by Fran Lock, with unlovable labour by Steev Burgess
hours awake, the news begins its lisping instrumental. incidental music for a hunger strike. the tv's bland incitements. johnson's mouth, a gimmicked sleeve. dandelion and atomised, we barely breathe. hours awake. cities: slagheaps of a mass extinction. burning dirty crack-rock earth. we are ready. for the end times, for the paranoid mental event, renouncing our passports. the rich are padding out their hollow boasts with glum extravagance. phoney and vibrating sky. women walk circuitous lusts through the subtle legal dusk in heels. shard. rain. cold hard cash. no love so deep and pure as brand loyalty. johnson, a funerary cuckoo, a soundbite in a fright wig. we are ready. the bodies of the poor are batons of pulp. are strenuous meat. the narcotised light that flows upward over glass. high-tension carnivores, bearing down. hours awake, through the crypts of this city like pestilence, like hazard and insomnia, the shivery international green of money. to want the fat clam of the dark, the faces of the addicts, toothless and intent as mediaeval glass blowers. to want the water. johnson, falling like a stone, through our conscience and our wallet.
Fran Lock reviews Joker's treatment of violence, poverty, class, gender and race, and the way it subverts 'one of capitalism's most pernicious fictions'
If you want to get ahead in life, just go for it on your own. Facing obstacles? There’s nothing you can’t overcome and put right. You just need to put your mind to it and work harder.
This self-transcending narrative has to be one of Western capitalism’s most pernicious fictions. It’s everywhere. It permeates our literature, and saturates our film and television. It’s in every beloved underdog story, anywhere a protagonist achieves their dreams by dint of hard work, dedication and individual exceptionalism. In the realm of the self-transcending narrative the social forces that create and perpetuate financial and social disparity are obscured; “adversity” is only meaningful as it applies to a character’s personal struggle, as something to atomistically triumph over. Poverty, for example, is routinely depicted as a depoliticised force of nature, an obstacle the individual in poverty is responsible for overcoming. This elides the brutal truth: that poverty is a deliberately engineered system of economic exploitation, the overthrow of which demands radical, collective action.
Capitalism has no interest in acknowledging this fact. Instead, it uses cultural platforms to peddle the message that we can only transcend our circumstances through extraordinary individual effort. The results of this poisonous philosophy are three-fold.
First, that people in poverty are encouraged to view each other as competitors, a position which is toxic to all forms of affective solidarity, and which prevents us from coming together to organise against that which besets us. Second, the focus on individual accomplishment as the only viable route out of poverty recasts societal failures as personal ones, and this encourages the fatally misguided idea that those born into poverty persist in poverty because they are weak, lazy, or otherwise morally deficient. Finally, a worldview that enshrines individual transcendence at the expense of the collective valorises capitalism’s every selfish, acquisitive gambit, placing undue value on the signifiers of material wealth, indifferent to how, and at whose expense, that wealth was created.
In short, at the heart of the seemingly benign underdog genre lurks the insidious propaganda of late-stage capitalism. It’s a form of propaganda, I’m grateful to say, that Todd Phillips’ recent film, Joker, has zero tolerance for.
I’ve been to see Joker twice now, and I may very well go again. The film has a kind of feral poetry to it, and Phoenix’s performance as the titular character achieves, at moments, a species of gaunt, contorted eloquence that is both pathetic and viscerally frightening. These aspects of the film, however, are extensively covered in other reviews, so I would like, instead, to focus on some critically underexplored aspects of its politics and ethics. Specifically, I would like to address the film’s engagement with the self-transcending narrative, and what it has to say about our relationship, as both audience and as citizens, to the underdog genre in mainstream cinema.
In underdog stories the central plot is typically resolved in one of the following ways. Firstly, the central protagonist achieves self-actualisation through romantic intimacy. In this version of the narrative, the character may still be living in straitened circumstances, but thanks to a deep, personal connection with another human being is able to transform their own outlook, embracing and valuing what they have, and accepting the world around them. This plot is the staple of romantic comedies and so called chick flicks.
Secondly, through dedication and hard-work and after years of struggle, the central protagonist succeeds in their area of endeavour, finally having earned the validation and respect of their peers. This is the stuff of myriad sports genre films, often “based on a true story” however selectively, such as Ron Howard’s 2005 Cinderella Man, or Bennett Miller’s 20011 Moneyball, but it also appears with frequency in spurious rags to riches biopics of various celebrities.
Thirdly, through the recognition or surprise intervention of an individual who embodies all the characteristics the central protagonist aspires to, the character is given the chance to prove themselves and shine in their chosen field. My Fair Lady is probably the most famous cinematic example of this model, but we’re probably most familiar with it from reality television shows such as the ever-nauseating X Factor, Pop Idol, or The Voice, where hopeful amateurs compete before a panel of washed up pop singers who presumable embody the kind fame and success the competitors are striving for.
Fourthly, a miracle occurs, the unlikely or surprising “big break” that catapults the character from obscurity and into the well-deserved limelight. This particular form of resolution is often referred to as a Deus Ex Machina; the audience are meant to understand this miraculous good fortune not as a stroke of luck, but as somehow fated or pre-ordained, a further proof of the character’s inherent exceptionalism. Danny Boyle’s well-intentioned though ultimately problematic 2008 Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the most well-known example of this form of resolution.
Each of these plots encourage a form of easy identification in their audience, a palliative to the hardships of their own lives; a vague dream that things could be different if only: if only I could find “the one”, if only I worked harder, if only I got my “big break”, if only my talent were recognised, etc. None of these plots significantly challenge the social status quo, or offer any serious analysis of the conditions that create inequality and social stagnation. The romantic intimacy resolution places the responsibility for change squarely in the domestic and personal realm, leaving the political sphere untouched.
