“A City for my mouth, and city for my eye”

Roy Fisher, ed. Peter Robinson. The Citizen and the making of City. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2022. 286 pages.  

For British poets writing after Modernism, from Basil Bunting to Geoffrey Hill, geographical exactitude became as important as the textured knots of almost abstract impasto were for British figurative painting; a guarantee that however else the sentence or line was being strained or scumbled past easy legibility, there was something the reader could rely on. Map coordinates, perhaps. But also, the experience of imagining yourself in a closed world that should not be mistaken for another, even if it could.

Both Bunting and Hill conjured their atmospheres in part through allusions to the deep cultural past, regionally defined. Beyond that, the spectrum is false. I like them both a lot, prefer Bunting, and find myself rereading all the poets I've grouped in between them for the nearly essayistic pleasure of watching a thought struggle to escape its origins, strictly and materially defined. In these poets, the scrutiny of criticism is brought to bear on specific landscapes, which aren't quite texts. 

There are other poets for whom the landscape brings into being exploratory habits of mind that are best demonstrated by the imaginative and poetic potential of a particular place. The landscapes of these writers are haunted by the memories of previous encounters in them rather than skeins of allusion. But this attentiveness isn't especially empirical. No reader could fully verify the evidence the poet has assembled and presented them with. Instead, we watch them worry at the possibility that the places they write about could lose their distinctiveness.

Roy Fisher's 'City' feels like Birmingham. There are enough passages of social history, enough references to the recent cataclysm of World War II, for the reader to feel assured that this is a world they can inhabit. A section of prose that begins with the phrase 'A hundred years ago this was the edge of town' might feel authoritative. And the subsequent sentences are transparent enough for us to feel as if we understand the gradual rearrangement of place that allows for a city to expand. 

Perhaps this sense of defeat accounts for the poem's slight eclipse by Fisher's later investigations into the countryside of the West Midlands, arching from the Welsh Marches to the Staffordshire Peak. The grander, darker hues of 'A Furnace', Fisher's book-length suite of lyrics composed in homage to the novelist John Cowper Powys, more comfortingly illuminate the sorts of connections between the past and present that we seem to want from rural writing. Giving up on the past, either by forgetting about it or sensing it to be terminally resistant to commemoration, isn't an attitude we've been encouraged to adopt by the 21st century flaneurs characterised in the works of Sebald, Macfarlane, or Sinclair. Different writers, yes, but each committed to criss-crossing the bridge between historical significance and the occasionality of a walk.

In ‘City’, Fisher writes almost exclusively about habitual excursions, presenting the kinds of insights derived from pale routine. And the place he writes about can’t be cross-referenced with other cultural productions:

This could never be a capital city for all its size. There is no mind in it, no regard. The sensitive, the tasteful, the fashionable, the intolerant and powerful, have not moved through it as they have moved through London, evaluating it, altering it deliberately, setting in motion wars of feeling about it. Most of it has never been seen. [1]

Echoes of Eliot’s ‘unreal city’ coexist with something altogether more humane. There’s the slight hint that if Birmingham has escaped or refuted the perils of urbanity, of a structured self-consciousness, it’s somehow dodged a bullet by not allowing ‘the intolerant and powerful’ to move through it. Nevertheless, it is neglected, under-scrutinised. Is this the service that Fisher is performing?

If so, he seems committed to performing it modestly. He doesn’t want it to be noticed too much. Michael Shayer, in an introduction to the first publication of ‘City’ as a pamphlet in 1961, made grand claims: “The measure of its success is that by what it does manage to achieve it say, Look, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce didn’t exhaust this area at all,” (156) as if the lorelessness of Birmingham/Brummagem was somehow coterminous with the remaining potential of the Modernist epic.

But Fisher’s work seems to take definitive steps away from that brand of Modernism, the impulse to make it new or to shore fragments against the ruins. He noticed an aperture, a breach in the progress of industry and worried at it. Something has stalled and human lives must continue among “these purposeless streets” (157) and within that apparent abandonment by history, by storied meaning.

This new volume from Bloodaxe does so much to burnish the stature of ‘City’, presenting us with potential avenues that Fisher didn’t explore, tracing a journey from the poem’s first iteration as an extended prose narrative of just under a hundred pages through uncollected lyrics and no fewer than three different texts (including a typescript) of the suite we now know well, culminating in the authoritative edition published as part of Fisher’s 1968 collection. I might have wanted Bloodaxe to issue a DVD of Tom Pickard’s film about Fisher, ‘Birmingham’s What I Think With’, just as they did for their edition of Briggflatts. That’s churlish of me. I’ve nothing really to complain about. This book joins Slakki and the revised edition of The Long and the Short of It as another wonderful document of a writer whose work, whether intended for publication or private, creative use, stands as an example of how language at its most useless and redundant can still generate the heat and light of style.

