais souvent aussi de la conscience amère d’une expulsion prématurée de pépins.

  • 8 Like the sponge the orange wishes to regain its shape after it has endured expression. But where t (...)

Faut-il prendre parti entre ces deux manières de mal supporter l’oppression?8 (Ponge 1942, 41)

20Both Ponge’s and Fuller’s texts are based on tensions between the delicious liquids extracted from the two fruits (“un liquide d’ambre s’est répandu…”; “like the grape and olive it deserves / Perfection as a liquid”, ll. 5-6) and the extreme pain and violence (“ses cellules ont éclaté, ses tissus se sont déchirés”; “everything / Crunching underfoot”, ll. 12-13) involved in such productions. They spotlight man’s “oppression” over things, especially through modern technology (“The almond huskers starting their machine”, l. 14). These poems are evocative of ruined battlefields, with “[y]esterday’s leavings l[ying] there”, as though Fuller, like Ponge, were trying to “speak things” – and not simply to “speak about things” – in order to enter their intimacy, as Jean-Charles Gateau notes in his comments on Le Parti pris des choses:

  • 9 My translation.

“To speak things”, Ponge says, and not “to speak about things.” This new phrase testifies to the poet’s decision to break with scientists’ objective approaches making a clear distinction between the observer and the thing observed and evidences his wish to circumvent and get into the intimacy of things, to such an extent that this intimacy becomes speakable. Things want to be spoken, they want to be said by man; they do not want to be appended to the half-blind familiarity occasioned by our anthropocentric routine and predatory consumption […]. They want to be said for themselves, not only as alien to us, but also as related to us, if I may say. Just like us, they are composed of atom and molecule combinations, and just like us the vast majority of them are living and likely to suffer; and like us, they belong to the cosmos and are subject to its fate.9 (Gateau 56-57)

21Poems like “L’Orange” or “Almonds” bring us closer to the world of matter and encourage connections – and identification – to take place between us and fruit. After all, doesn’t each and every human being “function both / As seed and fruit, and live in its own skin” (ll. 3-4)? And doesn’t the almond – “the promise of its growth” (l. 1) – powerfully mirror the process of human and artistic creation?

22The sonnets from the Sketches staging more concrete action, like an outing in the countryside, also turn away from tourist stereotypes. For example, the seventeenth one relates an eerie jaunt in the mountains:

The mountains seemed to rise behind us when
We turned to look. Down in the valley we
Had only seen the nearby hills, and then
The sky above them. Nothing else to see.
But all the time, invisible from there
And greater than populated hills can be,
They waited to be seen, in their own air,
Unvisited, too high to please a tree. (“Mountains”, ll. 1-8)

23This scenery is fraught with tension as doubt (“the mountains seemed”) shatters all stable spatial landmarks. Moreover, the looming mountains foreshadow something – possibly scary – about to happen. Seen from below, the mountains appear overpowering and they seem to belittle the characters. The verse verges on the sublime through distant echoes evoking, among other romantic poems, Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”:

Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears, – still, snowy, and serene –
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between […]. (Shelley 121)

24The mountains are unidentified in Fuller’s stanza, thus questioning the sense of place while prompting several possible scenarios: could this be an expedition in the Alps, a tale of adventure in the Himalayas, or a simple tour of the Sierra Nevada? The sudden appearance first implies that other worlds may exist beyond our range of vision (“invisible from there”), but also that something may be taking place in those inaccessible unvisited lands. In addition, the hide-and-seek game between the visible and the invisible resulting from antinomies and praeterition – enhanced by inner echoes (“Nothing else to see” / “waited to be seen”) and by the conjunction “but” – increases the suspense. There ensures a progressive movement from sight to vision whereby the unseen enlarges the space of the poem while continually stirring the reader’s imagination:

  • 10 My translation.