The resolution through continuous effort enshrines the capitalist work ethic without acknowledging the unequal demands of the labour market on the poorest amongst us, or the chronic lack of opportunity and access for talented people in poverty.
The resolution through intervention ignores in the first place, the bald unlikelihood of such an intervention, and places the burden of transformation on individual acts of patronage, not radical political reorganisation. This model also puts the central protagonist in a subordinate position to their patron, constantly competing and performing in order to “earn” their condescension.
Finally, the miracle model is a beguiling fiction that removes change from the arena of human intervention altogether, offering instead an ill-defined dream of transcendence.
.....are another site of rejection
Joker takes a sledgehammer to all of these promised resolutions in turn, transforming each scene of self-actualisation into a site of further disillusionment, rejection and debasement. As Arthur Fleck, the character must acknowledge that the one connection he was able to forge with another person existed only in his mind, that his hard work and effort earned him nothing but mass derision, that the person who best exemplifies the healthy functioning of the self-transcending narrative (Thomas Wayne) not only fails to recognise his worth, but also his basic humanity; that this person is, in fact, repulsed by him. Finally, Arthur’s big break, his Deus Ex Machina moment, is revealed to be nothing but a cynical manipulative exercise, as a TV talk show host courts controversy and chases ratings.
There is no resolution, the film seems to tell us, there is no rising above, there is no way out. This sense of the inescapable pervades the film. It’s in everything from the narrow, litter-strewn streets, the shabby, over-crowded apartment building in which Arthur ekes out his days. It’s in the grim municipality of official buildings. It’s even in the repressed and awkward way that Arthur holds a pen, the laborious motions he makes as he writes and moves, the pent-up, nervous tension with which he inhabits his own skin. Strenuous effort is inscribed across every available surface of this film. The physical exertions and exhaustions the characters are put through –climbing steep, slippery staircases, running in clumsy, ill-fitting clown shoes – mirrors the daily psychological struggle to exist in extreme poverty, to fight against your own erasure and annihilation.
Indeed, there is something familiarly claustrophobic about the Gotham of Joker. Everything is cramped, circumscribed and precarious: landscapes, internal and external, movements, pleasures, interactions. It’s troublingly resonant to anyone who has negotiated poverty and the systems that administer you in that poverty.
Two vignettes in particular stand out as being particularly well-realised in this regard. The first is Arthur’s court-mandated conversations with his social worker: the office in which these meetings takes place are small and crowded, bringing the pair uncomfortably close without ever engendering any sense of human intimacy. The whole room is hedged in and crowded out with the apparatus of bureaucracy, even the chairs look purposefully uncomfortable. Arthur’s social worker is palpably exhausted, weary and wary in equal measure. You have the sense from Sharon Washington’s tense yet understated performance of a once-caring person burnt out and overwhelmed by the scale of the problems facing her. Everything she says and does is hemmed in, tightly controlled by official rhetorics to the point of impotence.
At one point she asks him if it helps, having meetings with her, having someone to talk to, and the pathos is gut-wrenching: as if anything taking place in that grimy, underfunded box could be described as genuine conversation. Later, when Arthur tells her she has never listened to him she counters with “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they don’t give a shit about people like me either.” And in that line is reflected an entire dismal history of mental illness and low-income violence; the way in which it rebounds so often on those with whom the perpetrators should feel the stirrings of solidarity. Washington’s character, in that moment, realises something that Phoenix’s does not, that the power elites that govern both their lives regard neither one of them as fully human. She looks beaten and sad as she says it. A black woman trapped in a city that wants to crush her, that is indifferent to her on a fatal scale every single day. It is one of the film’s most haunting moments.
The second memorable vignette takes place between Arthur and his boss. Arthur is being disciplined for “skipping out” on work, only he didn’t skip out, he was mugged and beaten by a group of teenagers. Arthur protests his innocence, yet his boss elects not to believe him. Why would teenagers steal a “going out of business” sign? He claims it isn’t credible and demands Arthur replace the sign immediately, or else the money will be deducted from his already scant wages. Why would I steal a sign? asks Arthur, desperately. I don’t know, replies his boss, why does anybody do anything? The logic at play is Kafkaesque: Arthur’s boss is perfectly happy to ascribe arbitrary, nonsensical motives to Arthur, yet won’t countenance the same from a group of random teenagers. Phoenix stands there shaking in dependent, impotent frustration. Any member of the modern precariat can identify with this scene, and the endlessly rolling sock of casual cruelties and minor injustices it represents.
Yet Arthur is hardly a figure of easy identification. Seeing the world through Arthur’s eyes is an uncomfortable experience. His daily interactions are abjectly grinding, serving to shave out any last scrap of good in him. This is worthy of pity, yet Arthur’s responses to the world around him are also underscored by a disturbing narcissism. “I have felt invisible my whole life” he tells his social worker, a black woman who must contend with a million different registers and levels of invisibility daily; in another scene, Arthur is pulling faces at a child on a bus. The child is laughing and Arthur clearly meant no harm, but the child’s mother snatches her son away, reprimanding Arthur for bothering her child. Because we, the audience, see through Arthur’s eyes, this interaction seems harsh and unfair, but in Gotham city, or its real-world equivalents, might not the ambient threat with which that mother and child live their daily lives have caused her to react, not out of unkindness, but genuine fear? During the era the film is set the Atlanta child murders were also taking place, and black families were confronting each day the terrible truth that their children were basically expendable in the eyes of the law.
Living without class-consciousness or solidarity
Towards the climax of the film it is heavily implied that Arthur’s response to the realisation his one human connection was a hallucinatory figment is to murder the object of his fantasy, and possibly her child (ably played by Zazie Beets and Rocco Luna respectively). Phillips doesn’t show these deaths, or the death of Arthur’s psychiatrist in the penultimate scene, choosing instead to signal this murder with a trail of bloody footprints as Arthur/Joker dances down the hospital corridor to That’s Life by Frank Sinatra.
