Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

Poetry, Humour, the General Election, and the Dream of a Better World
Wednesday, 05 June 2024 19:26

Poetry, Humour, the General Election, and the Dream of a Better World

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock excoriates the Tories and presents some great poems. Image above: Soldiers Leave the Armed Forces, by Chad McCail

I cannot tell a lie, I began writing this article to the sound of maniacal laughter (mostly my own). The sight of a desolated, slump-shouldered Rishi Sunak, announcing a general election in the pouring rain was an occasion for much hilarity in the Lock household. And let's face it, many of us needed that release. The final dark days of Tory rule in Britain have been grim. Scrap that, the entire fourteen years of Tory rule have been grim, but this last couple of months have felt especially feverish and unpleasant.

In the midst of a monumentally racist immigration policy, an unprecedented funding crisis in health and social care, inflation, wage stagnation, soaring rents, multiple escalating environmental urgencies, and – worse than all of these – continued licencing of arms to Israel, changes to the Criminal Justice Bill (8th Feb) now further empower police and criminalise protesters, curbing peaceful public displays of solidarity and dissent. Without wishing to succumb to hyperbole, you wake up some mornings wondering if you haven't sleep-walked into a police state.

We need to laugh, however hollow it sometimes sounds: the personal wealth of Rishi Sunak and his wife rose by £122 million last year. Their fortune now stands at around £651 million. He might be the target of open public ridicule, but he sleeps on a dragon hoard of obscene and unearned wealth, so my guess is he probably doesn't give a shit. I have friends who tell me that in this context laughter – and the art that is its vehicle – dissipates energies that might otherwise (better) be directed towards resistance and protest. With the greatest of respect, I'm not quite sure that's right. I think our poems, skits, memes, and songs serve an important social function; not in allowing us individual release, but providing a moment to coalesce around, offering us a shared expression of solidarity inside of cultural space. More than this, I think humour and art can provide a much-needed break in the relentless, deadening logic of the present moment.

What do I mean by that? I suppose I have been thinking that while creative responses to the end of Tory power have been energetic, humorous, sometimes exciting, the accompanying political discourse often feels depressingly utilitarian: vote for the best placed/ least unprincipled candidate; in a straight fight, vote Labour, anything to get the Tories out. Absolutely rational, but hardly joyful. A cursory scroll through social media and the mood is nonplussed. No one is delighted by the prospect of Starmer's “Tory-lite” government, nor impressed by his restoration of the Blairite capitalist character of the Labour party. Why would they be? With high-profile hard-right defections (most recently Dover's own nauseating Natalie Elphicke) can the party even be described as Labour in anything but name? Starmer's recent protestations of “socialism” leave a nasty taste in the mouth. They also leave a person wondering if we have entered some kind of parallel reality in which well-known words and phrases mean the opposite of their real-world equivalents. It is, let's face it, pretty depressing.

Grotesque reality

'Broad Church' by Bridget Frances Keating takes this miserable state of affairs to its logical yet most outrageous conclusion, welcoming into her unnamed party a cast of dangerous criminals, outlandish cartoon super-villains, and medieval monstrosities. While satire broaches its criticism of society from a safe value-point or stable centre, the grotesque emerges when the centre does not hold, when we have no way to orient or navigate the bewildering events unfolding around us; when our political reality fits no known rational framework, even an abhorrent one. Keating's poem is a grotesque, then, in that true sense: monstrous and absurd in equal measure.

I was immediately struck by this poem's sonic properties: the long vowel sounds suggestive of bovine lowing, and evoking (while exaggerating) the glib “smooth-talking” of those political elites the speaker describes. I was also intrigued by Keating's mixture of real and fantasy characters, and the way in which the poet choreographs these to signal the seeming unreality of our own political moment. I would also suggest that by placing these real-world oppressors, abusers and genocidal maniacs next to their comic-book counterparts, Keating reduces these figures of fear, refuses to be cowed by them, and denies them something of their power.

The poem is, perhaps strangely, in the form of a loose sonnet. Keating plays, I think, on the sonnet's association with “love”, as well as with that most English of literary figures, William Shakespeare. On one level, the piece is ironising the romantic or peaceable ideals conjured by the form (something echoed on the semantic level through use of the word “welcome”), while on another level the poem addresses how cultural forms are recruited to serve dangerous political or nationalistic scripts. In her choice of form Keating gives us a timely reminder of the absurdities to which language is subjected, and the murderous abuses in which it is often implicated.

Broad Church

By Bridget Frances Keating

Welcome, lugubrious smooth-talkers.
Welcome, you ruthless, pecunious stake-
holders. Welcome,you students of ruin.
Welcome, Lex Luthor and Idi Amin.
Welcome, you sellers of snake oil.
Welcome, you wantons of risk.
Welcome, mad Magoth and Belial.
Welcome, you stooges of frictionless
hubris. Welcome, clown princes of burial.
Welcome, you breakers of necks.
Welcome, you charmers and dealers
of arms. Welcome, you snatchers of milk.
We, with our welcome, will smother
all qualms. Lay out your conscience on silk.

'Between a rock and a hard place' by P.V. Tims takes a slightly different approach: the speaker is a voter asked to choose between equally unappealing political candidates, and not at all excited by the prospect. In the opening lines, Tims frames this choice in schlocky pop-cultural terms, riffing on the chorus of the 1972 stoner classic 'Stuck in the Middle' by Stealers Wheel. The stanza then segues into the well-known Tennyson poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. While the speaker plays the conflation of these two texts for laughs, the juxtaposition is an uneasy one, implying that while the situation is laughable, the consequences may nevertheless prove fatal. 'Charge of the Light Brigade', lest we forget, is a poem about a suicidal cavalry charge during the Crimean war, in which countless (working-class) lives were sacrificed by the decisions of their commanding officers.

While the speaker initially interrupts himself to correct his mistake, he undercuts this in the second stanza with 'Or perhaps not', implying that the confusion is a meaningful one; that once again we exist within a time and political climate in which working-class life is to be sacrificed: this sacrifice is political and figurative, certainly, but perhaps – the poem suggests – also literal.

The yellow labels are a striking motif throughout the piece. The repetition of the image signals their oppressive ubiquity within the life of the speaker. While they refer literally to the yellow discount labels on supermarket food, they soon become a badge or stamp that marks the speaker himself, that circumscribes his choices and designates him as a low-income working-class person. I think the most arresting (and horrible) image is that of the speaker's tongue, even his wife's kiss, tasting of yellow labels: something of conspicuously poor quality; not nourishing or pleasurable. While the image itself is exaggerated and darkly comic, with its blurring of food and food packaging into one unpalatable image, it nevertheless signals the extent to which capitalist logics have infiltrated the speaker's life and body, even down to his most intimate connections. There is nowhere he can go, even inside himself, where he can escape or forget his classed identity. In the final stanza the labels are places (presumably in lieu of coins) over the dead speaker's eyes: his status as poor and working-class follows him even into death; reduces him in the final extremis to a cheap, chuck-away product.

In the fourth stanza of the poem, the speaker is placed in a 'portable stocks of debt', made to walk up and down looking for 'a job I do not want and that/ does not exist.' The Kafkaesque nature of this punishment is initially funny, then quickly disturbing. The stocks have a long association with public shaming, and the image speaks to the demonisation of the “undeserving poor”, forced to offer themselves up for ever more abject forms of labour in an economy within which full employment is literally impossible. Reading this stanza, I found it impossible not to hear echoes of both Labour and the Tories appeals to mythical “hard-working” families, and the political scapegoating of benefits claimants.

Ultimately, Tims' poem is full of humour, but of a barbed and rather bleak variety, heralding a 'brave new world' in which little seems likely to change for the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us. ‘Stuck in the middle’ feels about right.

Between a rock and a hard place

By P.V. Tims

Clowns to the left of me,
jokers to the right, into
the jaws of death – wait,
wrong song.

Or, perhaps not.
Our food tastes
of yellow labels.
My tongue tastes
of yellow label.
My wife's kiss
tastes of yellow
label.

In the brave new world
the leccy is still metered,
the walls are still mouldy,
the labels are still yellow.

In the brave new world
I will still walk up and down
with my neck in the portable
stocks of debt, looking for
a job I do not want and that
does not exist.

I'll still die in the brave
new world. When I die
in the brave new world
they will seal my eyes
with yellow labels. 

'Après moi, le déluge' by Sabrina Lyall is a different animal altogether and (I think) a real hoot of a poem. While the title refers to a quote attributed to King Louis XV of France, generally understood as an expression of political indifference to whatever happens after one is gone, Lyall repurposes the famous lines to apply to Rishi Sunak's general election announcement, imagining polluted floodwaters of biblical proportions carrying off not just Sunak but the entire Tory tribe. Here, the result of their indifference is returned spectacularly to sender. Don't care was made to care, as the aphorism goes.

For myself, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is that in using quotes from various memes and tweets, Lyall positions the poem within the same kind of fundamentally unserious space, situating it inside a shared media culture, and performing a kind of coterie address. A joke is better if it's shared, right? But I  also think this allows the poem to mount something of a stealth attack: broaching serious political criticism through humour and play. I really relish this aspect of the poem, and the implied claim that Lyall is making for poetry: that it belongs to the same daily world as memes, tweets, shared jokes, general banter, and not in some self-serious ivory tower. Poetry is, therefore, absolutely the proper place for collective political challenge.

The poem invokes the Tories' disastrous privatisation of the water (no reservoirs have been built in this country since privatisation in 1989), their serial failures to protect our waterways from the dumping of raw sewage, and their apathetic attitude to flood defence for poor rural areas. Yet the piece is also haunted by the spectre of Tory immigration policy, which ruthlessly targets those entering the country on “small boats”. It is not by accident that these boats become the vehicles of salvation and hope in the final stanza of the poem. As the biblical ark is a symbol of hope and life restored, so too are Lyall's “small boats” representative of a Tory-free future of mutual kindness and radical care.

