On Roy Fisher

August Kleinzahler

It’s always Roy Fisher who comes to mind when I consider the phenomenon of those who come to know a place, especially a city, through literature, photography, painting, film or music, or all of the above, and then collide with the fact of the place in real time. I wonder, then, whether the idea of the place, the imaginative site, is displaced by the so-called reality of buildings, cars, sidewalks, pedestrians, the particular light, or if the buildings, pedestrians and so on are made to accommodate the contours of the already present idea of the place. Perhaps a bit of both. Fisher, who taught American literature at Keele and played jazz piano in the traditional ‘Chicago style’, carried a great deal of Chicago around in his head.

He was a city boy himself. When I visited his birthplace, Birmingham, early this century, most of the place Fisher grew up in had been replaced by a gross and incoherent jumble of pedestrian malls and outsize, hideous emporia: the favoured urban renewal mode of the era. The jewellery district where Fisher’s father worked does remain much as it probably appeared in the first half of the 20th century, preserved as a sort of urban museum, primarily for tourists, but also as a memorial to the original character of the city, an island in a sea of chain stores and traffic.

When Fisher visited Chicago for the first and only time, in 1980, he had a list of places he wanted to see: ‘the part of Halsted Street where Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie lived; the Board of Trade building where Frank Norris’s novel The Pit is set; Studs Lonigan’s street corner on the South Side from James Farrell’s trilogy; the block of South Drexel where Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son killed and incinerated his rich employer’s daughter; Nelson Algren’s Division Street; the train station where Louis Armstrong was met by King Oliver’; and the Panther Room of the Sherman Hotel, which was a notable touring venue for musicians in the 1930s and was, when Fisher visited, being demolished.

This was Fisher’s first visit to America. He was already fifty. His plane touched down at O’Hare, an event he records in the first of his ‘Songs from the Camel’s Coffin’:

Born in the middle of the island and never leaving it
in fifty years, then startled
on stepping down to the battered tarmac of O’Hare
to discover that the air above it,
the entire medium of elsewhere …

He also recorded it in prose: ‘The first time I ever fell from the sky it was in Chicago, which felt a congenial thing to do. I changed my money, bought a coffee and took a flight to South Bend without leaving O’Hare.’

In South Bend he was met by John Matthias, poet, anthologist of the splendid and hugely influential 23 Modern British Poets (1971), published in Chicago, and professor at Notre Dame University. Shortly after Fisher arrived in South Bend, as Matthias remembered in an essay, they drove ‘through a landscape of abandoned factories, empty warehouses and uncollected refuse’, past the ruins of local railway stations. The two men spoke about cities: Birmingham, Chicago, London, Indianapolis. Phrases, images, settings from Fisher’s great long early poem ‘City’ began passing through Matthias’s mind: ‘I had the odd feeling that I was looking at familiar objects, not through the windshield of a moving car, but through the glass above some labelled trays exhibited for an ambiguous purpose in an industrial museum of the mind.’ He had the ‘uncanny sense that Fisher had, on his first night out of England, fallen from the sky directly into his best-known poem,’ in which ‘The whale-back hill assumes its concrete city:/The white-flanked towers, the stillborn monuments;/The thousand golden offices, untenanted.’

Matthias had organised a North American reading tour for Fisher, which would take him to Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa, and on ‘a road trip east from Buffalo heading for a reading at Colgate, via such places as Ithaca, Ovid, Geneva, Skaneateles, Schenectady. Then, deviously, another in Emily Dickinson country and a bus ride to Boston,’ where he fell ill, as one often does on these junkets, but not so ill as to be unable to fly back to Chicago ‘stuffed with analgesics from Denise Levertov’s ample medicine cupboard. They didn’t help much.’ In Chicago, Fisher was put up in the Palmer House, ‘where white jazz players had worked in the 1920s. Nothing there any more: one night I crawled down to the sad little piano bar; I can’t even remember whether the lady artiste was topless or not. Earl Hines was on somewhere but I’d heard him quite recently in England.’

Twenty years later, Roy and his second wife, Joyce Holliday, turned up on my doorstep in San Francisco. They had been touring the American West: the Four Corners, Lake Mead, the Grand Canyon, perhaps one or two of the Utah national parks, Bryce Canyon, Zion. Like so many Europeans after they first encounter that part of the country they were agog at the scale of it all, the space. They were still vibrating with excitement when they arrived here. Joyce was about my age now, 67, Roy a few years older. Both of them had recently passed through an almost Job-like succession of health problems. I suspect they had just wanted to get away, as far away from all that as possible. Joyce, who was wonderfully bright, acerbic and plucky, died not long after that visit. Roy would not have been a picnic to be married to –few poets are – but it seemed to work. (After Roy suffered a stroke I wrote him a get well note, making light of its effect on his piano playing, a clumsy attempt to emulate his own gallows humour. Joyce intercepted the letter and sent it back to me with the instructions: ‘Rewrite the letter and leave out the piano bit. It would break his heart.’)

Their trip could hardly have struck me as more incongruous. Roy suffered from agoraphobia and very rarely strayed from his perch in the Peak District. It was a most strange and lovely perch amid those conical limestone hills, pitted with ancient burial sites. I’d been their guest a number of times after they first gathered me up in Leicester on the heels of a reading I had given in that curious town and drove me north to their place. I remember what a startling landscape it was to awaken to for the first time.

It felt odd switching roles, and I feared myself inadequate to the task of host. Roy was a rather sceptical, impatient, not uncritical sort, who could not possibly have done less to massage his career. Although he was not the most social creature, he could, if called on, be charming and amusing, although I suspect he found the effort exhausting. Like me, he seemed to relate better to dogs and cats. When I visited him after Joyce’s death a dog and a cat were his principal companions, apart from the housekeeper, and then just the cat and housekeeper. During his visit to San Francisco he got on famously with my cat Patrick, who, like Roy, was not a cuddly creature. I have a picture of the two of them on the sofa, enjoying each other. This is Fisher’s poem ‘Syntax’:

March. The cat
with eyes askew
rubs her great head hard
against the last stalk of kale
left standing in the mud
till it breaks
and the green juice gleams.

Fisher continued to write poetry of a very high order until not long before his death this spring. A few years ago his son from his first marriage died unexpectedly. His boy’s death seemed utterly to vanquish him. This, from his collection Standard Midland (2010), is called ‘On Hearing I’d Outlived My Son the Linguist’:

Two days since I heard you were gone
suddenly in your forties and me still not quite eighty

and hour by hour today with no whole word all
the emptied patterns of your talk come crowding
into my brain for shelter:
bustling, warm, exact. You’d be interested.