This is disturbing in a number of ways. It’s disturbing because the climax of the film we are all waiting for, the transformation from Arthur into Joker that we were willing to take place, is born off the backs of these murdered women. Their deaths sit uneasily beside the shooting of the classist Wall Street chauvinists on the train, the point blank rage with which Pacino’s shallow ‘Murray’ is dispatched, or the Wayne family paying for Thomas Wayne’s fatal hubris with their lives. These deaths have cathartic power; they are extreme and exaggerated examples of Gotham’s twisted justice. They are public deaths, reacted to with shock both within the context of the film and within the confines of the theatre alike. The deaths of the film’s black women aren’t even shown; these characters figure as both real (in terms of the narrative) and cinematic collateral. This should make us feel deeply uneasy.
None of which is to say that Joker is a “bad” or lesser film for provoking this unease. Whether Phillips specifically intended his film to raise questions about the intersections of violence, poverty, gender and race is almost beside the point; these questions are a timely and significant aspect of the film, part of its text and texture, and ours: we view it in a racially divided world, through a racially sensitised lens. It’s unavoidable, and actually, it’s salutary. The film isn’t explicitly about race, it’s about class, but any serious meditation on this axis of oppression will inevitably intersect with others. Joker shows, I think how these forms of oppression collide and skew with tragic results.
I came away from my second watching of this film thinking that its central tragedy is the sheer embeddedness of the self-transcending narrative in society; how this hideous creed, wedded in America to a fiercely nationalistic script, inoculates against empathy. Arthur is isolated, ostracised and alone because Gotham, on a systemic level, doesn’t care about him. He is shunned and abused, his labour exploited, by a seemingly endless parade of individuals who have bought, wholesale, into vampire capitalism’s social Darwinist crap. Yet Arthur is also isolated by his own lack of empathy, by his inability to recognise the deliberate and structural nature of the inequalities that beset him, to see himself as part of a whole. During his live TV interview with De Niro's ‘Murray’ Joker states more than once that he isn’t political, and this is the perhaps the saddest thing of all. His actions, in shooting the wealthy dickheads on the subway, appear to have started a movement, summoned and mobilised a powerful, dissenting ‘we’, yet most of the crowd, and Joker himself, are not engaged in any kind of collective resistance, but a directionless howl of rage and pain, emanating from shattered subjectivities and innumerable private hells.
By the end of the film, Arthur has become the Joker. He has transformed into Gotham’s best beloved villain, the villain he was always destined to be. And that’s what self-transcendence looks like for Arthur, the steady metamorphosis of a sad unstable man into a psychotically homicidal clown. In this way Phillips’ vision of Gotham takes to cartoonish extremes the very real consequences of living without care, without hope, without class-consciousness or solidarity.
And what if we should feel like singing? Lift our undefended faces to the light, and catch a discredited tongue, gold and fleet in upper air.
Hey, you up there! To you a reeling blessing; love’s honeyed physic, faith and laud. You’re not a name as such: two stones struck to speech in fire, white bird wheeling in a dance against gravity; trampled cranesbill pushing back in public parks.
We see you. Brother Sun, who wakes the city window boxes all unkempt. Small green spaces, roused and then beguiled by turns, the hedges fitfully splendored, and dogs! in the gilded tousle of their morning run, are bright with you.
We see you. Sister Moon, the night-streets, formidable with phantoms, suddenly silvered. The moody precariat stilled, turning to each other like careful strangers, spellbound, spilling softened breath.
We see you. Brother storm, in cattails, contrails, any thin thing whipped to life. Resuscitate with weightlessness our wastrel spaces, fly-tipped margins. A carrier bag caught in grasping branches ciphers an eloquent ghost.
Hey, you up there, I feel you move against the awful formal violence of the world and its experiments. I feel you move against its agonies of evidence, convictions, symptoms, lairy fates. I cup the ruthless cold: water from the bathroom tap, and know we’re not abandoned;
I watch the cooker flexing its fire, a petiole swell to incandescence, and I know we are not abandoned.
Hey, you up there! When that soft-boiled grotesque in a salesman’s tie tells us anything lucrative is holy, I feel you move. Not some tremulous silken ethic, but sturdy and avenging.
Hey, for the root, the bulb, the branch. For anything we turn or tend, or tread to raging thirst. Today we feel like singing: a hymn, the Internationale, a tuneless spirited croaking as I scrub black mould from the walls.
Hey, for the wakefulness that keeps us extending a hand, filling a thermos, arming ourselves against the dark dividing.
Singing. Our dead are turning two pages at once, racing away. And yet, today they are with us. Suffering, rejoicing, they flower and flow.
Hey, you up there! It’s not the comfort we take, but the comfort we bestow. This song you have taught us. Now we step outside to make it grow.
where will it end? the long-sleeve t-shirts sleep, all folded over themselves like bats. black lycra’s pirate sinew stretched to slack. and tubes of ruined wool relax and lose their shape. sleeves wear the gape of empty snakes. disfigured fabrics frayed in heaps. a woman shaking out the prissy ghosts of a summer blouses, snagged on a hanger’s embittered caress. for two pound ten! each pleat a gauntlet of skirmished thread, rough to the touch. it costs so little! the woman said. impossible pasture of rags, dear god! it costs so very much. where will it end? i stroke the mesh, the weft, the weave, from cheviot to chiffon-cling. grope a glut of sturdy twills. my hands surge out across an odyssey of cotton, serge. and batiste gowns are grown in rows like off-white heads of lettuce. crisp and sleek. and underfoot, the scattered wits of covered buttons. look! it’s in the sale! adrenaline and penny pinch. cash canters horselessly between the heels. hemlines. oh, i have loved the crushes and the calicos, the way a seam will meet like steadfast hands in payer. i have loved the self-important bombazines and obsolete brocades, stood in satin-transfix running a bolt of blue charmeuse through my hands like a live fish. but no, not like this. not this way. the woman who sewed this dress, her lungs are dressed in dust, disease. her shoulders cramped askew. not like this, a child in a stocking of sweat with eyes as dull and flat as coins, his name a smudge on a hot-wash label. the day that factory became a dirt red funnel for human grief. it’s just so cheap, dirt cheap! your cambrics, buckrams heresies. and what’s it worth, a life? assiduous stitches, tucked and running. in lame. gold is interwoven – secret vein through common cloth. as pain pursues its jagged course, in every shirt you smooth and touch. i’ll tear these strips. they cost so much.