Après moi, le déluge

By Sabrina Lyall

Thi-i-i-ngs can only get wetter!
For Rishi asleep-at-the-wheel
Sunak, as pools of brown
unreservoired water begin to
rise around his knees .

Suddenly:
It's a torrent! It's a tide!
It's Rishi Washy Sunak,
partially submerged!
King Cnut. With a typo.

Dry land is not a myth!
But even his promises
are sodden. He wades
through refrains
like a drowning man.

And still the deluge!
All the waters of retribution.
To make an estuary
of Westminster.

While they flounder
in the flood, tasting
the filthy silt of their
polluted rivers.

We make our hope
an ark. On small boats
we're sailing away.

As I struggled to choose the poems and organise my thoughts for this column, I was chatting with poet, comrade, author and educator Kevin Patrick McCann, and he said something to me that really speaks to the poems I've selected this quarter, and to what poetry can be or do for us in general: “poetry can help you learn to sidestep the obvious […] socialism isn't just about economics. It's so much more than that. It's about human beings’ inner lives as well as their outer ones.”

Kevin is a wise owl, and I think he nails it: what both poetry and humour are uniquely placed to do is to negotiate between those inner and outer lives; the rage, disappointment or pain often felt by the individual, and the collective political engagements such feelings demand. Poetry can be a bridge between personal feelings and political engagement; they can transform those feelings into provocations, calls to arms; they can give us great purpose. Poetry is also a place, I think, where we can step outside of (or sidestep) the dogged realism required of us in daily life. It can be a place for big gestures, for exaggeration, hyperbole, play. All of which serve to reinvigorate our commitment, to strengthen our bongs, to fuel the fire for the task ahead. 

Bridget Frances Keating is the author of two poetry pamphlets, Party Like its 1381 (2018), and Totally F**king Disco (2021), both published by the late lamented Two Yellow Dogs Press. She has recently moved to London and is feeling overwhelmed.

P.V. Tims Like everyone else, is trapped by the illusion of linear time, a condition he seeks to alleviate through therapeutic engagement with the polymorphic Infinite. He is the author of various novels and short-story collections, most recently Small Infinities (Culture Matters, 2023) and Warning: Infohazard, due from X Press later this year. He lives Up North with the love of his life, their adopted daughter, five cats and the most sarcastic trans woman on Earth. When he isn’t writing really weird stories, he practices sleight of hand, and hopes one day to be recognised as the Magician King of Britannia – a title he invented and which means absolutely nothing.

Sabrina Lyall divides her time between Clonmel and London. She is fairly new to poetry but is currently seeking a publisher for her first collection, tentatively titled Savant.

'Bondage' and 'Captivity': Two poems by Dan Melling, introduced by Fran Lock
Saturday, 06 April 2024 09:57

'Bondage' and 'Captivity': Two poems by Dan Melling, introduced by Fran Lock

Published in Poetry

Introduction by Fran Lock

Please read the poems below. In Bondage we enter a scene reminiscent of agrarian indentured labour, somewhere (to my mind anyway) in the long Middle Ages. But as the poem progresses, we come to realise that the bond the subject owes is not only to labour, lord or master, but to the land itself, and through the land, to the future. It could be set anywhere at any time. While the work is difficult, there is both an intimate and inevitable quality to the paces Melling's labourer-subject is put through. At the end of the piece we might find ourselves reflecting on the precise degree of difference between responsibility and debt, between being tied and being bound.

I knew I wanted to write something about this poem the moment I read it, because it conjured for me such a clear and specific image. In the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral there is a 14th century fragment, formerly part of the decorated canopy in the Lady Chapel. It depicts a small (gaunt) peasant figure in tunic and cowl hood - see image above. Such figures were rarely depicted in medieval art, so it's incredibly striking. The figure's arms are bent, his left on his hip or the small of his back, while the right is strumming his thin belly like a ukulele. There's no translating the look on his face, but to me it seems purposeful, grim; the mouth is set in an unsmiling line. I've seen men come off night shift looking like that. I read stiffness in his posture; he's awkward in the way he holds himself as if trying to negotiate the discomfort of his own body. Or it's like he knows he doesn't quite belong in the chapel; can't decide how to stand or where to look. I thought of him vividly when reading this poem.

It's not just the scene the poem evokes, but there's something about Melling's choice of short, thin, interconnected tercets that helps to irresistibly recall that figure. The rhythm these stanzas inscribe is not that of the mellifluous, contemplative lyric line; this is not a poem of ease, in breath or in body. Instead, the poem is patterned in quick, syllabically irregular bursts. It doesn't 'flow', it halts and starts; effort is written into the structural stuff of it. And yet, because of the way each stanza bleeds into the next, the piece has its own inexorable momentum. Melling achieves this momentum though minimal use of punctuation, but also through deft attention to sound, using the sonic properties of words to create chains of meaning across lines and between stanzas, for example 'matters', 'scrabbling', 'hand' and 'land' weaving, in sonic counterpoint, to 'leak', 'tears', 'feet', and 'sweetens'. These sound-chains serve to unite the human body with the body of the land, not only through cycles of physical exertion, but also through dissolution and decay. We fertilise the land, but we are also the fertiliser. Our bodies work the land, but our inescapable destiny is that the land will one day go to work on our bodies.

Class, place, art and labour

Marxist critic William Empson, writing in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), suggests that 'good proletarian art is usually Covert Pastoral.' By which he means that from Thyrsis on, pastoral poetry has used the scene of nature as a site and occasion for talking about the pleasures of art and the difficulties of work, to that extent that pastoral poems often contain disguised commentaries about the tense interrelations of class and place; art and labour. One of the things I love about this poem is that it makes the interrelation of these forces explicit. It also, I think, gives the lie to a big inherited hangover from the Romantic lyric tradition, where N/nature is a democratically accessible psychic resource, one that we exist apart from, but which we can tap for either inspiration or consolation as the mood takes us.

There's no dualism in this poem: we 'scrabble', 'leak', and 'sweat' into the earth; the earth 'leeches' into us. That sonic affinity between 'leaking' and 'leeching' is a particularly deft touch, emphasising how these twin processes mirror each other in continuous cycles. There is also the reference to 'bulbs and pulses' in the sixth stanza: 'pulses' clearly refers to the edible seed of the legume plant referenced in the previous stanza, but it also carries connotations of human heartbeat and breath; the human body is also full of bulbs. They are both literally and figuratively 'of us'. Everything about the poem signals a tactile enmeshment with the natural world.

Something else I found myself fascinated by was the strategic repetition of 'matter'. This feels significant, and it had me thinking about the various meanings and definitions of 'matter': as an elementary physical substance distinct from the world of spirit and thought, and as a subject under consideration. 'Matter' might also be used to refer to print materials, summoning the scene of writing. Again, the poem speaks back to the long shadow cast by Cartesian dualism: matter and spirit are not distinct categories at all, just as the scene of writing or thinking and the scene of nature are not distinct; one provokes, sustains and shapes the other. Bondage may in fact refer to our inescapably earthly (and earthy) embodied existence. Acknowledging this shifts our perceptions of nature, but it also challenges some pretty embedded assumptions about who has access to – for want of a better phrase – the life of the mind, and the places where meaningful consideration can be found.

A profound note of ecological and social hope

Given all this, what are we to make of the poem's ending? The first time I read it I saw the (false) comfort of a promised hereafter, either in terms of religious eternity or the capitalist fantasy of working yourself to death to better the lives of your children. Both could be seen as consoling fictions, weaponised by regimes of power to forestall meaningful action towards change in the present. In which case 'Bondage' might also stand for the human mind in thrall to such palliative and politically suspect illusions. But then I read it again: far from deferred gratification producing a state of suspended animation, the poet's subject is incredibly purposeful and active. What they seem to have realised is that they are working towards change so glacial as to be virtually imperceptible within the span of an individual life. They are part of a generational process, incremental, accumulative, and steady.

While the idea that the next life, or the next life will be better could be seem as ultimately futile wishful thinking; a self-soothing mantra that allows the subject to endure the unendurable, it could also signal an allegiance to the slow work of change. I'm reminded of the oft-quoted maxim of Bobby Sands that “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children”. For the subject this futurity 'is enough'. Perhaps this poem is set in that future, a signpost to the slog ahead if we are to save even a portion of our burning earth. In affirming an arduous commitment to that E/earth and to life, the poem sounds a profound note of ecological and social hope.

I wanted to look at Captivity alongside Bondage because it has such a radically different setting and tone, yet it is also concerned with different kinds of imprisonment, confinement, responsibility and powerlessness. While neither piece is morally didactic or instructional, placing these two poems side by side did make me think of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in that they explore contrasting states of the human soul, extrapolating outwards from individual spiritual or mental conditions to the social conditions they engender. I found this a really useful way to think about both texts.

The first thing that struck me about Captivity was its use of open and connected couplets: each brief stanza is a vivid, self-contained moment that jumps rather than spills into the next. One of the things I find both interesting and impressive about this poem is the way in which Melling uses the same  minimal punctuation as he does in Bondage to achieve a range starkly different expressive effects. While the tercets in Bondage blur and merge, the couplets in Captivity seem to glitch and skitter, evoking both our inundated and distracted attention, and the escalating assault on senses and spirit so common to the Western world. Both poems use their structural properties to create momentum, but while Bondage uses the line to build pace with purpose by inevitable increments, Captivity inscribes what Rachel Blau Duplessis has called the “malignant rapidity” of contemporary capitalism: a space in which we can briefly witness, but rarely reflect on the conditions and experiences that beset us.

The very opening line of the poem moves us out of an implied reflective space: 'I’ve been spending too much/ time looking through stained/ glass.' We might think immediately of time spent in ecclesiastical buildings, or perhaps of some cloistered scholarly space with its connotations of ivory tower insularity. We're left to guess what the speaker means by 'too much' or by what metric, because the thought itself is interrupted by reported speech, words that seem equally to puncture the space of the poem, coming from the outside in: 'Friend' says the voice, an appeal that quickly transforms into an accusation: 'that’s not even/ enough for a cup of coffee, friend.'