This shaggy duplication of material works surprisingly well. Fisher was a poet uniquely attuned to whatever was disposable and provisional about the observations and impressions undergirding poetry. Throughout there are surprisingly vivid glimpses of the kind of poet that Fisher might have become. The uncollected poems, in particular, draw attention to the speaker in a way that suffuses the Brummagem vistas with a kind of pained romanticism which at first projects the kind of democratic inclusiveness one might have expected from writers as different as Walt Whitman and the poets later anthologised in The Mersey Sound.

But the hallmarks of Fisher’s writing, which is to say an unflinching descriptive attentiveness to whatever seems unpoetic, coupled with a candid weirdness, curdle these bright splashes of inclusion:

                        This is a fleck of a civilisation,
                        A spat froth that’s congealed
                        And lies across the earth, and breeds
                        Us, who can be no more
                        Than creatures of an authority
                        Nowhere to be found. (ll.13-18, p.147)

Anybody coming to Fisher for the first time is likely to be frustrated by the strange underselling that critics who position themselves as his advocates can’t help indulging in. Kenneth Cox identifies a struggle with the mimetic properties of language that Fisher never tried to hide in a way that sometimes patronizes him. August Kleinzahler’s high praise in his 2006 piece for The London Review of Books evacuates some of the social commentary out of his poems (although his extended tribute to Fisher after his death in 2017 makes up for that with a lovely sketch of the writer).

Both critics are presenting a difficulty that is harder to describe than it is to understand. In some respects, the reader has to accustom themselves to a poet who is committed to working through and sharing thoughts, observations, extended vignettes that might not be publishable, that haven’t yet attached themselves to the churning resolve of poetic form. Indeed, he tells us in ‘The Citizen’ that “the very intrusion of a form into my passivity was destructive” (103). Perhaps this is why ‘A Furnace’ is so admired. It calls attention to its form, rather than the restlessly spontaneous works like ‘The Ship’s Orchestra’ (1966), the surrealist narrative poem about a jazz band, or ‘The Cut Pages’ (1971), the prolonged and disconcerting exercise in automatic writing that Fisher wrote after an intense emotional rupture.

I wonder whether this ambivalence towards form inhibited Fisher as he wrote ‘The Citizen’, ultimately determining him against continuing it as an extended narrative. This manuscript is more journal than novella, but it still demonstrates how the apparent artlessness of his more famous poems was crafted and shaped. There was deliberation to the process which resulted in ‘City’, and much of it appears to have involved some difficult choices for the poet. What is most immediately striking here is the lurch towards confession. Now, we learn more about the feelings of the narrator, his background; the camera-eye of ‘City’ is fully and nervously embodied.

Compare this with the gauntness of ‘City’:

As I have learned to avoid it, I have come to feel that there are two cities, one in which I am documented, traceable, involved and by which I am possessed, and another in which I am merely suspended. A city for my mouth, and a city for my eye. The first I could not begin to describe, for it is by nature fluid, comfortable, made of expendable things, where anecdotes and memories harden only very slowly into myth. And myth is not welcome in it. It hounds down lies about itself so that its conscience may be free. It is very intelligent. The other city is precarious in the understanding. It occurs when the other clears away from it and leaves it bare. (65)

A passage both clearer and more lyrical than anything we see in the final draft of the poem suite. It confirms everything the reader may already have suspected about Fisher’s commitment to intimately noticing Birmingham and the plethora of ‘expendable things’ which define urban living without quite igniting wars of feeling about it. The city that is resistant or inhospitable to myth is rather different from the place eventually described in ‘City’ with ‘no mind’ or ‘regard’ to it. But it’s not as if ‘the other city’, which one might think wins out as the poem writhes itself into its final shape, embraces myth. Perhaps what we get instead are the negative impressions of myths, in rather the same way we get the solid cavities of houses in Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures.  