The image is by Steev Burgess, who has made brilliant collages to go with Fran's poems in Raptures and Captures, available here.
Fran Lock introduces Raptures and Captures, her latest book of poetry, which follows on from Muses and Bruises and Ruses and Fuses.
‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not.’ It’s a stern injunction. It is also a radical one. Saint Silouan, we’re told, struggled against demons. Specifically, he struggled against the demon of despair, against a feeling of abandonment, an absence of God’s grace. And so God spoke to Saint Silouan, gave him this electrifying ascetical credo, this moral imperative toward humility and hope.
Just think about that for a minute. Not the genesis of the idea, but the idea itself. It’s also Gramsci’s exhortation, to hold always to the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ and the ‘optimism of the will.’ It’s asking us to live in the world as it is, not as we would have it; to sustain a mood of vulnerable and sceptical questioning, even when the truth is bruising. It means a stalwart refusal to abdicate responsibility; to acknowledge our own implicatedness in all that besets us. It means not isolating ourselves in the self-protective echo-chambers of social media. It means seeing the worst and believing in better.
As I said, a stern injunction. It’s an injunction I wrestle with every day. Mental illness is a fucker. It doesn’t offer much by way of escape or sustenance. There are days I feel abandoned too, an abject absence of hope or love. Under such conditions it’s hard to preserve faith, political or personal. I look at the world sometimes, and I find it almost impossible to accept it or be reconciled with it. People are cruel, complacent, bigoted; the planet is perishing, culture is eroding.
I withdraw into myself, afloat in the black amniotic of depression. I forget who I am, my responsibilities, my affinities, to the people and things I believe in and love. And I can’t do one single sodding thing about those feelings. It’s the way I’m wired, the vexed result of everything that makes a life. I can’t change how I feel, but I don’t have to accept those feelings as absolute reality. I can remind myself that I am not my worst day. I can know, even if I can’t perceive it, that goodness exists. That there are things worth fighting for, moments of perseverance, triumph, joy.
I cannot do that alone. Nobody can. And that’s the thought this book emerged from. This isn’t a religious book. It’s not properly a Christian book, or even a Christian-Communist one, although that’s the soil its roots are firmly planted in. It’s about the need within all of us for communities, stories, solidarities – for something greater than ourselves. This book isn’t asking you to believe in the saints as figures with magical properties and powers, that’s not what’s being presented here. The figures in these poems are all struggling, in one way or another, with demons. They need a portion of transformative magic in order to survive.
Some of these poems are exhortations and prayers; others subject the lives of saints to the distorting stresses of modernity. In many of the pieces the speaker embodies both the legend of the saint, and the desperate, urgent needs of those who fall under their patronage. This is deliberate. The saints are compelling precisely because they are people, human beings with the same frailties and failings as any of us. And yet they are people whose radical example, whose deeds and teachings, rise above those failings to accomplish marvels. Tory Britain in the last decade has been a terrible place and time to be poor. More than ever we’ve needed those examples, those marvels. And more than ever we have needed to remember we are capable of being them.
‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not’. The speakers in these poems rise from or confront their several Hells, which are also ours. They do so, I hope, with an equal mixture of anger and compassion, sensitised, always, to the human cost of our morally compromised pleasures, our conveniences, our progress.
Saint Homobonus is openly weeping in Primark, tearing fabric into strips with his bare hands, less in protest than in sheer incredulity at the degree of moral disconnect required to accept a world in which a factory worker’s life is considered a fair swap for a shitty two quid t-shirt.
Saint Sebastian follows with sadness and infinite sympathy a teenage rent-boy in Soho, a figure whose swaggering sense of agency has masked the exploitation he is subject to. The saints appear at all our scenes of selective deafness, willed inertia, ethical amnesia: anywhere that people choose the path of least resistance. They appear to retune our attention toward the suffering of others, and they appear so that we who suffer know that we do not do so alone.
There’s a good ol’ lefty commonplace about prayer: that it’s a way of absolving yourself of responsibility without actually having to do anything. It’s an argument, I guess. But the prayers these poems incarnate are not prayers as daydreams or vague best-wishes, they’re prayers as places of testimony, they’re prayers as angry witnessing to pain, prayers as rallying calls and clarion cries. They are sites and occasions for protest. In prayer we coalesce around the common struggle. We listen and are listened to. We remember each other.