This is the speaker's first moment of failure; the first time they find the gestures they are able to make unequal to the suffering they meet with. In this context 'Friend' takes on a bitterly ironising quality. We might imagine that the homeless figure uttering those words is inflecting them with a certain degree of sarcasm, but the idea of friendship and the bonds of human care are themselves being scrutinised within the poem as it sensitises us to the gap between a form of words and their meaning. This becomes more apparent as the speaker moves inside, where a nameless institutional 'they' 'lock me into another/ shift.' The carceral, almost involuntary quality of 'locked' feels significant here, as the speaker enters a territory where the work of care is securitised, privatised, and coerced into pre-determined shapes. Yet 'shift' may also be meaningful: a period of labour, but also a change, perhaps of perception. Does working within this institution demand a new or unnatural way of seeing; one that the speaker must train or force themselves to inhabit?

From the third to the seventh stanza the speaker is again confronted with their powerlessness in the face of human suffering by 'a woman –/ trafficked – shared with us/ no common language' as she 'danced sadly lifted her shirt/ white pulse of fear/ & impotent energy'. Here the 'no common language' is not merely the lack of a mutual mother tongue, but something within her experience of suffering that exceeded or was failed by language itself. The woman is compelled/ reduced to dancing, to gesture because her experience is in a sense unspeakable. There is also the sense, I think, that her gestures are uncommon as in rare; they provoke a profound response that is, in itself beyond the speaker's power to fully articulate. The syntax of the poem allows the present of the speaker and the past of the dancer to collapse into one another. 'there was no help/ that could happen' for her during the event or after; the 'white pulse of fear/ & impotent energy' could belong, syntactically, to either speaker or subject equally. The use of the ampersand in place of the more usual 'and' serves further to compress and contract the moment, to collide identities and temporalities.

And then with a snap, the poem is back for a brief moment in a contemplative place, thinking with some regret about the well-trodden philosophical standard of Plato's cave analogy (very basically, that for figures chained in a cave only aware of shadows on the wall, the shadows would appear as absolute reality; any prisoner forcibly removed from their cave would experience pain and violent terror before slowly adjusting to the world beyond, while others would resist leaving the relative safety of the cave at all). The speaker states that 'the sad thing about' Plato's allegory is 'how obsessed we've always been with captivity/ a maggot born of a human brain/ hatched in tradition.' These are lines of unusual power: the sonic affinity between 'captivity', 'maggot', 'hatched', and 'tradition' create a chain of association that relates the idea of imprisonment to that of sickness, degeneration, madness and decay, and decay to traditions of thought in which captivity is a dominating metaphor or concern. Underpinned by allegories of imprisonment, our 'traditions' themselves create prisons of thought, reproducing the captive conditions they seek to describe.

It's a peculiar segue, and rendered all the more unsettling for being so vitriolic and so brief. Again, this feels entirely deliberate: the poem refusing to conform to our notions of a contemplative lyric space. Instead it spurs us on, back into obtruding reality, all simmering violence and off-kilter menace: 'a man with half a nose/ demonstrates on his hand how to bite/ off a nose.' These last five stanzas proliferate images of prisons: even the off-licence is behind a security cage and reinforced glass; hypersexualised and exploited women are pictured 'writhing in white cubes', and these women are themselves compared to a memory of arctic foxes in a bare and dismal zoo. The idea of captivity is itself inescapable, no matter what the speaker tries: alcohol, crack, pornography, sleep. His imagination turns in tight cycles. Carceral saturation has rendered the prison pervasive and invisible. We have ambient prison now, there are no other terms of reference.

This is not a hopeful poem, but neither is it hopeless. I think, rather, it is about hopelessness; about the patterns and traps we are conditioned to fall into. It is chilling, but I kind of think we need it.

Bondage

by Dan Melling

Most mornings
he thinks what
matters if

we spend our lives
scrabbling in dirt
really it’s quite intimate

the intimacy between hand
and hoe, between land
and the fertiliser we leak

onto it, the mud
churned with tears and feet
the sweat that evaporates

into rain, sweetens
in the ground
grows leguminous.

It doesn’t matter
he thinks that these
bulbs and pulses

aren’t for us
they’re of us
and that’s enough

for the days when
there’s wood to crackle
in the fire

and even when there’s
not and the ice leeches
up our legs into our skulls

at least life will be better
in the next life
or the next life.

 

Captivity

by Dan Melling

I’ve been spending too much
time looking through stained

glass. Friend, says the man
in the doorway, that’s not even

enough for a cup of coffee, friend.
I ring the buzzer & they

lock me into another
shift. On another shift a woman –

trafficked – shared with us
no common language

danced sadly lifted her shirt
white pulse of fear

& impotent energy
there was no help

that could happen when
they put her into the black

BMW & took her back to –
the sad thing about

the allegory of the cave is how obsessed
we’ve always been with captivity

a maggot born of a human brain
hatched into tradition. In the 24 hour

off-licence on Duke Street
with its cages & 2 inch thick

glass a man with half a nose
demonstrates on his hand how to bite

off a nose. Smoking crack with T
watching hours of Babecast

the women writhing in their
white cubes mouthing silently

into microphones, made me think
about a zoo I thought I saw

2 arctic foxes in a glass cube
with nothing but a gray blanket

& 2 small piles of shit. 

Dan Melling is a writer from Skegness. He holds an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech University and teaches creative writing at John Moores University, Liverpool where he is also studying for a PhD. His work has appeared in The Rialto, X-R-A-Y, HAD and others. He co-edits Damnation literary journal and sometimes tweets at @melling_dan.

'This Town': Trite, tropey, bloodless, racist guff
Wednesday, 03 April 2024 20:00

'This Town': Trite, tropey, bloodless, racist guff

Fran Lock gives the thumbs-down to This Town. Image above: Bardon Quinn (Ben Rose), Gregory Williams (Jordan Bolger), Dante Williams (Levi Brown) (Image: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos)

So far there's a lot to loathe about this bafflingly feted BBC drama. I need to get it off my chest, so I'm going to start with the biggest and work backwards. Okay? No? Great.

From the moment Bardon Quinn's (Ben Rose's) father walks into “The Well Hung Gate” we know he's a Provo. How do we know? Because he looks like every other Provo in the history of British television. He's got the stare, the swagger, the unofficial uniform. Of course, every member of the Provisional IRA operating in the 1980s had one of those long, brown leather coats. It's like a mating display. It's how they recognised each other. Deep sigh. We also know because of the way he is back-slapped and glad-handed up to the front of the room, where Bardon is completing a vigorous bit of competitive feis. Dad's late. Bad Dad. But not late enough to prevent him from generating a clunky bit of expository strop to the effect he needn't have bothered turning up to “play the big Provo” because Bardon would have won the feis anyway without his sinister influence.

And so it begins. Is the basic set-up (if not the details) credible? Sure. But it's hardly nuanced, and already the show has succumbed to the lazy, racist default of much British television, dividing the Irish into two categories: the “good” Irish, defined by a cute, consumable performance of picturesque traditions, who have nevertheless assimilated the social norms and (a)political aspirations of mainstream British society. And bad “paddies”, a rotating cast of religious zealots, hard-cases, 'ead-the-balls, terrorists and terrorist sympathisers, living like vipers at the tit of the British state. This was established – hell, this was old – when Shakespeare was writing. And Shakespeare this very much is not. Bardon and his Nan represent the former category, with his Dad (and from the look of things, pretty much the entire Irish community of the West Midlands) firmly in the latter.

There are so many problems with this, it's hard to know where to start. Perhaps with the implication that to be working-class, Irish, and living in Birmingham in the 1980s was to be uniformly PIRA-adjacent. I think some folk would strongly dispute that. Then there's the fact that the Provisional IRA itself presents alternately as an elite crew of near-omniscient comic-book baddies, and as the kind of grubby, small-time thugs who interest themselves in putting the fright'ners on little old ladies.

Even Nan's confessor is a morally compromised conduit between his flock and PIRA Area Commanders. Yeah. Let's leave the relative shoe-horniness of that particular conceit to one side for a minute, and focus on the massive tap-dancing elephant in the room: if Birmingham in the 1980s was such a hot-bed of PIRA radicalisation, why was this the case? It didn't take place in a vacuum, did it? Nobody joins the Provos recreationally.

While This Town is happy to depict senseless (and institutional) anti-black racism, with a cop walloping an innocent Dante (Levi Brown) during the opening scene, we get no sense of what it was like to experience anti-Irish racism in Birmingham during the 80s. We get no sense of the police brutality meted out to Irish people in the Midlands. Daily. For generations. You don't need to take my word for that. For a big, obvious Googleable instance of anti-Irish racism in action, look no further than the arrest, wrongful conviction (and subsequent decades-long imprisonment) of the Birmingham Six in 1974. Seriously, look it up. I'll wait.

 Consider also, the fallout from the 1981 hunger strike in Long Kesh. This had an enormous impact on both the treatment of Irish persons in Britain and on the recruitment of young men and women into PIRA. By June of 1981, all ten of the hunger strikers in Long Kesh – young men between the ages of 23 and 29 – were dead. The media coverage of the strike galvanised support for the Irish Republican cause and generated an equal and opposite quantity anti-Irish sentiment in the UK. The only nod This Town makes to any of this is when the female IRA enforcer threatening Dear Auld Nan sticks a Bobby Sands poster on Bardon's wall over his more traditional pictures of popstars and footballers.

I have a lot of feelings about this scene, not least the implicit link the show makes between support for the Long Kesh hunger strikers and the ruthless cruelty of this female operative, but I'll stow that one for a minute. The most germane and troubling issue with this episode is that because This Town is devoid of any political context, the motivations and behaviours of the characters are reduced to two-dimensional stereotypes, stereotypes that paint the Irish as inherently thuggish and violent. Worse, the violence and cruelty of these Irish-at-home becomes a tacit justification for the presence and behaviour of the British armed forces in the North of Ireland. Let's talk about that, shall we? Because this is the point at which I was swearing volubly at the TV.