The unrepresentable is precisely what attracts Western poets towards the horizon; as though a lot of them paid less attention to the landscape around them than to the distance calling them towards some invisible and inaccessible place elsewhere. The poet-seer is less interested in what the landscape gives him to see than in what it allows him to make out or imagine. And the horizon is the precise threshold making him move on from sight to vision.10 (Collot 98)

25Unlike sight, vision comes along with blank spaces (brought to the limelight by markers of negation in Fuller’s lines: “nothing”, “invisible”, “unvisited”) which open up the horizon of the landscape, confirming that what happens in the Sketches is all too often hidden, unseen or latent. Sketches cannot reflect a totality complete in itself. They only suggest worlds and works in progress, transforming and completing themselves elsewhere, beyond the artist’s reach.

About transformation

26One may claim that transformation – invisible transformation – is one of the most important events taking place the Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda. Not only does the dexterous speaker often adopt a naturalist’s, biologist’s, or even star chef’s stance when he examines, for instance, the maturation of fruit like limes – from their creation, “Dating from 1895, and grown / By John T. Bearss of California” (“Limes”, ll. 7-8, GMS 84), till they are “[r]eady to melt into a marmalade” (“Limes”, l. 14) thus reviving warm childhood memories –, but he also explores the creative potential of such evolutions. In this respect, the sonnet sequence invites us to delve further into the remarkable metamorphosis of grapes from the vine (“The vine stirs in the morning air”, “Threads”, l. 1, GMS 79) to the fruit (“Grapes”, 83), the “Grape Beds” (86), the “wine that babbles of the fruit it comes from” (“Toasts”, 95) and the awaited intoxication: “Sweet wine, come! Sweet sweet wine, come quick!” (“Terrace”, 96). This enduring presence of grapes adds a chronological dimension to the whole sequence through what might be called a natural narrative. The cycles of nature are partly reflected in the recurring patterns characterizing the series itself, notably since several poems about the growth and consumption of fruit share the same regular rhyme scheme (ababcdcd efgefg in “Threads”, 79-80; “Almonds”, 82; “Grapes”, 83; “Fruit”, 83; “Lemons”, 84; “Limes”, 84; “Fig”, 85; “Chords”, 86; “Grape Beds”, 86; “Siesta”, 93; “Toasts”, 95; “Terrace”, 96 or even “Dreams”, 98). Some even have a few rhymes in common (particularly in [iŋ], [in], [i:n], [il], [ain], [it], [ait] or [ʃ(ə)n]) conveying a sense of formal cyclical harmony to the entire structure. Besides, like any fruit being “the promise of its growth” (GMS 82), some sonnets seem to be growing into the next ones, specially thanks to words first appearing isolated in one poem, before being progressively integrated into verbal clusters in the next texts, as is the case with “olives” (82), “almonds” (82) and “grapes” (83) resurfacing in “Fruit” (83) whose first lines translate a deep sense of communion:

The Almond and the Olive and the Grape
Began a colloquy upon belief,
Sharing as they do a swelling shape […]. (“Fruit”, ll. 1-3)

27Isn’t the progress of the sequence itself analogous to the “swelling shape” of the fruit, the first sonnet being easily comparable to a seed that will develop into a larger whole composed of forty-two inter-connected and interdependent units?

28In the Sketches, the process of natural transformation is prolonged in poiesis, nature and its yearly routine becoming the poet’s new muse:

Year after year this metamorphosis
Of fruit into a future that you pour –
And yet that future’s brief as the season’s song
That celebrates it, and its lodging is
A crude two-litre plastic bottle, for
Although a miracle, it won’t last long. (“Grapes”, ll. 9-14, 83)

29Fuller’s views on change corroborate Lucretius’s in On the Nature of Things in many regards:

Death does not destroy things so completely that it annihilates the constituent elements: it merely dissolves their union. Then it joins them in fresh combinations and so causes all things to alter their forms and change their colors, to acquire sensation and resign it in an instant. It all goes to show that it is important in what groupings and positions the same primary elements are combined, and what motions they reciprocally impart and receive. (Lucretius 60)