More than anything else, I see the speakers in these poems not merely as speakers, but as listeners. They understand that people deserve and are capable of better; that there is great courage, love and kindness in the most unlikely of us. The poems want to offer this space of solidarity. A communion. A communism.
the city comes in waves. poor worker bee, it’s clinical now, an ideal doom, the sleepy grief of airports. tried to stay in motion. walk around, not-shopping. coffee. millimetric sips. is slow embalming, boils the tongue, both fidgety and numb. carousels and carousels and paperbacks. our structures of exchange and riot. rid the mind of unclean mischief, repertoire of ecstasies. not happy-happy, groomed and sated. airport. peoples temple. church and heaven. perfume counter girls, the folded arms of coptic icons. shoppers' paradise. here, baristas breathe their icy birthright, bitchin’ it. to be here. wintering. in a neo-conservative tedium. on purpose and forever. infringement or infraction. to be profiled and filed, trafficked in and captured. movements mapped. the vector and the spread. infection has a human face. no languages, but currencies. coffee. paid for with plastic. visa. flag of my failed state. declined. do brexit at each other. arid commercial succour sold by the kilo. airport. initial rays of morning make great beauty. petrol sky, a gilded endangerment. ozone, enriched on the ruin of itself. and by the plate glass, a singular unsettling. not happy-happy. wired. this counterfeit community. commodity and contract. smiling. like a turd emoji. the shit that eats its shit. hide the newspapers, in an act of obscure mercy. the city comes in waves of blank contagion. the savage urban neutral. garbled demotic of crusade and porn. see a child’s eye, all glint and pique. her suckling severity. strategically bored. lovers. in the scare-quotes of a dead embrace. this tactical enfoldment. is foreplay for purchase. city comes. is scanned and graphed. into white, symmetrical territories. fountains. kiosks. plaza, vacant and fabulous. an ad hoc model of itself. stand in line. refracted, figured, figured out, prefigured, faked, a snake of faces. terraforming long-haul mouths to o. contend the bobbing dark behind your eyes. walk. squealing protein. the pompous loins of women with functioning wombs. seek consolation, scrolling. screens. this teleprompted blonde talks epoch into tundra. purring and viable, preens her sanitary plumage. rolls phonetic mess from the dirty atlas of our loss. walk disgusted round. coy chiffons. pelts and hides. cath kidson. bitter women paid in scent. expensive predilections. hired to service some frictionless lust in kitten heels. security. he wears his menace like a rented tux, obedient yet cynical. some people are below contempt. look up. the day’s events spread thin across a convex lens. stiff. a very dignified fear. the wretchedness we crane to catch. open-mouthed. to eat. an omasum, this eye. big fellah talking horseshit. dead poliss. the terror. these architects of tumult. shoot to kill, your target demographic. data-mined with a sniper’s touch. capital, this vapour is the stain of her singing. airport. they said, all you hip young things. they said. to shop instead of grieving. they said, we’ll tell you a story. raising a rash political beauty.
stepped outside and felt the austerities quicken. gridlocked and staring with fixity. all our futures: flammable, avenging. i didn’t know what to say. buy coldbrew, condense an irrational sweat in taxies. bliss is a beige paste sucked through a straw. welcome home, her tollbooths and drawbridges are down. i didn’t know. saw the banners first. and every bed sheet summons an echo of the flag. and your father’s face. how they folded out the light along its creases. became a parcel of tight want. everywhere, the orgiastic soundbite. hope and glory fumbled through a tannoy. the trial. the process. injunctions to vigilance. allegation, prohibition. and someone said beggars operate in this area. brains. mortgaged and foreshortened, nodding sagely into iphone, macchiato, a cup held out for change. and i didn’t understand. london. because the airport repeats, first as farce, then as tragedy. how everything, everything, is one long march to departure. britain bristles with blue passports. classified and tallied. looked at us like scum of the earth, laughing in humourless syncope with witchfinder eyes. in the shithole hotel, exhausted and glomarized, unworthy of the news. from clickbait into lynchmob, you said. a picture paints a thousand words, and buried in its texture is a scream. wait. stayed up all night, paring a nerve like a nail. touching the numbers through gloves of numb affect. furtive, coefficient. horror, til’ the mouth becomes a pious zero. see, there are these extremes of commerce and/or music. marketcrash. our homicidal luck. a thermal mercy, disarray, the day turned perfect twitterstorm. dust, as the phone goes dark. no signal. thumbing a dead-end text and openly weeping. what did they do? i googled your disasters. and my own. always there’s a woman swaying centre wears the ruin of her city loosely like a grass skirt. how this mouth was your mother’s mouth. a devotional oh. a rosy hole in the balance of probability. you, who had never known violence a day in your life, suddenly rigid, in a hard-backed plastic chair. your face immobile as a virgin queen. what would they do? summoned, verified, subjected to militant protocols. grief is not evidence, somebody said. inventor of the sobs that shook you.
we thought it couldn’t be any worse. when april carried effigies uphill, was a good-bad catholic. maggie, stuffed madonna, stiff as sawdust pickerel. pinhole squint. no eyes, only lenses. nanny-cam and crosshair. pimped her paper corpse in puppet to the square. a bent form mounted on a wall of septic flame. women in pyrrhic t-shirts, chanting. coach-loads. women from the kingdoms of baser elements. brass and coal. and acetone. oxidising, promissory night. daughters and reapers. a wrecked heredity. daddus, how their archives prized him. and thin boys, lain on lamb’s wool, leaking like smashed thermometers, silver and glass and fractured daylights. home as black concretionary mass. rage, grievous and specialised, a calendar threat. gathered to piss her witch’s ash to stain. there were slogans, mottoes. but the sinister rich – april, smeared in heat – are always with us. regan and thatcher. all trickledown immaculate, those keepers of concentric hells: the circus, the brothel, the jail. they filmed us, distended and contorted, crawling. we are fools. we burn what we hate to get free. they don’t aspire to freedom. lock us down, forever owned. they infiltrate, fringe the lover’s mouths with lies. their sentries, watchmen, recording angels. when they greiv, they keep the world away. some dolorous kleptocrat, muted and mouthing an ave maria. their funerals. gilded and snivelling, synchronised vanity. improbable honey, crudest oil. we were tearing our hair, swooning in tar. no longer bodies. a chorus, a spectacle. tourists took our pictures too. later, see our reinvented meat on instagram. for all our dead. a flaccid, caucasian genocide that no one mourns. footage. lips we peel from teeth to spit. slow-mo. oh, such wickedness. nailed us to a headline. kept but not remembered.