We're introduced to Belfast, and the Falls Road in particular, through the eyes of Dante's brother Vigil/ Gregory (Jordan Bolger), a somewhat queer-coded eccentric who wishes “both sides” would just “sing to each other”. These scenes raise further questions. Chiefly: what the actual f*ck? Because who is genuinely buying the British armed forces in Belfast as a group of weirdly affable peacekeepers? Christ. Artistic licence is one thing, but this is dangerously (and insultingly) ahistorical. It's also a strange denial of documented historical reality that Virgil/Gregory, a sensitive, black sergeant in the 1980s, doesn't appear to be experiencing any racial tension within his unit. Meanwhile, the Irish get to be characterised as a homogenous balaclavaed mob, and the complexities of the civil war are rendered with about as much subtlety and depth as Boney M's deservedly forgotten, imaginatively, titled disco single, 'Belfast'.

On the subject of music, I also want to give a special shout out to what has to be one of the stupidest scenes in recent television: the sing-off in a dodgy lock-up between Bardon and his Dad. On the father's side the haunting rebel standard The Fields of Athenry. On the son's, Desmond Dekker's civil rights Trojan banger You Can Get It If You Really Want. Presumably, the latter is a declaration of allegiance to the culture, politics, and social concerns of a forward-facing multicultural Birmingham; the former representing the regressive and parochial nationalism of the Irish past. In which case: did anyone with a hand in this show actually listen to either track?

Both songs are about enduring through injustice and retaining one's dignity in the face of persecution. Both songs posit a future the speaker themselves might never get to inhabit, but a future nonetheless in which victory over the forces of oppression is assured. The most charitable spin you can put on this scene is that we, the audience, are supposed to understand the common root of these songs in a way the characters do not. But if it's truly being played for dramatic irony, then that's not coming across. My take-away here was that there are some minority struggles the BBC deems acceptable, and some it clearly does not.

As a side note: growing up in a PIRA saturated landscape where every third person is either an operative or an informer, does it not seem odd how politically disengaged Bardon is? I mean, not just apolitical, not just apathetic, but almost supernaturally ignorant? Actually, this weirdly disconnected quality filters through the entire episode like an irritating beige mist. Dante is obviously supposed to be disconnected, he's the dreamy, vaguely spectrum (in a cute, audience-friendly way) wannabe poet, who somnambulates into a riot because he's pining over a girl who wouldn't join him for a cup of tea. But it's not just him. It's the whole sodding thing. “Birmingham just exploded” says Dante's Dad. And as audience members that's all we're given: spontaneous combustion.

I'd also like to point out that the only people expressing strong political sentiments at all are the aforementioned murderous Irish and Jeannie (Eve Austin), whose poorly defined anarcho-socialism is played for laughs as a front for opportunistic thievery. This character has great potential, but she's coming across like a bovver girl version of Wolfie Smith, and it's kind of annoying. My point is that throughout the episode political conviction is depicted as being either risible or dangerous, while to be apolitical or politically ambivalent is coded as a mark of intellectual and spiritual superiority. Hummm.

I know we're supposed to find Dante relatable, quirky and charming, but because he's so shut off from the world around him the character can't help but coming across as self-involved and ultimately kind of unlikeable. None of this is Levi Brown's fault. He's clearly doing his best, and in places is compellingly unknowable, but the script is hot dogshit (more anon), and the poems it has Dante write are the worst kind of bunkum. While this kid's city is burning he's arse-farting on about having his heart broken with about as much sense of urgency as limestone eroding. He's not even doing it well. Quite apart from how painful it is for me to listen to bad poetry, if any of us are supposed to believe in Dante as this smouldering enigmatic presence, he needs to be penning something of a like credible intensity.

I'm telling you now, speaking from my position of embodied authority as a formerly pretentious self-involved little feck myself, that a smart kid who listens to Leonard Cohen would be capable of writing something a million times more interesting (I don't say “better”, but more interesting) than the pallid twaddle Brown is being asked to deliver with such conviction. As a working-class kid who wrote poetry, I actually find the lack of lyric reach, the narrowness of his expressions and concerns, pretty frustrating, pretty insulting. If the logic is that Dante's poetry needs to be something the average BBC audience can “identify with” or “understand”, than God in heaven, the team behind This Town can't have a very high opinion of the average BBC audience.

Which brings us neatly back to the dialogue. Oh my God, the dialogue. Which reads like Steve Knight might have seen a working-class person in a field, at a distance, once, although on reflection that might just have been a big cow. There are the moments when the characters discuss how working-class they are and how shit it is in a painfully contrived and unconvincing manner; there are the over-wrought scenes with “broken hearts” flopping about all over the shop. The best/ worst of which is when Nan actually declares “my heart may be bad, but it's also broken”, dissolving what might have been a fruitfully tense scene into a big gooey bathetic mess.

I also found myself cringing when Dante tells his Dad: “A girl at college said people like me don't write poetry. I said Joan Armatrading's lyrics are poetry, and she's from Wolverhampton.” Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. That's not a real, organic conversation, that's a shoe-horned author insert, at best. It's feeding Dante a line, it's making a none-too-subtle point. One that didn't need making in the first place. And no, dialogue doesn't need to be a perfect simulacrum of real speech, some of the best shows around have played precisely with highly stylised dialogue, but there does need to be a bit of verisimilitude, there does need to be internal consistency. This Town is all over the map, unable to decide between social realism and whimsical melodrama.

Melodrama is a good word in general, I think, for a show that has walking tropes rather than characters. We know from the minute Dante appears on screen in his ugly duffle coat that he's going to be our nerdy, slightly spectrum, sensitive everyman. From Jeannie's oxbloods, bomber and bleachers we know she's going to be the street-smart toughie with the heart of gold. Bardon is obviously the tortured libertine. God, even David Dawson's thin-lipped sinisterly camp “gangster” is an unconvincing take on Mark Strong's much meatier portrayal of Harry Starks over twenty years previous. And of course, the straw Provos.

We've seen it before, is my point. Ad nauseam. The setting is glorious, and the soundtrack is obviously banging, but these things are being asked to do all the heavy lifting. This is supposed to be a “love letter” to the Midlands, but the Midlands deserves better than a few lines scribbled in biro on a beer mat. While I’m willing to admit that this is only episode one, and happy to hope that the show will develop in complexity and depth as it progresses, having only one unique, precious human life, I don’t propose to waste any more of it on this.

Gremlins
Monday, 01 April 2024 13:47

Gremlins

Published in Poetry

Gremlins

by Fran Lock

“having gotten in, it's coming out one of two ways: walking or writing.”

/ we want axioms, maximum sky. not you.
/ an immobile romantic, a sea of romantic immobiles.
/ that detestable animal, the lyric i.
/ politely standardised. sentimental suck-ups.
/ their weak verbotens over everything. now we identify as knives.
/ and why not?
/ tell me again. it's a basement phrase. it's a rip-off song off-key.
/ yeah, you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me.
/ yeah, you wish you were me, you cursory radical.
/ you bystander, you passerby. you citizen.
/ you spoke and you spoke and every syllable was safety.
/ you, and your fiction of smiths. your smith committee.
/ the followers who have replaced your friends.
/ yeah, you wish. and the folk-art fracas of my – of my – of my –
/ multiple choice collapse. blacklist in block capitals.
/ reputational risk? you dullard, you sullied little hedonist.
/ you verse-chorus cheat of absolute boredom.
/ all the whiteship boozecruise banter of you.
/ you branch secretary. you polytendrilled parody. you vampire squid of organised whoopee.
/ you chairman of traditions. you slowburn salute. you canned nazi.
/ you novelist.
/ we were into rudiments, discords. not you, spectre of consensus.
/ spectator. exhorter. the extorted sex of you.
/ we were coming apart like cedar on a sawmill.
/ syllabus of strawmen. scarecrow mock. scarecrow shuffle.
/ modernists.
/ those self-styled self-destroyers. neither adapt nor resist.
/ have distilled shitcreek into shtick. for a fee.
/ we were into rudiments, discord. not this.
/ a drudge jerusalem. for cackling aspirants.
/ not you. generational renegade. vacated and sane.
/ catchphrase franchise. melodic indie vibes, you –
/ cog in your lopsided uniform. the uniform aubade of middle-age.
/ all in all a brick in the blockhead parade.
/ we are here with the orach, charlock, couch-grass, stitchwort. collateral jacket of weeds.
/ outcast sloucher's slang, we've got.
/ and my – and my – and my –
/ impure probation of thoughts. and you wish.
/ for these nonstop hands, for a shapeless psychosis knocked into song.
/ the grit in a sensitive instrument. refined and transfigured.
/ mania, without centre or margins. you wish.
/ whose sneer is a needle. you wish.
/ confirmed grace, shrewdly cruising.
/ crudely shining, zippered and cinched into cliché.
/ the wheedling blag of your –
/ affirmations. fake northern slang-evangelist.
/ knocked into appropriate phobias. knocked into –
/ queasy teeth. grit in the gut.
/ crackpot pariah. crackrock-rapt. definace, over the headland.
/ they will remember you, hallmark minions, appropriate adults.
/ in chin-stroke symposiums. these agit-avant-agent-
/ ethereal deliriums. dead interjectionists. castrated scallywags. syntax-saints.
/ we want a militant rictus. words. nailed into utopia. wipe off the wax of you.
/ want screaming. not this.
/ designer wounding. redesigned wounds.
/ fakes of dysfunction. their period screech. their period petulance.
/ so. rattle your referents. and my – and my – and my –
/ this poem built from the abusive repetitions of labour.
/ the obscene rhythms of work. work. work. the pungent industrial all dissolving.
/ you snot-nosed insurrectionist. picking the scab of capital.
/ your scandalised irie. the sprung punk of peevish refrain.
/ hoary englander.
/ the asphyxiating chill. gag-enthusiast.
/ nerd in an era of intercepts. incel slur for –
/ my – my – my –
/ you doomed alecks of envoy.
/ my – my – my –
/ gaslit futility.
/ we want. scrambled, entropic, a pain like speed in a stomach ulcer.
/ we want. in the grip of thin, fading menace. this britain-thing.
/ disgorges its post-war into our face.
/ we want. critics, bootlegging a eulogy.
/ we want. louts of postmortem. covert pastoral, loadedly rhapsodized.
/ you wish. foaming on forums, shouting down the day.
/ we want a haute animus. face like a punctured lung.
/ the canonically joyless suburbs. the stink of scripture, the scrim of toil.
/ fomented and fouled. in webs of glory.
/ the mind, broken, strenuously gentrified.
/ into baroque disclosures. into tracts. paperbacks.
/ into you, three-sentence meatsuits. you, you charming harbingers.
/ you harbingers of charm.
/ you frontmen, you posterboys, you prevailing parliament of –
/ we want. wrought in the riot. looped, eloping.
/ the sickness of intercourse. something is moving. out there in the grey-blue-grey.
/ with sinuous tyranny. something.
/ like a foregone boyfriend, hanged already. something.
/ stupendous malevolence. malevolently stupid.
/ and you wish.
/ you could see all this. tirades, butterflied and speared by –
/ vernacular angst. check. sordid distortions. to live this. to live in this.
/ who are you kidding?