30In the Sketches, the constituent elements of grapes are dissolved and distilled into wine. Their forms and colour are recomposed into new liquid shapes that “acquire sensation and resign it in an instant”: “for / Although a miracle, it won’t last long”. Furthermore, the fresh combinations inspire new groupings of words and sounds in the verse, while synaesthesia blurs the boundaries between the abstract and the concrete, time and matter, through “this metamorphosis / Of fruit into a future that you pour”. Of course, these phenomena are repeated “[y]ear after year”, but each new form yielded is nonetheless unique, and ever-changing according to the limitless random possible associations held within each thing born. Such a conception of natural phenomena is borne out by modern science: “nothing is lost, everything is transformed” (Lavoisier). And this is “a miracle” indeed, exalted by the endless resources of the sonnet, undeniably attesting that it is still well “alive and possible” (Fuller 1972, 49) as a contemporary poetic form. The countless combinations point towards a whole that will only be glimpsed, but never fully grasped, recalling that each poem is presented as nothing but a “sketch” preceding a work that will occur and complete itself elsewhere, beyond the frame of the sequence. The notion of totality is in this way both palpable and elusive in the Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda, and this is supported by a Bergsonian approach to time and duration.


31Bergson defines duration as an indivisible continuum:

All real change is an indivisible change. […] Let each of us undertake the experiment, let him give himself the direct vision of a change, of a movement: he will have a feeling of absolute indivisibility. […] The indivisible continuity of change is precisely what constitutes true duration. […] Real duration is what we have always called time, but time perceived as indivisible. That time implies succession I do not deny. But that succession is first presented to our consciousness, like the distinction of a “before” and “after” set side by side, is what I cannot admit. […] I recognize moreover that it is in spatialized time that we ordinarily place ourselves. We have no interest in listening to the uninterrupted humming of life’s depths. And yet, that is where real duration is. Thanks to it, the more or less lengthy changes we witness within us and in the external world take place in a single identical time. (Bergson 121-125)

32In “Grapes”, Fuller first follows the metamorphosis of grapes through successive stages “set side by side” (the vine, the harvest, the distillation, etc.), but a vertical reading of his sonnet linking “metamorphosis” to “lodging” through the rhyme in [iz] (ll. 9 and 12) also suggests that all forms of habitat and dwelling are in constant evolution. Changes – “the more or less lengthy changes we witness within us and in the external world” – are in fact the only constants underpinning and shaping the body of his work. Besides, the rhyme between “song” and “long” triggers a counter-movement running against the passing of time and the threat of immobility. However transient the wine may be (“it won’t last long”), the song / poem it has given rise to will “last long” and be revived on the occasion of each reading or singing, extending the continuum from matter to words and music, for “[l]ife is too short, but poetry’s eternal” (GMS 48).

33Likewise, the flame of the candle burning in sonnet 35 will be rekindled each time the lines are recited (GMS 96):

When the candle dwindles and its cup
Of wax is still, and silvery wings that clapped
Their idiotic way up, down and up
Now fly not up, nor sideways, but are trapped
As if in cloudy amber, darkness comes
Complete at last, with unseen depth and height,
And all their tiny flappings and their hums
Dissolve into the silence of the night.

Flame keeps us alert. It shakes and dips
At exhalations from a speaking face.
But now the candle’s cold. We leave it there
And climb the stairs to sleep, to silent lips
Whose breathing is the sharing of a space,
And through the night a slow exchange of air.

34The moment (“now”) the poet is trying to seize in this poem is embedded in an undividable flow involving the speaker’s commitment before and after the instant occasioning the poem, i.e. the extinction of the candle, a non-event par excellence: “now the candle’s cold. We leave it there”. Yet such a moment cannot be reduced to a single point in time and space. It could actually be anticipated by the stillness of the wax as early as the second line, and despite the pervasive topos of death (“still”, “cold”, “leave”) it also strenuously sparks off movement relayed by consonances in [k] and [l] associating immobility (“candle”, “cold”, l. 11) to action (“climb”, l. 12) in a lively run-on line (ll. 11-12). Moreover, internal echoes (“silence”, l. 8; “silent”, l. 12) and rhymes in [iŋ] (“wings”, l. 2; “flappings”, l. 7; “breathing”, l. 13; “sharing”, l. 13) bridge the events happening before and after the extinction of the candle, conjoining the humming of the silvery wings with the sleepers’ breathing. The -ing marker of continuation forcefully reinforces the sense of spatio-temporal indivisibility. One should also point out that the conversation that had begun in the previous sonnets over wine (“we lift our glasses to the season, / Remembering our passage through our days”, “Toasts”, ll. 9-10, 95; “the occasion seems to require some sort / Of statement”, “Terrace”, ll. 5-6, 96) is continued here through the “exhalations from a speaking face” (l. 10) and “through the night [in] a slow exchange of air” (l. 14). And once the characters are asleep, non-verbal communication outlasts words in the next three sonnets, more particularly in “Sleep” where body language magnifies the tenderness of the scene:

This is the way that sleeping bodies meet
Ankle over shin, wrist over waist,
The knees wearing a second pair of knees. (“Sleep”, ll 1-8, 97)

35There is no forgetting, though, that such a moving reunion originally happened thanks to the burning candle, so that the whole sequence revolving around sonnet 35 sounds like a melody as defined by Bergson:

Let us listen to a melody, allowing ourselves to be lulled by it: do we not have the clear perception of a movement which is not attached to a mobile, of a change without anything changing? This change is enough, it is the thing itself. And even if it takes time, it is still indivisible; if the melody stopped sooner it would no longer be the same sonorous whole, it would be another, equally indivisible. […] Pure change remains, sufficient unto itself, in no way divided, in no way attached to a “thing” which changes. (Bergson 123)

36The Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda do sound like a “sonorous whole” celebrating change “sufficient unto itself”, with variations of themes that also attach the series to the larger frame of Fuller’s entire work. The subject of candles is remarkable in this regard since it binds the sonnets to earlier texts, some harking back to the 1970s:

The trees are alive, the candle flame gusty
And flattened. We lie in our quilted chrysalises
With still heads, like ancient funeral masks.

The moon at our backs rises over the mountains:
An understudy, practicing with silent lips,
Sharing the sky with one star above the holly tree.
(“Sleeping out at Gallt-y-Ceiliog”, ll. 7-12,
The Mountain in the Sea, 1975, Fuller 1996, 135)

Again we light the candles and
Make shadows of our contraband
Of herb and shell, and once again
We pour the pink wine of Sartène
And hold its pebbles in our hand.
(“Star-Gazing”, 1993, ll. 286-290, Fuller 1996, 392)

  • 11 Ghosts is the title chosen by Fuller for a collection published in 2004, which testifies to the poe (...)

37The long-lasting presence of candles in Fuller’s poetry deepens the sense of duration by foregrounding an impression of “change without anything changing”, to borrow Bergson’s phrase. The poet and his wife were forty years younger and certainly less comfortable when they slept out at Gallt-y-Ceiliog in Wales, but already gathered around a candle lighting up a supernatural wood where the marvellous and fantastic genres (“the trees are alive”, “the moon practicing with silent lips”) blend in with macabre visions, the characters in their sleeping bags looking “like ancient funeral masks”. Is it mere coincidence that similar “silent lips” should crop up both in “Candle” (l. 12) and in “Sleeping out at Gallt-y-Ceiliog” (l. 11)? Isn’t this echo just one more link – or wink – bringing the couple in the Sketches closer to their younger selves while shrouding the Spanish terrace with the mysterious shadows and ghosts11 of The Mountain in the Sea, steeped in Welsh legends and myths? Conversely, the opening lines of “Dreams” could serve as a metatextual caption shedding light on the tercets published in 1975:

Dreams about dreams of dreams, alike but deeper,
Denser, recognizable, and fine
Like ghostly emanations from the sleeper […] (“Dreams”, ll. 1-3, 98)