idioms, hyperboles. we have e-commerce, instagram, duress and blockade. detained, curtailed, adjudicated, hacked. all of the above. a summary corrective. closeyour eyes, you young offenders, look away. it was all bread and no circus. it was all circus and no bread. it was all speed and no motion. malignant rapidity. not endeavour or surrender. ludicrous, equivocal, dressed in lycra, running in place. in a confusion of coin-metal, terraces raining gold. hooligan doubloons. talking heads open their expertise like angel wings. a white coat knows what’s wrong. its gangs, games, the breakdown of the family. swipecard and retinal scan. this rented torso, worn in penance. surveilled is not the same as seen. tick-box-suspicious. slow blink banality captures them, grainy. repurposed x-rays, suddenly live for the briefest debasement. they are forging laws to lock you to your image. their content hangs its haunting from the long faces of facebook users, beavering at feeds. meanwhile, america’s fusing goon shows into squadrons, walking in step, impressionable and convinced. friend, they are rebranding our heritage. yours is a wet rubber bag steaming in the sun. donald trump talking subtitlese. your thoughts are for sale. the succulent untrue.
the brazen head has spoken: heat. and now, the summer lifts its loaded pitchforks to the light. the pewit in the dog- whistle of its wings. gardens teem, lecherous and stifled. here, the sly, fermented smiles of youth on bikes. they do not know. this heat, a tight green crouch that cannot spring. mother preens the sentimental hedges, while father wags a hammer at a nail; little darlings flicker in the surly glow of screens, and not yet ripe inside their hoods, are white and snug as unpicked beans. they do not know. of typhus, or of blight. of shroud, or yoke; of picket or of flail. old times of ague, ergot-glut. those hungry times. a race of scarecrow-scavengers who stoop their pale route through the dust. crops fail, and bodies burn, with every scotched intention. nature, not resurgent but insidious. the sap of sickness glistens on a lip; an eye becomes an ulcer. yet an oddling grace abides, abounds in burdock, sovereign bowers of meadowmat and columbine. the ramsons in a limestone wood; scent of resin, garlic, pine. fieldfare, haunters of the chalk, foraging for song. i followed john. the hottest day, and god, god was a big, bronze dynamo that drove the world. and god, god was a gavel knocked against the sweating temple, night on night. to swim the sky's dark boiling soak; to suck the oily rag of grief. i followed john, i saw the world, i squared its squalor with my eye: little village, prettied in an anise air that clouds and parts like ouzo. houses there are patient and forgetful, full of pride. footpaths deny their multitudes, and churches pose for photos. boys on bikes are sugar rush and selfies, fumble-tongued misogynies. pubs revile a mastiff dog, the plastery hands of working men. i woke and followed john. summer, gathers in its arrowheads: starlings, jutting up from fallow fields like flints. the honey buzzard's conqueror's call; the lichens on the drystone wall, a flaking papal gilding. no, they do not know. who swallow sermons down like swords; who drink the chicory english real. this land is equal ore and gorge. and john, if john is walking, eating grass or tearing at his hair, slides his shadow into ditches, where, tucked among the muddy reeds, his dreams are weeds, a knotty freedom spreading.
Fran Lock writes in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness, and includes a strange and rich poem taken from her forthcoming collection with Culture Matters, In Need of Saints.
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives… As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. – from Poetry Is Not a Luxury, by Audre Lord.
Each time I read the above the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and my pulse sprints just that little bit quicker. Sister Outsider, the collection of essays and speeches in which I first encountered “Poetry is Not a Luxury” was published way back in 1984, and yet its radical message has resonance and relevance that still outstrips most of what is written in defence of poetry today. This is both a testament to Lorde’s legacy as an activist and a writer, and a slightly depressing comment on the state of poetry and poetry discourse in the twenty-first century.
Almost by accident, over the last couple of years I’ve found myself an increasingly vocal participant in this discourse. My own erratic contributions have centred around the myriad ways in which working-class participation in poetry is policed; the ways in which our exclusion is engineered, our voices and ideas homogenised, defanged and defused. I’ve written at length on the importance of recognising our right to poetry; that poetry is ours, its art emerging of necessity from the economic conditions in which we find ourselves, from this climate of precarity, apprehension and threat. Poetry’s mode of production is fitted for lives mired in unlovable labour, anxiety and deprivation. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it communicates in flashes and fragments, moments or phrases pulled from the true. It functions as both an expression of and an escape from all that besets us. It is radiant and necessary.
You’d be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, by the number of people who take issue with this definition of poetry. Can you eat a fucking poem? A friend of mine asked. Is poetry going to feed the meter or wash my clothes or pay my bus fare? No, of course not. A poem doesn’t belong to the same order of things as a jacket potato or a five pound note. It won’t satisfy your hunger, but it does provide a language in which to describe being hungry, in which to expose and to challenge the political and economic conditions that keep you hungry. Poetry is a resource for those without recourse. It is a space for those whose struggles and sufferings are exiled from quotidian language. It points to the deficiencies and failures of the systems that administer us. It’s the one place we get to define who and what we are, a place where we are visible, present, where our experiences enter and infiltrate English on our terms. Daily discourse doesn’t allow for this.
This is why poetry matters to me. As far as I’m concerned, this is the point of poetry. Since about 2016, as I began to refine this argument, to test its weight out there in the world, I have been lucky enough to meet with and share poetry across various cohorts of working-class writers. These experiences have been some of the most valuable and nourishing of my creative life. And yet, I find that even among my colleagues and comrades I’m continuously butting heads about what poetry is and what it's for.