Factions
Thursday, 28 March 2024 17:27

Factions

Published in Poetry

Factions

by Fran Lock

/ late diagnosis. it's a language of dragnets and factions.
/ contractions and stammers. his slack-jaw gravitates.
/ to globalized consciousness. this corporate scorn, and sweet-talk.
/ drilled into flat writs. king stephen in the courts of contempt.
/ steel mesh over the eye. oscillating spotlights. yoke and arrows.
/ there was an anarchy. war of succession. war of spoils.
/ was a steel mesh over the memoir. bleats his upheaval. was a dunghill cock.
/ there was an anarchy. time-sheet stooges, scuppered duds.
/ these stadium basics. smug opportunists.
/ many and meanwhile. beguiled and distracted.
/ the houselights come up. the houselights come up on –
/ a lightweight nightmare, nightmarish finality.
/ his existential dread revoked.
/ interpretations and appraisals. was a botched demagogue.
/ the foreman. with this megaphone full of rancid parable.
/ the foreman. with his lung full of port talbot steel.
/ handshake. shiftwork. the fashionable rackets.
/ carries his spleen in a suitcase. carries his spleen in his handshake.
/ all the couch potatoes of discontent cover their faces.
/ late diagnosis. there was an anarchy.
/ packed meat into magnificent disguises. smiles.
/ was a cipher for dismay. climbs canker, spits from the top of it.
/ the houselights come up. the houselights come up on –
/ disposable spectres. temperent spectres deposed.
/ the drumroll, the punchline.
/ says: we don't like posh boys, but we like their drugs.
/ in a showband burnout. the rarefied tyrant roars.
/ in a city like this. paranoia's perspiration running down its pillars.
/ in a city like this. the pillars of his paranoia. doric.
/ ghosts in the rosy order of things.
/ the letdown of decades. the rapturous anticlimactic.
/ sin-sired. pockets full of poachers pentacles, dead disciplinarians, limbs and trivia.
/ punishments will be disproportionate, skewed.
/ language of drag, of drain. facile and tangled.
/ a language of purge and shudder. a language of –
/ threshing dismembered hungover fatalists.
/ there was an anarchy.
/ sober and shattered. an alternate hell with hand-sanitizer. alternative hell with hotel bible.
/ and he was our monarch. those forgery years.
/ all his complaint in his face.
/ little land of wrecked hawks and burnt rubber.
/ tarmac over this tax-year, these catchy tunes.
/ chilled and flinching. i saw him empty his accident into –
/ imperial derelict seaside town.
/ cleaved and alive by the rain.
/ lashed to the stammer. contraction.
/ the mute, egregious weather.
/ kids swarm everywhere, the wolf milieu. off their nuts.
/ changelings of normalised knife-crime. ramsgate.
/ there was an anarchy. cringe in edwardian bafflement.
/ the listed buildings. mournful toytown incantations.
/ says: levelled up? nah. just levelled.
/ all our phosphorus wants returned.
/ this is grunting stuff. a broken-tooth bestride a song.
/ their aggravating swagger. these southern-fried flatterers. the stink on them.
/ a crack rock's phobic prelude to their bloody life story.
/ the rabble, woozily rallied.
/ i heard there were ballads for this.
/ for the anarchy.
/ for the untutored instruments: hands. tongue.
/ the thumping muscle of me. for –
/ late diagnosis.
/ oh, pedant redeemer, scorched and thwarted. your tarot of thwarted slang.
/ do you not have a spell for the anarchy?
/ these dismal syllabists. the fagends of faction.
/ stanzaed neanderthals. marshal thralls of phrase.
/ then the houselights come up. the houselights come up on –
/ a deadpan parody of bluebirds.
/ the wind distilling his sneer.
/ to coruscating truculence. chapel of wrath.
/ on the hill. in the rain. empty of all except –
/ late diagnosis. factions filling me. filling me up.

The image above is also by Fran Lock

Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy
Wednesday, 28 February 2024 19:37

Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Dr. Fran Lock, shortlisted for the 2023 TS Eliot Poetry Prize, writes about ACE's recent advice to cultural organisations, and the recent pamphlet Class And Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy, available to download below.

I began writing this review of CPB's recent short pamphlet, Class And Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy in the wake of Arts Council England's bizarre “advice” to arts organisations to be cautious of: “overtly political or activist” statements made by individuals who may be linked with them; suggesting in typically mealy-mouthed fashion that any expression of those personal political beliefs may expose arts organisations to “reputational risk” that could jeopardize funding arrangements.

This “advice” comes as part of a series of updates made at the end of January to the council’s 2023–26 Relationship Framework policies, which outline the conditions required for ACE support. It goes on to stipulate that “reputational risk” can be generated not only by the organisations themselves, but by staff or by any other individual associated with the organisation “acting in a personal capacity.” Not just a press, say, but their individual authors. In effect, ACE are strong-arming small press publishers (and other struggling arts organisations) to police their current and prospective lists, selecting work and awarding opportunity on the basis of corporate compliance as opposed to passion, originality, or any kind of artistic merit.

Much like the government's disastrous Prevent Strategy – which aimed to root out a poorly defined “extremism” by forcing teachers to spy on and report pupils at risk of “being radicalised” from organisations as diverse as Isis and the Animal Liberation Front – this is a grubby and ill-conceived tactic that can only create a climate of mistrust, close up the space of debate, and smother the legitimate expression of political opinion. It is also a tactic that will do irreparable harm to female, black, brown, queer, trans, crip, gyp, poor and working-class creatives, whose mere presence in the cultural sphere is inescapably politicised before they – before we – even open our mouths.

As many have rightly pointed out, the catalyst for this particular ACE update is doubtless the ongoing humanitarian crisis in occupied Palestine and the urgent moral imperative for artists to speak out against Israeli apartheid. It signals a desperate attempt to regain control of the mainstream pro-Israeli narrative, and to quell – or if not to quell, at least to silence – pro-Palestinian support through the backchannel of arts and culture.

Fewer commentators have made the link between ACE's update and the government's recently announced changes to the Criminal Justice Bill (8th Feb). The Bill further empowers police and criminalises protesters. Under new legislation protesters who cover their face can now be arrested and may face charges of up to £1000 or months in prison. Demonstrators will no longer be able to cite the right to protest in defence of peaceful direct actions such as roadblocks, lock-ons or sit-ins; police are now empowered to stop and search protesters for items such as padlocks and superglue, if – and I quote – they “suspect they are setting out to cause chaos”. I would argue that restricting freedom of political expression through the arts is the other half of a pincer manoeuvre designed to crush both direct and indirect forms of dissent. We should all be deeply troubled by this.

I would also add that hostility from cultural elites, governments, and funding bodies to politically committed art is hardly new. ACE et al. have nothing to gain from supporting people and projects that challenge their traditional business model; most major publishers are wary of any literature that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. A tangential and minor side-effect of the crisis in occupied Palestine is that it has brought into focus for a number of people the political basis upon which opportunities and resources within the arts and literature are awarded or withheld.

The Council's updates to its Relationship Framework policies at such a pivotal cultural moment has rendered their centrist political biases clearly and painfully visible. I feel two ways about this: on the one hand, it allows us, as cultural workers, to collectively acknowledge, name and resist a besetting unfairness. On the other, the fact that ACE felt secure enough to draft and openly announce these updates says something rather worrying about the current state of culture. While it's heartening that ACE's updates met with such spirited push-back, it's concerning that no such push-back was expected.

Class and Culture

All of this by way of preamble to the timely Class and Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy, which is an accessible, galvanising, sometimes fascinating exploration of culture, not merely as the medium through which the work of ideology flows, but as a vital, joy-giving force in the lives of working-class people, and as a potential site of radical resistance. As Mike Quille rightly points out in Creating Cultural Democracy, cultural production of all kinds provides a way of bringing people together and offers a place to 'imagine alternatives'. Which is, of course, why elites want us nowhere near it.

Of the ten areas covered in Class and Culture, my first port of call was Poetry Matters by Kevin Patrick McCann, which outlines not only the way in which working-class people are excluded from access to poetry, but also the methods by which working-class poets are assimilated, de-fanged, and tokenised. As McCann pithily puts it:

You can be a rebel and attack glaring injustices; just don't attack the real causes of those injustices. For example, you can attack racism as long as you don't make the connection between racism and the class system.

I've recently had a real window into how arts organisations laud representational triumphs in areas of gender, sexuality, and race, while ignoring the deep systemic (class-based) inequalities that create (and are inherent and structural features of) sexism, racism and homophobia. It suits elite institutions to position “otherness” as an identity category tied to marketable forms of visible difference, as opposed to challenging the structural production of otherness by and through the class system.