38In 1993, the same couple was happy to be able to keep on lighting candles during their holiday, this time in Corsica: “Again we light the candles”. The repetition of “again” in the stanza quoted from “Star-Gazing” emphasizes the importance of continuance to a poet who had just lost his parents (Roy Fuller died in 1991, and Kate Fuller two years later) and who went on praising the sacredness of summer gatherings to get over grief. The candle burning in the Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda is therefore as much Spanish as Welsh or Corsican, “in no way divided, in no way attached to a ‘thing’ which changes” (Bergson 123). Whatever the décor in which it is set, whatever the hardships of life, it isolates the characters from the rest of the world by fostering lively exchanges (“Flame keeps us alert”, “Candle”, l. 9). It revives the thrills and wonders of fairy tales or cartoons with “trees […] alive”, “silvery wings that clapped / Their idiotic way up, down and up”, and merry heroes playing like children ready to build their own private counter-world: “we light the candles and / Make shadows of our contraband / Of herb and shell”. Altogether, the candle imposes itself as a symbol of persistence and endurance dilating time and space while pointing to a work moving forward as a “sonorous whole” despite its numerous variations in tones and paces; a work whose inner correspondences, “tiny flappings and […] hums” help better “listen to the uninterrupted humming of life’s depths” (Bergson 125). So, in Fuller’s poems, apparently trivial events like fruit ripening or candles burning hide deeper ones, and they strengthen the unity and coherence of the entire work. “Far from dispersing, the whole of matter is howling to be joined up”, says Fuller in The Dice Cup (Fuller 2014, 11). Following this natural urge, his verse makes bonds and connections happen, and this is crucial to counter the threat of dispersal and “[d]issol[ution] into the silence of the night” (“Candle”, l. 8).

Towards new “[g]uardian sites of sacred contraries”

39Although there is no religious dimension about the Sketches, the poems testify to a quest for – or a return to – the sacred as synthesised by Jean-Claude Pinson:

  • 12 My translation.

In phenomenology, something starts bearing sacred overtones when it is comprehended as mysterium tremendum et fascinansi.e. as what Rudolf Otto calls the “Numinous”. As a mystery, it reveals itself to us through a veil, reservedly, not unlike the secret of Heidegger’s Being. Moreover, it is comprehended through an ambivalent affective tone (Stimmung), simultaneously engendering shock and dread, attraction and recoil – what Julien Gracq calls the “feeling of wonder”. 12(Pinson 113)

40Fuller’s sonnets unveil forms of mysterium tremendum et fascinans witnessed in ordinary life by both the poet and his readers, as is even more singularly illustrated in “Sea” starting hic et nunc on the admiration of a seaside landscape before the speaker goes to swim:

Here in the bay at Cañuelo, where
The waves lick at their stubborn lollipop
Of hot pale stones, I stand like a billionaire
Of sunlight […]. (“Sea”, ll. 1-4, 89)

41The similes make this scene both captivating and somewhat awe-inspiring. On the one hand, the action is slightly eroticized (“lick at their stubborn lollipop”). Fuller self-mockingly pictures himself as a man in a powerful position of homo erectus (“I stand like a billionaire”), nonetheless already absorbed by, and forgetting himself into, the sunlight bathing him. On the other hand, the metaphor of the lollipop announces a regressive move to childhood before the lines take on a more obviously sacred dimension:

[…] slowly gazing round, then flop
As I have done so often, over and over,
From similar beaches into similar seas,
Rapallo, Rhodes, Parsal and Villanova,
Guardian sites of sacred contraries. (“Sea”, ll. 4-8)

  • 13 John Fuller sent these pieces of information to me in an e-mail dated 14th September, 2018.

42The toponyms mentioned here first seduce the readers’ ears through names invoking beautiful holiday places – Mediterranean utopian escapes –, but they also pose riddles, and one single line (“Rapallo, Rhodes, Parsal and Villanova”) might even read as an overly summarized autobiographical roman à clef. An investigation of Fuller’s work will actually reveal that Rapallo hints at holidays spent by the poet and his parents in June 1955, that fed early poems like “Morvin” or “The Ballad of Lord Timbal” (Fuller 1996, 11-16). Rhodes refers to a vacation with Prue Fuller in 1959 that inspired, among others, “Peasant Woman: Rhodes” (Fuller 1996, 40). Parsal is the name of a beach near John Fuller’s cottage in Wales, much visited when his daughters were small, implicitly the locus of sand and sea in his Welsh poems, especially in The Mountain in the Sea (1975), while the local farmer was known as Will Parsal, himself a poet in Welsh.13 And Villanova alludes to summer holidays in Corsica in the 1980s and 1990s and to previous collections like Stones and Fires (1996) or The Dice Cup (2014). The overall effect is thus arresting insofar as the four toponyms act as key-words or open sesames adding – just like the candle – “unseen depth and height” (“Candle”, l. 6) to the sonnet “Sea”, but also to the sequence as well as the whole collection by putting them in perspective with earlier scenes and childhood memories, thereby turning them into “[g]uardian sites of sacred contraries”.