The biggest bone of contention has been this notion of accessibility, specifically the notion of accessibility constructed as some kind of absolute and unassailable moral category, in violent opposition to a parallel tradition of academic elitism. I take issue with the idea that my work should strenuously enact this kind of accessibility, that it has an ethical obligation to communicate in “the language of the people”. Such an idea is disingenuous and patronising in the extreme. Poetry simply isn’t speech. Whether you’re talking about Attila the Stockbroker or J.H. Prynne, poetry is crafted, tailored and shaped; refined and heightened, larded or stripped. Poetry is deliberate, each line transmits tension, intention and meaning. To pretend otherwise is to deny the discipline in what we do, to be afraid to call ourselves artists, to effectively edit ourselves out of art. Besides which, who says that working-class people must find poetic complexity off-putting? Who says we should not be stimulated and provoked by difficulty? That our experiences and ideas do not demand and facilitate strange and complex registers of language?
To accept this is inherently impoverishing to poetry. I have come to believe that the onus should not be on working-class creators to limit their field of expression, but that access – that is full cultural participation – is better achieved by bringing pressure to bear on the institutions and funding bodies driving this perceived dichotomy to implement real, radical systemic change in the way resources are allocated, in the way that poetry is taught, and to the provision of not merely equal but fair opportunities for creative cultural contribution. Poetry isn’t accessible or inaccessible, but our current educational system operates a hidden curriculum that manipulates and limits working-class imagination, telling those from the margins what is and isn’t for them, what parts of poetry they have a right to partake of, practice and enjoy.
Staking radical political claims upon rendering individual creative projects accessible is seductive. It’s seductive because it’s easy, a kind of cop-out that avoids engaging the deep systemic and structural inequalities inherent in the publication and dissemination of poetry, and in language itself. To be poor, for example, and to be marginalised, is to find yourself everywhere described, relentlessly recorded and administered, spoken of, but never to, figuring not as persons but as problems within the apparatus, language, and collective imagination of the state. Daily discourse serves to elide or to invisibilise grim material reality; stock phrases reduce and dehumanise you; bland bureaucracy circumscribes your testimony, inhibits and restricts you. You are failed by language, by the sterile functionality of commonplace language encounters. We might be accustomed to thinking of words as tools for expression, but more often than not they mediate and mask, filter and constrain; they neutralise potential threat, they blunt language’s capacity for affective moral witness. So it is no longer enough to say I am cold, I am hungry. Those words have lost their meaning, their ability to shock people into awareness. To expose what ordinary language obscures requires strangeness and hybridity; new phrases, new ways of saying to retune attention toward human suffering.
The continual backlash against richness and complexity in poetry both frustrates and perplexes me. To be dexterous with language, to force it into strange conjunctions, is to feel a little less at its mercy; to accelerate at warp speed away from the diminishing institutional lingo of government departments, and the easy dismissive stereotyping of popular parlance. It is to escape the narrative demands placed on me by a world that has asked me every day for the last eighteen years to account for myself, my mental state and my experiences in a vocabulary unfit for the task; to dilute my perceptions, thoughts and feelings to a linear stream of commonplaces, commonplaces that have no room for creativity, inventiveness, ambiguity or élan. It makes no sense to me to use the words, phrases and formulations of the systems that harass and hound me to tackle those systems. It would bring me no joy, it would offer me no release, and most importantly of all, it wouldn’t do a thing to redress the stupid, stupefying force of those systems. We must recognise our right to poetry, to all poetry, as both writers and readers, but as working-class activists we must also pursue a radical imperative towards polyvocality, complexity and richness.
I do not mean by this that poetry has room only for baroque multi-clausal psycho-dramas, but that our definition of what working-class poetry is and can encompass be expanded to include ways of using language that deviate from the expected and accessible; that we do not decry as “inauthentic” or manoeuvre out of our communities and publishing cohorts working-class voices that approach poetry in difficult or unconventional ways. It seems to me to be untenable – and yes even “elitist” – to insist working-class creators conform to and perform one monolithic vision of working-class identity, cutting ourselves off in self-policing enclaves away from wider cultural conversations about the practice of our art. Elitist, and monstrously self-defeating. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and professing some kind of political bias against the beautiful, intricate or challenging is erecting a massive wall between yourself and much that is nourishing, interesting and inspiring.
If we begin by taking issue with the ways in which working-class voices are allowed to express themselves through poetry, we end by adjudicating on what are authentic and acceptable subjects for working-class poems. It is true that a great deal of what finds its way into print says nothing to us about our lives, but is that really to say that a working-class poetics is a poetics that consciously and continuously engages with one very specific material and economic reality? Is there no room in our conception of working-class poetics for poems about mountains, stars, the sea, quirks of nature, kinks in history, penguins, flowers, Carmelite lace? In denying ourselves and our poetries those things, don’t we allow their imaginative colonisation by intellectual and economic power elites, their ways of seeing and knowing the world? I don’t want to rid poetry of the view from a steep and windswept hill. I just wish that view wasn’t monopolised by people whose vision is tinted by a security and a certainty me and mine will never possess. We have so much to say about beauty, our sense of it is urgent and acute, bound about as it is by the pressures and privations of our daily lives. Say what you like about what I do, but when Fran Lock looks at a sunset you fucking know about it.
More than all of this, though, I write in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness because I believe the subjects of my poems warrant and deserve that level of attention and intensity. I’ve fought hard to bring these landscapes into print, and to defend my vision of these places and these people as beautiful and good. Most don’t look at squats and doss houses and rusty caravans and council estates and flyovers and petrol station forecourts and muddy rec grounds as sites of and occasions for beauty. They’re wrong. These were my places, my people, and they’ve just as much right to intelligent, nuanced and textured language as anything or anyone else. By this practice they are lifted and cherished. Richness is an act of remembrance, preservation, grieving, a radical act of love.