McCann's essay rightly points out how a representational model of inclusion allows institutions to nobble the political effectiveness of individual poets via awards and opportunities. This tactic allows organisations to pay lip service to the idea of diversity by granting limited participation for some inside of the systems that oppress us. It tricks us into thinking that the expansion of those systems to include more of us is a victory, when we would all be better served by working towards their destruction. As the recipient of such an award you serve a double purpose: in the first instance you function as a rebuttal to accusations of institutional inequality. The organisation in question can't be racist/ sexist/ homophobic/ classist because look at the black/ female/ queer/ working-class poet they just gave that grant to!

These are not cheerful thoughts, but the essay contains much enlivening material. Drawing on his vast experience as a teacher in a variety of contexts, McCann offers a persuasive and moving account of the transformational power of poetry in the lives of marginalised people. A key theme in this essay is how simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary poetry is. It is ordinary in that it springs out of everyday experience, and extraordinary in that allows for the authorship and articulation of that experience – often for the first time. McCann's contention is not that poetry provides a catharsis which allows people to endure the unendurable. Rather, that it creates the space and the language in which to resist the unendurable, to put into words both our grievances and our grief. In schools, in community centres, and in prisons, it has the potential to restore dignity and voice to the voiceless.

McCann contrasts the innate radicalism of poetry to the way in which it is often taught in schools, where successive generations of Tory “reforms” have routinised and shrunk the teaching of poetry to a loveless conveyor-belt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and discouraged from developing any kind of lively or critical conversation with and about literature. One of the things that's so great about McCann's essay is that it exposes the ideological basis behind this marginalisation of poetry in education. How it is used to demean and replace the lively and various languages of working-class people with that of their oppressors; how it limits and controls through language what can be thought, and thus robs us of a sense of our own history, our own traditions, aesthetics and identity; and how it confirms the lie that poetry is not for us, is the solely the fruit of middle-class literary production.

McCann's essay contains practical suggestions for countering this theft of art and culture through mutuality and cooperation towards an alternative socialist media, which highlights both the need for and effectiveness of grassroots networks of poets and poetry organisations. This feels significant at a time when the arts – and poetry in particular – is being forced to conform to the logics of the marketplace. An ever greater number of us compete for fewer opportunities, as budgets are slashed, funding withdrawn, and jobs are cut. This essay shows how we might build foundational solidarities upon which to grow an alternative publishing culture. But the essay also makes a pressing case for the need for financial support, and for that to happen organisations such as trade unions and the TUC must recognise the cultural front as not merely a minor or secondary site of struggle, but central to the building of a fairer society.

The mediocrity of millions

I found McCann's essay paired perfectly with Scott Alsworth's Reclaiming Literature, which I read immediately afterwards. Alsworth exposes the mechanisms through which literature has become increasingly marketised. This marketisation permeates every stage of the process, from craft (the formal and thematic choices an author makes, and what guides them) through to publication and promotion. Again, this was an essay that struck a profound chord with me, having seen from up-close the corporate shenanigans he identifies play out in real time. Like McCann, Alsworth is a rousing writer, and his observations have real bite:

Today's bestsellers, with a few noteworthy exceptions, are a pulp testimony to the mediocrity of millions. Literary fame is often engineered.

One of the most disheartening things about being a working-class writer within elite literary space is the realisation that you are beholden to chance – and to whims and trends you have no hope of influencing – in a way that your middle-class peers cannot and will never understand. Literary success is not a meritocracy, but a lottery. If you cannot or will not submit to the operating logics of the marketplace, then “success” inside that system becomes vanishingly unlikely. As a practical for instance, I frequently have conversations with horrified students who cannot conceive of a career path that doesn't involve a literary agent. I've had occasion to be frustrated, watching young, middle-class people attempt to leap-frog the stages myself and other working-class writers had to grind through so painfully; getting their collection in front of publishers before they'd submitted to more than a handful of magazines, or honed their craft as an open-mic reader. We inhabit a literary culture marked by incestuousness and nepotism; working-class presses often have zero distribution, no funding, no hype, and no connections to leverage. We're forced to take the long way round, which costs us an enormous amount of extra, invisible labour.

How heartening, then, to read Alsworth writing that 'Great ideas don't die' and exhorting us to 'reclaim the creative high-ground', to remember that 'some of the greatest writers in this country have been card-holding communists.' and that 'Ours is a proud cultural legacy, and it's one we can leverage'.

This idea of an alternative communist tradition of literature feels important. It is a reminder that we are not, in fact, powerless; that the game can be played by an entirely other set of rules. Alsworth has useful suggestions for building and strengthening our own coterie of writers: I like the idea of a communist journal of creative writing, but I'm also very taken with his and McCann's notion of accessible workshops and lectures from left-leaning practitioners and academics. It seems that teaching is at the core of developing a strong, active communist literature.

What would happen, I wonder, if were able to make available, not just creative writing workshops that dealt with the nuts and bolts of participants' writing, but short lectures on pivotal figures within our own radical literary traditions? What about online communist reading groups, teaching ways of looking at text, and reclaiming them from the often arid and ahistorical tedium of the classroom? I'm getting ahead of myself, but both essays contain exciting provocations that certainly deserve further conversation.

The radical potential of video games

Having quickly exhausted my area of expertise I moved off into more unfamiliar territory, sticking with Alsworth, who's writing I find immensely engaging, and who turns his attention to the virtual/ digital world in A Virtual World to Win. As an outsider to the sphere of gaming, this essay contained much that was new and surprising to me, not least gaming's originating and ongoing link with the military-industrial complex, via the US Department of Defence in ways that eerily echo Hollywood's relationship with the same. Alsworth writes about the exploitation of games industry workers, but also about the direct and indirect militarisation of video games, and their increasingly worrying status as vehicles for neoliberal – particularly anti-Marxist – ideology.

This is a grounded essay, rooted in deep insider knowledge and a clear love of the genre. It usefully triangulates political ideology, economics, and creative cultural output, bringing into focus the causal relationships between the dominant (capitalist) ideology, the conditions of the workplace, and the creative decisions of the studios. It also does much to convincingly highlight the radical potential of video games, an active and interactive art-form with the power to stimulate ethical engagement, but which is currently being hijacked, diverted and distorted along commercial and politically dubious lines.

What I found especially interesting, however, was the note of hope this essay sounded, citing the strides being made by cooperative studios to model alternative forms of work that have relevance outside the gaming industry as well as within it; I was excited to read about the activism of the Games Workers Union to open the way for a combined, collaborative pooling of skills in order to 'establish at least one video games studio, run as a workers' collective for peace and socialism'. The message is very much that the tools are already at our disposal, it only remains for us to seize them.

Precarity in the creative industries

The other essay in the pamphlet that really spoke to me was Ben Lunn's Arts Funding In Britain For Classical Music, which sounds dry, but is in fact an incisive case study on inequality of access and provision across the UK. More than this, it shows how the same funding bodies hijack and repurpose the language of 'anti-elitism' to their own ends, using it to justify closures and cuts to struggling projects and institutions – Lunn cites both Glyndebourne and Britten Sinfonia (which recently lost the entirety of its NPO funding) as examples of this 'insidious' tendency (Lunn's word, but an entirely appropriate one, I think). Lunn cares passionately about classical music, and the desire to restore to working-class people an aspect of cultural production from which they have been disinherited is clearly a powerful driving force in this essay.

While the essay maintains a detail-oriented focus on classical music throughout, Lunn's conclusions have far-reaching implications across the arts. One point that particularly struck me was the need for equality of access to education across the regions, and to 'a variety of idioms, aesthetics, styles and sensibilities'. This last feels especially significant to me, having witnessed firsthand the shoehorning of working-class creativity into one or two narrowly predetermined forms. Full cultural participation means a free choice from a range of options, not selectively editing which art forms are for poor and working-class people, and which are beyond the scope of our enjoyment or understanding.

Lunn also rightly calls for more fully contracted work that protects those working in the cultural industries. Again, there's not a working-class creative practitioner alive who would argue with that, working, as we tend to, at least one none-creative job to make ends meet. And name me one other sector where (true story) you are paid “if possible” at the end of April for a job you did at the beginning of March. The precarity of creative (and academic) jobs, the cost-of-living crisis, the continued utilities and rent hikes all contribute to our having to prioritise stable, paid work, effectively excluding us from and exhausting us for the practice of our art. This situation needs to be redressed urgently.

Lunn's other major contention is that any future vision for the arts needs to be led by artists and not by “arts managers”, who are guided by financial as opposed to artistic concerns. Again, I read in this a call to leverage the knowledge we already possess as artists, activists and workers and take control of our own cultural production.

Marxist approaches to the cinema and television

While I enjoyed Nathan Le-Bas' People's Modernism: A Marxist Approach to Cinema I would have welcomed perhaps a companion essay, looking at the visual culture of contemporary cinema, and reflecting on the position of cultural workers within the industry. How do the big studios co-opt the visual language and thematic concerns of dissenting cultures and social justice movements, only to reduce them to empty tropes? How does the narrative message of much neoliberal cinema sit awkwardly with many its employment practices – I'm thinking particularly here about the language of “empowerment”? I'd have been interested to read something along those lines too. Le-Bas' essay offers us a template for critically engaging with the history and language of the cinema; it reinvigorates a Marxist method of reading cultural texts that is in itself valuable, but I do think it would be greatly enhanced by a sister essay covering a few or more of the topics I just mentioned.

Similarly, Brent Cutler's piece, A Marxist Critique of Television left me wanting more. Cutler absolutely nails the increasingly negative portrayal of left-leaning (let alone communist) causes and characters in both drama and documentary strands of mainstream television. I have also been greatly troubled by this. In drama, communism is often presented as – at best – an anachronistic class-war agenda that detracts from neoliberal identitarian struggles such as the oppression of women or of black people. Never mind (once more with feeling) that racism and sexism are inherent and structural features of the class system and vis-versa.