More revealing and more disturbing is the current of frustrated sexuality that runs throughout ‘The Citizen’. Fisher’s narrator observes several women around Birmingham—sometimes by interacting with them, sometimes by scrutinizing them rather seedily. Ultimately though, the narrative wheels around a sexual retreat. After playing ‘Land of my Fathers’ on a pub piano at the request of a very beautiful, very tall woman, the narrator finds himself helplessly dragged into a sad and strange flirtation:

         ‘Oh, didn’t he play lovely?’ she cried. ‘Didn’t you? Played one for me.’
          I smiled, sourly I suppose, for she cocked her head on one side and stood regarding me with what looked like astonishment from a yard away. Her scent reached me, fresh and in a way antiseptic.
          ‘Don’t you talk?’ she said bemusedly.
          Apologetically, I yawned, to show how tired I was. She giggled, and stepping forward popped a forefinger into my mouth just before it closed. We stood there for some seconds, I stupefied, but with a sudden cold sensation at the back of my head, she with her finger in my mouth and an expression of gay delight on her face. I closed my teeth gently on the finger. (87)

An ambiguously menacing situation ensues: what does the narrator intend here? The woman herself doesn’t seem to know how to respond. This is typical of the narrative’s various encounters with women. Often, the narrator feels content to observe and categorise the women “who have fallen off from the belly of England” (89) and whom he finds languishing in poverty or just as often expressing themselves in ways that challenge him. When two sex workers trail him home one night, he recognizes “they do not like my gaze upon them” but rather fancifully interprets this when he says, “they know they attract me because I can tell they despise the sexual act” (112). It almost seems to deflect from the narrator’s subsequent fantasy about becoming a woman like them. There’s a crisis here, one of embodiment as much as of longing, but this feels underexplored.

In the notes he wrote about ‘The Citizen’ a year later, he confesses that “the point should be that while I am involved in the city, which is in a sense myself, I cannot approach woman.” (133) The reader might feel that’s an understatement! There’s so much that’s tangled up in that casual observation alone—the identification with Birmingham, with its pre-war hopes and post-war despair, feels democratically selfless. But eliding that inclusiveness with a resistance to engaging with women betrays the emotional contradiction that it seems ‘The Citizen’ foundered upon. Without the lacerating self-scrutiny and comic brio that twenty years later, Alasdair Gray brought to his characterisation of Jock McLeish in his novel 1982, Janine, the overwhelming sadness that the Citizen feels folds into a dustily morbid introspection. For an even more sustained examination of the same feelings of alienation and attraction, there’s the unforgettable honesty of Rosemary Tonks’ astonishing and contemporaneous lyrics gathered in Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms. The illicit lovers of ‘Story of a Hotel Room’ [2] don’t hold back, but as “guests of one another’s senses”, the complicated meshwork of identification and desire arrives at the truth that Fisher’s Citizen seems afraid of:

If the act is clean, authentic, sumptuous,
The concurring deep love of the heart
Follows the naked work, profoundly moved by it. (ll. 18-20)

No wonder then that the city for the eye wins out with Fisher. He’s happier to scrutinize. Struck by the sight of some Lombardy poplars behind a petrol station, he understands

I need to withdraw
From what is called my life
And from my net
Of achievable desires. (247)

The same lines are included in the first version of ‘City’ from 1961, where they’re lineated differently. But even in this early attempt at imposing form on his scattered, unravelling notes, it becomes apparent that the poet’s happier to write about love, even if he can’t quite embrace it: “Lovers turn to me faces of innocence where I would rather see faces of bright cunning” (178). By 1969, ‘where I would rather see faces of bright cunning’ becomes “where I would expect wariness” (249). By now, the scrutinizer is more prepared to be scrutinized.

This puts Fisher rather closer to Baudelaire as a kind of allegorist of modernity, except in his case, modernity has stalled; it’s ability to generate new images for a flickering variety of sensory impressions has rusted up to a halt. Caught between the global fact of a devastating war and the slow despair of its recovery, Birmingham is in little immediate danger of reinventing itself. But that’s not necessarily a tragedy to Fisher. The most directly autobiographical of the moments in ‘City’ is ‘The Entertainment of War’, in which the death of a “whole household” consisting of his aunt and cousins, during the bombing of the city “meant that no grief would be seen” (165). Well, the city that emerges here, throughout this decade of accumulation, rewriting, reflection, and omission provides ample space for grief in its large, open, and occasionally unloved geography, but perhaps it gives Fisher and his readers the time too. That sense of stretch might have been missing before. I think we can be grateful to Bloodaxe for letting us feel it yawn open at last.


[1] Roy Fisher, The Citizen and The Making of City (Hexham: Bloodaxe, 2022), 213.

[2] Rosemary Tonks, Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Hexham: Bloodaxe, 2014), 62.

Works Cited

Fisher, Roy, The Citizen. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2022

Tonks, Rosemary, Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2014

Jonathan Gharraie is a writer of fiction and criticism living in Derbyshire, England.