Homobonus in Primark
by Fran Lock
where will it end? the long-sleeve t-shirts sleep, all folded over themselves like bats. black lycra’s pirate sinew stretched to slack. and tubes of ruined wool relax and lose their shape. sleeves wear the gape empty snakes. disfigured fabrics frayed in heaps. a woman shaking out the prissy shapes of a summer blouses. a hanger’s embittered caress. for two pound ten! each pleat a gauntlet of skirmished thread, rough to the touch. it costs so little! the woman said. impossible pasture of rags, dear god! it costs so very much. where will it end? i stroke the mesh, the weft, the weave, from cheviot to chiffon-cling. grope a glut of sturdy twills. my hands surge out across an odyssey of cotton, serge. and batiste gowns are grown in rows like off-white heads of lettuce. crisp and sleek. and underfoot, the scattered wits of covered buttons. look! it’s in the sale! adrenaline and penny pinch. cash canters horselessly between the heels. hemlines. oh, i have loved the cambrics and the calicos, the way a seam will meet like steadfast hands in payer. i have loved the self-important bombazines and obsolete brocades, stood in satin-transfix running a bolt of blue charmeuse through my hands like a live fish. but no, not like this. no, not this way. the woman who sewed this blouse, this dress, her lungs are diseased heirlooms huffing dust; her shoulders cramped askew. not like this, a child in a stocking of sweat with eyes as dull and flat as coins, his name a smudge on a label. the day that factory became a dirt red funnel for human grief. it’s just so cheap, dirt cheap! yes, dirt. your cambrics, buckrams heresies. and what’s it worth, a mewling life? how many assiduous stitches, tucked and running? in lamé gold is interwoven - sweet secret vein through common cloth. as pain pursues its jagged course, in every shirt you smooth and touch.
Note: Being the Patron Saint of tailors and businessmen, Homobonus provides an ethical exemplar for commercial life: scrupulously honest, and using his fortune to help those in need. Primark use sweatshop labour. In 2013 one of their factories in Dhaka collapsed killing and trapping hundreds of workers. At a subsequent demonstration in Dhaka by factory workers in 2015, police opened fire on grieving protestors. Primark avoided paying over 9 billion in corporation tax this year. They are still open for business. This is not okay.
no one else to share my slanted fate. god was routine unrelenting splendour; too fine and far a thing to help. nervous and compelled between the corridor, the alleyway, or any place a slack luck failed. pain like tearing paper; pain like biting through a glass. spasm, cramp. on days that paled to finite shine in ugly towns of bleak taboo beside the sea. terrible things. this secret snow inside the globe of me. learnt to defer to a four-letter word, to the force majeure of shame. girls conform to the lock- jaw logic of tetanus – dread for days. afraid to say, afraid to name, afraid of speech. girls untongue their stunting curse with silence, cannot pray. god was an unbodied brilliance loose in the room, too bright and wide a thing to help. and christ as pure as a blank page, the standard hush of libraries. no one else to share recession’s stink, insomnia, this bare and complex dark without design. unsteadied and expendable, where flesh is ghettoed, got, in bruising schools or trapped in airless rooms on truant afternoons. a twisted mess of pleats and seams our stammered lot. and god is good, but god’s too good, and god aghast is, faberge and satellite – beaming his gold nonplus in tempered waves. on days you need a human hand, a human heart. and what is prayer? in the ear or in the air? in between each doubt and grounded wish. the intelligent shape of noise. what is prayer? a hope you hold becalmed in the bowl of your own hearing? insensible shell, the ear that makes an ache of all my straining for sound. to be received, just once. it was rita and mary magdalene, lucia, agnes and Theresa who pulled me up from joyless aural dystrophy: lost in abject static – the directionless spite of words unheard, halfheard, unsaid. to be received. somewhere, by women like myself, but strong. saints, our better engines, our comrades, our sorority. they were my own sleek coping – there in my mildewed bedroom, coming and going, a tiered light in their hair, as fast as doves or monkeys, as tangible as cats.
Rita of the White Bees
by Fran Lock
To Saint Rita of Cascia, Patron Saint of Impossible Causes, and of abused women.
pray for us, for the girls like green splinters, their pierced reveal unfolding in small towns running on skeleton crews; for the pageant-hearted girls who burst like bright ideas into backseats, bikinis, the blessable dream of being human; for the too skinny stay-awake girls, living on rice wine and red light, whose home is the typical elsewhere of exiles; for the lip-glossed gonzo girls, those high femme fatalists, all cried out; for the lost girls, giddy and groped on, coked to their stoic ponytails, shiny and slick and swinging like whips; for the headlong girls, barefoot and bracing themselves in a bus lane, smiles like Saint Laurent scarves on fire, manic and vampire; for the girls who went waning in wraparound glasses to clinics and vigils; for the pub-crawled girls in packs, in parks and lanes, alive with the loitering joy of foxes; for the girls who fuck like stray cats come to sad anatomical terms in the spongy summer nights of cities; for the girls in ravenous warp speed, spinning, spun, till tears collect in their cartwheeled eyes like sparks; pray for us, for wasted girls with workshy serotonin, whose trestle cheekbones grind on air; for the peep-toed girls with broken heels and fake eyelashes, trafficking tears at a photo shoot; for the lookbook, look back angry girls, whose bad day is a black dress that goes with everything; for the bitch fight girls, their raw collided atmospheres on fire, all cellulite, venom, and celebrity perfume; for the girls whose hairdos are stairways to heaven, whose pigments shiver in vintage frocks, whose song is a storm in a borderline thought, who tend their fetishes like flowers; for the girls, most of all, who are their own witching hour, their jaundiced drama dragging them down in the bump and grind of a tightening gyre; for the girls whose vertigo is not the fear of falling, but the fear of jumping; who are so entirely sick of this mingy, yelping ethic men call love; for the girls who are no longer young, whose unmade faces are empty airports; whose bodies are the quarrels they are having with themselves; for these girls, their madness lasting them out like a sensible pair of leather boots. Patroness of Impossible Causes, pray for us, that we might flip a decade’s deadweight like a mattress; gather our Godspeed, walk away from ourselves.