My most uncomfortable brush with this tendency came while watching ITV's heavily fictionalised biopic of Kim Philby called A Spy Amongst Friends, where their ordinary-woman insert character was used to hammer home the message – with all the subtlety of a lump hammer – that you don't need communism because you can apply to join the system that abuses you and change it slowly from the inside over a period of decades, and all it will cost you is a lifetime's dedication to a soul-destroying corporate and political structure that hates you. This is presented as some kind of fabulous victory. I digress, but Cutler's essay is sharp on how ideology shapes narrative in line with neoliberal/ capitalist ideology and aspirations, and he rightly holds up the BBC's recent output for special criticism in this regard.

What's missing, however, is an account of the socialist creatives currently working in television who do amazing work. How effective are they at pushing back against this trend? To what extent have they been co-opted, compromised or tokenised by the system in which they work? Where can we go to find truly positive representations of working-class people and of communists?

It was also striking that the essay included no mention of the proliferation of (predominantly American) streaming services, and how this shapes engagement with and expectations of mainstream television. Do we take our lead from popular American TV shows, and does this slant narrative bias toward a neoliberal consensus? Is there a perception that older (thus supposedly more conservative) people are the only ones watching mainstream/ terrestrial television, and how does this influence thematic and narrative content? Finally, I'd also have been interested to read something about the role television plays in either opening the past to greater scrutiny, or in creating revisionist versions of our history in line with current centre-right mores. It's sound stuff, I just wish there was more of it!

The heart of a heartless world

James Crossley tackles the often thorny issue of spirituality in Religion and Culture, and I read this piece with great interest, especially as a current project of Culture Matters is a collection of poems on the insurrectionary nature of Christ's teaching, and the radical (revolutionary) love espoused by Christ and Mary Magdalene. I came to this essay hoping to be inspired.

And mostly I was. Crossley does a great job of teasing apart the way organised religion in particular has been used by elites to advance or obfuscate various political agendas, and I found myself nodding vigorously to this passage in particular:

It's in the interests of the ruling class to stress religious motivations for acts of terror (usually worded in terms of a 'perversion of Islam' or the like) at the expense of discussing the complexity of causes. This is because a primary focus on 'perverted' forms of religious motivation avoids implicating the actions of the ruling class.

While Crossley cites the example of radical Islam, this tactic is achingly familiar to me from the conflict in the North of Ireland, which even now is frequently presented in purely religious and sectarian terms. Crossley also writes with great clarity about how religion had been harnessed towards both reactionary and progressive ends, and he quotes one of my favourite passages of Marx, writing that religious suffering can be:

…the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

I was happy to read this passage in full. Often it is abbreviated to that last sentence alone, which is then misapplied to heap scorn on the spiritual aspirations of poor and working-class people. This is not what Marx meant. Rather, as Crossley writes, religion in a heartless world can represent a search and a striving for something better; religion points to a pressing need to 'understand the material conditions which give rise to its role'.

I certainly endorse the suggestion at the end of the essay to bolster and continue a lively critical discourse around religion and the way in which it is used to mobilise support and to justify the political decisions of various regimes. If anything, I feel this point might have been made with even greater force, given the rise of an increasingly intolerant, increasingly empowered religious right in both America and Europe. I also agree that it's time to acknowledge and promote the progressive role religion has played in shaping British history, but again this feels more pressing and potentially valuable than the essay gives credit for, especially given how many of our earliest radical and dissenting communities grew out of religious movements. Somewhere down the road I'd love to see a practical discussion about how we might bring this kind of education into schools and social/ community spaces.

Something else I thought might be useful for future discussion is the rise of various online wellness brands and spirituality/health gurus. I've been particularly struck over the last five years or so, by the ways in which these charlatans link spiritual seeking to the neoliberal cult of self-improvement via the worst aspects of predatory capitalism. Clearly, there is an unmet spiritual need, particularly amongst young women. I've been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of socialist fellowship that might offer an appealing alternative.

The economic, political and cultural struggles

Finally, with all these different thoughts swirling in my head I returned to the essays Misinformed: Monopoly Press and Bourgeois Hegemony by Alan McGuire and the final piece Culture Matters to State Monopoly Capitalism by Ron Brown, both of which are needle-sharp on exposing the nuts and bolts of ideological manipulation through various media channels, and offering practical suggestions to resist and counter these manipulations. What is heartening in both essays is that resistance is based upon mutual support across three key fronts – economic, political, and cultural – and builds on work already underway to recognise and integrate the cultural field into the struggle more broadly. While these essays provide a sense of the work still to do, they also offer encouragement in acknowledging how far we have come.

And that's where I'll leave things, for now. To sum up, 'provocations' feels like the most useful word here: while there are some areas that seem to beg further, deeper, more detail-oriented discussion, and while I would have welcomed more women's voices/ perspectives, what the pamphlet does provide is useful, timely and energising. All in all, it’s a great base to build on.

 

We're back, baby! Rebel Admin and other poetry @ Centrala, Birmingham
Friday, 23 February 2024 10:46

We're back, baby! Rebel Admin and other poetry @ Centrala, Birmingham

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters was back at Centrala in Digbeth on the 9th February 2024, to celebrate the launch of Al Hutchins' stonking cerebral masterwork, Rebel Admin (Culture Matters, 2023), to revel in the wealth and diversity of working-class literary talent in the West Midlands, and to raise money for MAP and the urgent humanitarian crisis in occupied Gaza.

The Rebel Reading marked our second visit to Centrala, the first being the launch of our (massive) anthology of radical writing about poverty, The Cry of the Poor, in January 2022. It felt good to be back in Digbeth, a place with a long and layered industrial heritage, and with profound links to various working-class diaspora communities. It felt good to be back at Centrala, itself founded to foster inclusion and well-being for Central and Eastern European migrant communities, and using culture and the arts to promote respect, cohesion, exchange and understanding. Suffice to say, we love their ethos and their mission. We also love the human face of that mission, which is always professional, accommodating and comfortable, for performers and audience alike.

And there was a dog. A truly adorable wee dog.

It was an even greater pleasure to welcome back to the space various Culture Matters contributors past, present, and (hopefully) future, including a number of those with work featured in The Cry of the Poor. These readers came to lend their support for Rebel Admin, and to whet the assembled appetite for what was to come. It was a beautiful expression of writerly solidarity, but what struck me the most about those short performances was that none of them felt cursory or forgettable; each writer gave a unique reading with its own strong vocal identity and style, expressing different but related thematic concerns surrounding inequality, social justice, interior landscapes and embodied experience.

The Cry of the Poor cover resized

Our first scheduled performer, Richard Arkwright, was unable to be with us due to illness, so I gamely attempted to do his poem, Stallion, justice. This was a poem in which the central conceit is richly and  rhythmically realised, with a restless cantering line and many surprising images and turns of phrase. While the horse figures for various often volatile aspects of the speaker's psyche, what I thought was particularly impressive was how the sheer physicality of the animal came across in the work. It was a joy to read out loud, and a great opener for the evening ahead.

Our second reader was Sarah Barrington, who joined the bill later in the day, but nonetheless gave a memorable and consummate performance. Sarah's piece was a performative character poem in the voice of Henry Miller's younger sister Lauretta, a figure largely erased from history or treated as a biographical footnote in the story of her more famous older brother. When she appears at all, Lauretta is often cursorily and vaguely described as “mentally impaired”. Barrington's poem resuscitates and channels this figure with uncanny facility. Lauretta's speech is plain-spoken, but absolutely precise. Through this poetic persona Barrington interrogates the casual erasure of women by men from literary cannons, intellectual life, and from hierarchies of importance and meaning.

James O'Brien was our third reader for the evening, this time from his the up-coming collection The Lucky Last at the Terminal of the Dead. These poems are characterised by incisive syntax that generates its own urgent rhythm; they are frighteningly exact in their portrayal of human devastation, and language itself is often riven and forced into strange, sharp conjunctions. The result is that the entanglement of social and linguistic systems are exposed together. These are intelligent, uneasy poems that demand your attention.

Duncan Jones was our fourth reader, sharing poetry that occupies some similar thematic territory to that of James O'Brien, but that is marked by a rich lyric sensibility that works in pleasing and arresting contrast to  those darker preoccupations. These poems excel in moments of intense focus; in acute observation of minute detail. They are also full humour, delivered with seeming-ease and openness. They leave a reflective mood in their wake.

Alisha Kadir read next, and brought poems with a strong musical and performative dimension. I have seen Alisha Kadir perform a few times now and I am always impressed by her charismatic and engaging delivery. More than this, her poems have grown and grown in their development of an idiosyncratic voice, full of sonic riffs, word-play, and verbal dexterity. These poems feel like a celebration of language in the midst of political despair.

Our seventh reader was Victoria Nimmo, representing prose writing with an excerpt from a story of unusual clarity and precision. What impresses me about this piece is its ability to construct an entire human relationship through sparing dialogue and spot-on description. This is writing that is full of empathy for our fallibilities and failings; that holds us all to account without judging or moralising. A beautiful, understated and disarming reading.

Our final reader for the first half of the evening was Bobby Parker, whose work has always struck me as a great companion to Al's, abounding in haunted and haunting images, and tales of off-kilter alienation. These poems are populated by grotesqueries; a poetry collection directed by David Lynch by way of Kidderminster. What is both compelling and unsettling about these poems is how familiar these strange scenes and characters are to us. There is indeed a strain of bleak (sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful) absurdity to working-class life. These poems reminded us of that.

Time for Rebel Admin!

After a brief interval it was time to welcome Al to the stage. We'd decided beforehand that he would read the entirety of Rebel Admin, the book being a kind of powerhouse rhapsodic performance; a work – amongst other things - of surrealist lament for a loved and unlovely experience of urban working-class life. I like to think of these poems as a psycho-geographical bus journey through a parallel West Midlands, characterized by splintery or whip-quick verbal parries, and populated by unwholesome though compelling gargoyles and grotesques. It's a hallucinatory rollick through the derangement of the senses, and the audience were there for it!

