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Citizen Fisher.

A Fortnightly Review.

Roy Fisher: The Citizen and the Making of City
edited by Peter Robinson

Bloodaxe 2022 | 286 pages | £14.99 $24.00


ROY FISHER PUBLISHED his first book of poetry, City, with Migrant Press in 1961. Michael Shayer, one of the partners at Migrant, selected and arranged the material, a collage of verse and poetic prose. The poems were finished pieces Fisher had ‘lying around’, the prose passages extracts from a work in progress, which the poet described in a letter to Gael Turnbull as: ‘a sententious prose book, about the length of a short novel, called The Citizen.’

This prose work was long believed to have been lost, until Fisher’s literary executor, Peter Robinson, discovered among the poet’s papers a mutilated blue hard-bound notebook dated ‘November 1959’ entitled ‘The Citizen.1 This and several other documents in the Fisher archive shed new light on the origins of City, and its later evolution. Roy Fisher: The Citizen and the Making of City, published by Bloodaxe, brings together these various texts with an introduction by Robinson, who is the leading authority on Fisher’s work.

The content of the 1959 notebook makes for fascinating reading. What survives of ‘The Citizen’ manuscript includes many crossings out, revisions and margin notes (which are not reproduced in the Bloodaxe volume) written at different times over a number of years. Fisher went back to this manuscript on several occasions, plundering it for useable material. In the letter to Turnbull mentioned above, Fisher described the notebook as ‘a mélange of evocation, maundering, imagining, fiction and autobiography. I’m doing all this so as to be able to have a look at myself & see what I think.’

I am privileged to have had a small role in the genesis of The Citizen and the Making of City, as I transcribed the text of the notebook which makes up pages 37 to 129 of the Bloodaxe volume. This gave me access to the marginalia, which deserve an essay in their own right. Some record the poet’s evaluation of the literary quality of its various sections, positive and negative, the need for revision, or the potential of a passage to work as a standalone poem. Other comments provide insights into Fisher’s thought processes at the time. In one place the poet has written: ‘Personal. Withdraw – no it may stand. It is necessary here.’ In another he remarks: ‘Bio. That repeated transaction with the Mother through my 20s.’ These kinds of observations are part of the ‘taking a look at myself’ he mentioned to Turnbull.

In 1960, in a separate notebook, Fisher made two journal entries concerning the ‘The Citizen’, in which he indicated that he wanted the dominant tone to be ‘the physical presence of the city’.2 That meant avoiding saying too much about the narrator and main protagonist. One of the observations reads: ‘Erase all possibility of an explanation of everything in the light of the narrator’s Freudian condition.’ A few lines further on he writes: ‘Don’t pander to curiosity about this.’

‘The Citizen’ was never completed, but Fisher maintained the ambition of creating a text in which the city itself was the central character. This informed his reworking of City after its initial publication by Migrant. The poet was grateful to Shayer for organising and publishing the work, forcing him ‘through the hoop’, but at the same time, as he explained in a letter to Turnbull, he felt the pamphlet distorted what he had been ‘trying to do with the urban material’. Turnbull suggested adding more prose, and Fisher went along with the advice, extracting further material from ‘The Citizen’ which Migrant published as Then Hallucinations: City II in 1962.

Still dissatisfied, Fisher went on to compile a typescript combining elements of the two Migrant Press publications, omitting some poems and adding others. He also revised some of the prose. This re-working became the basis for the definitive version of City included in the 1969 Collected Poems published by Fulcrum Press. The overall style and tone of the work in its final version is markedly more consistent than the original. Some elements of Then Hallucinations were cut (to be reused in a standalone prose poem called ‘Hallucinations’), the city itself was made central, and the figure of the narrator integrated into this revised schema. It was in this form that City came to be recognised as Fisher’s signature work.

Commenting on the positioning of the narrator in this final version, Robinson writes in his introduction: ‘The necessary point of arrival in the revision is then provided by the I-directed prose passages that lead towards the definitive work’s close. The experiences of the city differently presented in the various versions of its anthological assemblage, have, however much Fisher might have temperamentally resisted it, a subject figure by which they can be registered and within which they may be understood as forming a problem or predicament.’

Pointing to the cultural and political critique implicit in the work, Robinson says: ‘Read aright, City can tell us a great deal about the emergence of the kinds of half-modernised, and half-ruined, hybridised, collaged, richly poor urban environments in which so many British people were, and still are obliged to thrive or survive.’

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The story of the making of City is absorbing. Equally interesting is the material in ‘The Citizen which Fisher left unpublished. One major thread running through this text is concerned with sex and sexual anxiety. In section 4 the narrator describes himself as ‘miserable to learn of any performance of the sexual act.’ There are accounts of the activities of ‘prostitutes’, including of ‘a little mousey woman’ who having been unsuccessful in finding a customer at a pub sets off down the street (section 24). She’s spotted by a man ‘of about forty in a loose raincoat’ whose face is ‘seriously malformed…the lower jaw protruding lopsidedly, with the teeth resting on the upper lips’. He pursues the ‘tiny bird-like’ sex-worker and tries to engage her but is repulsed and left ‘stricken and blank’. The scene is grotesquely comic.