43As in a ritual, each dive into the sea makes the speaker feel the “contraries” between the elements he lives in, particularly between solid and liquid, past and future, and such an experience becomes “sacred” because of the ever-present impression of baptism through immersion in the water, back to a primal element we once belonged to. Hence the semi-comic “halo” of water that the swimmer shakes from his head:

And so I feel as though I’ve taken all
My life to make those plunges, all my years

To burst up through a wave, shaking a halo
Of salty spray and streaming, as I stand tall,
From shoulders, forehead, hair and nose and ears,
As now, here in the bay at Cañuelo. (“Sea”, ll. 9-14)

44The speaker has us share a profound experience of what Bachelard calls “Intimate Immensity” (Bachelard 201). “Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination” (Bachelard 201) – “[f]rom shoulders, forehead, hair and nose and ears” –, “it contemplates grandeur” (Bachelard 201): “I stand like a billionaire / Of sunlight”. “And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, [pinpointed in Fuller’s lines by the five occurrences of “I” and “my”], that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity” (Bachelard 201):

Far from the immensities of sea and land, merely through memory, we can recapture, by means of meditation, the resonances of this contemplation of grandeur. […] We do not see [daydreaming] start, and yet it always starts the same way, that is, it always flees the object nearby and right away it is far off, elsewhere, in the space of elsewhere. […] In this meditation, we are not “cast into the world,” since we open the world, as it were, by transcending the world seen as it is, or as it was, before we started dreaming. […] Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being. (Bachelard 201-202)

45Despite awareness of time passing (“all / My life, […] all my years”), and despite the pending threat of disintegration in water (“To burst up through a wave”), the poet’s meditation allows him to “flee the object nearby” (i.e. the immediate scene, “[h]ere in the bay at Cañuelo”) and to open up his personal horizons. The speaker’s reunion with his former selves at various stages in his life enhances an “immensity within [himself] […] attached to a sort of expansion of being” triggered and framed by the harmonious form of the sonnet. All in all, isn’t such an “expansion of being” what the verse in the Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda causes to happen, inciting us “[t]o pose ourselves as youthful yet and praise / The flavour of our own mortality” (GMS 95)?

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1 Henceforth, we shall use GMS as an abbreviation for Gravel in My Shoe.

2 I am grateful to John Fuller for sending this information to me in an e-mail dated 12th September, 2018.

3 “Basic to the sonnet is simultaneity. Fourteen simultaneous lines, strongly indicated as such by interlocking, recurrent rhymes: type and structure of a ‘stationary’ poem” (Valéry 1970, 235).

4 My translation.

5 “John Walsh meets… John Fuller”, The Independent, Saturday 12 October 1996.

6 Italics mine.

7 W.H. Auden is one of John Fuller’s mentors.

8 Like the sponge the orange wishes to regain its shape after it has endured expression. But where the sponge always succeeds, the orange never does: its cells have burst, its tissues have been torn. The rind alone retains its shape by grave of its elasticity; meanwhile an amber liquid spreads itself distributing the refreshment of sweet smells. Naturally. But often as well the bitter consciousness of a premature expulsion of seeds. / Must we choose sides between these two forms of resistance to oppression?” (Ponge 2016, 10)

9 My translation.

10 My translation.

11 Ghosts is the title chosen by Fuller for a collection published in 2004, which testifies to the poet’s attachment to conscious or unconscious connections in time and space between different characters and forms.

12 My translation.

13 John Fuller sent these pieces of information to me in an e-mail dated 14th September, 2018.

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Aurélien Saby, « Is Something Taking Place in the Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda by John Fuller? »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 27 | 2019, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2019, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Aurélien Saby

Agrégé d’anglais et professeur en classes préparatoires au Lycée Hélène Boucher (Paris), Aurélien Saby a soutenu une thèse sous la direction de Pascal Aquien (Paris Sorbonne) intitulée « W.H. Auden : pertes et repères dans la cité ». Il est l’auteur de plusieurs articles et communications consacrés aux œuvres de W.H. Auden, John Fuller et David Hurn.

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