In the margin next to this passage Fisher has written: ‘This is terrible, in its values as well as its narrative. But it’s true. True voyeur. The horror-freak-stuff is worst. But the point of view needs doing; and my own part as real voyeur. Everybody’s a voyeur at this time.’

Later in ‘The Citizen’ there’s a long dream-like sequence, in which the narrator walks down a steeply sloping alley between high walls beside a railway viaduct (section 35). On either side of him a succession of women appear out of the darkness, young women he knows socially, silent apparitions, ‘benign spirits’. These phantoms disappear as he descends further and is joined by ‘two middle-aged harlots’, one on either side. He recognises them as women he has often observed, and comments that of all the ‘whores’ in town this pair recognise what drew him ‘day after day, to watch them at work’, namely that they ‘despise the sexual act’. The narrator then begins to morph into a ‘middle-aged prostitute’ himself, something he once fantasised about as a schoolboy. ‘They are taking me where I shall be freed from sexuality,’ he says.

At the start of this passage Fisher has written: ‘Run the shit detector through. It’s a scene of Test & needs to be honoured however clumsy it is. Fellini’s problem.’ At the point where the apparitions of the girls occur he’s written ‘So Giulietta’, presumably a reference to Fellini’s wife, the actor Giulietta Masina. The parade of young women is reminiscent of scenes in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) in which Masina plays a trusting and naïve sex-worker searching for love, who is betrayed by a succession of men.

Fisher’s journal entries about the ‘Citizen’ project include a number of references to relationships with women:

The point should be that while I am involved in the city, which is in a sense myself, I cannot approach woman.
Only when the city is turned to art can the casual woman become possible. He is as he is because he is involved with the city. He does not love the city merely because he cannot seduce women.

The ambition here appears to have been to treat these issues in a symbolic, even mythic form. The final note refers to exploring territory similar to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake but with a ‘different conclusion’.

Further evidence of Fisher’s preoccupation with matters of sex is offered by the second Migrant pamphlet Then Hallucinations which ends with a reference to Duchamp’s The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even. The text reads: ‘This city is like the Bride of Marcel Duchamp; and when she is stripped the Glass needs to be broken and carted away.’ This sentence does not appear in ‘The Citizen’ but there is a poem of Fisher’s, from this period, called ‘The Bachelors Stripped Bare by Their Bride’.3 In the poem A, B, and C are asking D (Duchamp) to explain the work, which D declines to do, offering instead the comment:

The thing
that has interested me most through my life
is eroticism.

Duchamp saw his Large Glass as a grotesque comedy of sex, the bride trapped in the upper section of the work, her suitors part of a mechanical contrivance in the lower portion.

This sexual aspect of ‘The Citizen’ does find a place in City, especially in the passage which begins ‘Yet whenever I am forced to realise…’ (p.178, original City). This section survives, in a truncated form, through to the revised version (see p.249). The passage includes the text:

Lovers turn to me faces of innocence where I would rather see faces of bright cunning. They have disappeared for entire hours into the lit holes of life, instead of lying stunned on its surface as I, and so many, do for so long.

The voyeurism of ‘The Citizen’, which Fisher comments on in his marginalia, is much softened in City, the poet retaining only passages which have a more resolved, upbeat tone. Toward the end of the revised version of City we read: ‘I have often felt myself to be vicious, in living so much by the eye, yet among so many people […] Yet I can see no sadism in the way I see them now.’ (p.253)

The Citizen and the Making of City adds significantly to the growing body of material on Roy Fisher’s poetry in which Peter Robinson has been a major presence. It is to be hoped that the opening of the archive at Sheffield University will encourage more scholars to engage critically with Fisher’s work.

SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including StrideJournal of Poetics ResearchCafé Irreal, Tears in the FenceInk Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN ReviewOut West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His collection of short fictions, Why Are You Here?was published by our imprint, Odd Volumes, in November 2020. An archive of his work for the Fortnightly is here.


  1. Various pages have been torn or scissored from the book, wholly or in part. Numbered sections 36 to 53 are missing, as are 56 to 60, and 67 and 68. The last section in the notebook is 69. The original manuscript is housed in the Fisher archive at Sheffield University. Roy Fisher died in 2017.
  2. These journal entries are included in the Bloodaxe volume along with both Migrant Press pamphlets, Fisher’s revised typescript, and the final Fulcrum version of City, plus a series of comments by Fisher on the work, bibliographical sources, and reference works.
  3. The poem is included in An Unofficial Roy Fisher, edited by Peter Robinson (Shearsman, 2010) and in Roy Fisher, Slakki: New and Neglected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2016).
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