Fran_gig2.jpg
Al Hutchins, a howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary. Great shirt, Al! Photo: Steve Watts

In his other life, Al is frontman for the rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group, a band that has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. Once described by Stewart Lee as a “howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary” Al's writing owes much to this wildly riffing musical sensibility, both in its on-page presence, its eccentric line, and its propulsive, pulsing rhythm-driven delivery.

For those as yet unfamiliar with the magisterial Courtesy Group, I'd describe their sound as an omnivorous post-punk hybrid somewhere between The Cardiacs and the Fall, via Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd. Here's a link to one my favourite tracks. I hope you're as delightfully bewildered as I was.

I'd suggest that the thread of continuity between Rebel Admin and The Courtesy Group is Al's intuitive grasp of how words and phrases fit together, combined with his steely determination to unmake and remake those words and phrases in a variety of inventive and violent ways. This unmaking is used to achieve a range of expressive effects, from the disorienting, through the frightening, to the hilarious. And back again. But these are not idle experiments or pretentious over-intellectualised games; these manoeuvres are underpinned by an understanding that language is not a neutral instrument, that speech is never an apolitical act. Rebel Admin sees Al chuck a spanner in the language systems that pre-exist and govern every aspect of our lives. And this spanner chucking takes place with maniac gusto.

The performance at Centrala was an unnerving and enthralling experience, with Al embodying the poems' kinetic energy by pacing, prowling and striding around the space. As different characters emerged – each with their own tics of accent and grammar – it was a little like watching a spirit medium. Delivery oscillated between the absolutely deadpan and the big, vaudeville-style expression. It's a testament to Al's power as a performer that he could sustain a long reading and keep it so relentlessly fresh and surprising. That's very different to being on stage with a band. Even as a solo artist, the music carries some of that weight, gives you somewhere to hide. With poetry, you have only the words to rely on; you are much more vulnerable and exposed. Al used this vulnerability to great advantage, creating moments of powerful stillness within the performance, as when he read the elegy 'Helicopter', opening up an unexpected space of pause, reflection, tenderness and solidarity.

Fran_gig3.jpg
Photo: Fran Lock

If you couldn't tell, I think Rebel Admin is a special collection of poems. I would say that, of course, although I am not the only one. It does the heart good to think the book is slowly, quietly gaining traction. Jim Crace recently described the book as 'fascinating. And unique', suggesting that 'meaning is a very slow reveal. In fact, I'm tempted to think that the strength of the poems – or is that lyrics? – is their “freedom from meaning”. [...] sort of speaking in tongues and in a state of unfettered, troubled phrenzy. These are caverns measureless to man, rather than stately pleasure domes. All of which feels accurate. I would add that “freedom from meaning” isn't an absence of meaning, rather it signals a revolt from the sanctioned habits of literary meaning-making, and the several political tyrannies that underpin them. These poems' special gift in fact is that they relish the fugitive and escapist potentials of poetry, while simultaneously using the poems to expose the traps and snares of language.

They're also just bloody good fun.

Speaking of fun: what's next for Culture Matters' Travelling Circus? Hopefully more regional events to celebrate our recent and forthcoming releases. Stay tuned for events connected to the other collections in our pamphlet series: The Haunting: Deleted Scenes, by Kevin Patrick McCann, and Machine / Language by Martin Hayes. With more to come this year. We'll also be hosting events for A Brief and Biased History of Love by Alan Humm, and other Culture Matters titles. Stay tuned for that!

Our event at Centrala was a huge success. We raised £150 for Medical Aid for Palestinians, a charity we continue to support through sales of our latest release, Testament / Sajél, by Farid Bitar. 50 % of proceeds from the sale of this resonant book will go to MAP. We are happy to give, but as many of our readers know, this is not a drop in the ocean for us. We publish books on the thinnest of possible shoestrings and most of the work we undertake – writing, reviewing, editing, promoting, etc. – is done on an entirely voluntary basis. Which brings me to...

If you would like to see more Culture Matters books, events and workshops, whether that's online, locally, nationally, or internationally, then we urgently need donations. If you can give, then that would be greatly appreciated. Even better, buy some books, show the poets some love! But if you can't, please consider sharing the link to our donation page via your own social media. Or maybe you'd like to review a book, help build our audience? However you can, please support our commitment to the cultural struggle for a fairer society, and to a celebration of working-class talent, by making a donation here. And  Rebel Admin can be purchased here!

And you can watch Al's inspired reading here.....

Dwell Time, by Tom Branfoot
Thursday, 08 February 2024 20:37

Dwell Time, by Tom Branfoot

Published in Poetry

Introduction to 'Dwell Time' by Tom Branfoot, Poet in Residence at Manchester Cathedral – see attached pdf

By Fran Lock

The idea of 'dwelling' as homely habitation is a relatively modern one. In Old English 'dwellan' is not to inhabit, but to mislead, to lead astray. By the Middle Ages, this sense of the word had skewed, it came to mean to linger lost, to delay, to doubt, to tarry. There are notions of folly and obscurity in it. It's a vexed word for a vexed condition, and an apt title for a poem that both strays and halts across thresholds of habitation: bodily, political, psychic, and ecological.

From the first stanza the poem uses the buried valences of words to interrogate the hidden violence of mundane economic practice. While 'rent' is the money due to landlords, it is also to 'pull to pieces, lacerate, wrench'. This latter meaning exists in a profound causal relationship to the former; haunts and inhabits it. The consequence of rent is rending. How is the speaker to write, or indeed to live, to constitute a sense of self, when they have no place, no centre and no substance? The poem demands that we think about that; that  precarity refers not merely to our status in the “job market”, our place on the “property ladder”, but to our very purchase on the real. We are accustomed to thinking about trauma as a violent event that shatters time itself into wounded multiplicities. But supposing trauma were not an event, but a process? Supposing that process was capitalism? Supposing that process was class? Branfoot's poem leads us (astray) into a space of acute emotional dismemberment; into the trauma-time of late capitalist habitation.

Disorientation and dislocation

Accordingly, the poem takes risks with continuity, lineation, structure, syntax, and punctuation, performing the very disruption it describes: 'a place/  to live there is a wound with world lodged in it'. Here, the lack of punctuation signals to disorientation, both the speaker's and our own. More than this, it gives us a deeper dislocation in (and of) the world, which itself is 'lodged' – both stuck and precariously habituated – inside the all-encompassing wound. This notion of the wound feels significant: the poem does not merely present us with an itemised list of damages – or 'wounds' plural – dealt to psyches, bodies or biospheres from the outside. No. Instead we are inside the wound. It is a total reality in which are equally enmeshed and equally complicit.

There is a disturbing interplay between the second and third stanza. In the second, the speaker begins an anxious interrogative of their own value-form: what they ought to have 'done', what they do and do not 'deserve,' a list including but not limited to a home, a body, a job, care, physical and mental health. This stanza gives us capitalism's 'psychopathy of worth': the urgent necessity and absolute impossibility of 'feeling valued' in a society that endlessly accounts for value on purely instrumental terms. These fucked metrics form a closed circuit, an imaginative (as well as physical, emotional, and literal) colonisation; they bleed across the blank space of the page into the left-lineated downtime of the speaker's resting, dreaming life. In this stanza, hallucinatory lyric lines are viciously intercut by the language and effects of disaster capitalism, so that 'mouth wood sorrel-wet from moon-licking during/ a heatwave' and 'trade the human for hazel, siskin and long dappled grass' sit uneasily beside 'the wheels of commerce', 'agribusiness', 'rent and wildfires', each a kind of commonplace, the dull percussive thud of daily life, rendered all the more depressing for the sinuous and sensual lyric flex they interrupt. In this stanza we are reminded that the exact opposite of 'pilgrim' is 'worker', an identity that leaves both wandering and wondering painfully curtailed.

This third stanza stayed with me. I am haunted by the speaker's futile attempts to 'close the blinds' on war and other 'depredations'; where the invasion and occupation of land entails a secondary invasion and occupation – of attention, an echo and an after-burn of violence. The poem shows us how are pendulum swings between states of exhaustion and recovery, where work (and money) has become the limit and the definition of our reality. We experience this reality as waves of force, inundated and overwhelmed. It has become something that happens to us, something we shrink from, seek to shut out, are unable to either withstand nor to change.

Pollen, pollutants and pesticides

Moving into the fourth stanza we come to understand that the speaker's body is the first (perhaps best) barometer of this wrongness. By this point it has been variously hungover, nauseous, allergic and vomiting. This is an appropriately dense stanza. It gives us an attention not merely distracted but congested: 'aviaries' are downloaded into phones. We might assume that this is a reference to the social media platform formally known as Twitter, but the line nonetheless supplies us with an irresistible image of technologically mediated nature, flattened and condensed into morsels of content. Meanwhile, abused and distressed nature wreaks vengeful havocs on the body that vomits up 'a hurricane of pollen', registering (without explicitly acknowledging) pollutants, pesticides, and seasons out of whack. This stanza opens strangely, with 'two men' who 'sit with an ashtray/ the size of a plate/ and an ecological disaster between them'. This image of excess queasily unites the idea of carcinogens with that of food, and reminds us that under capitalism it is perfectly possible to be nourished and sickened by the same source. The gigantic ashtray also makes the smoke-congested lung metonymic for the cinerary sky of fume-choked or burning England. If nothing else, it is proof that our coping mechanisms are killing us.

Something else that struck me about this stanza was that the speaker's journey was not in any sense idle. They are offered no place of pause or reprieve outside the demands of the capitalist system. Technologies vie for their/ our attention, and the presence of revenue inspectors constantly re-tune our thoughts towards money. The speaker is crushed into their routine: 'same/ seat, at the same time/ every day on my commute/ fixed as a data point/ the conductor accosts my living'. The echo here of 'cost of living' – as in the hoary old “cost of living crisis” – is sharp, an ambient hum of anxiety that embeds itself in language.

The fifth stanza mis-sequences time. It invites us to imagine a collapse, where the detritus of  neoliberal culture become the relics and the evidence by which the future (although we are left in some doubt as to what future) will accuse us. This stanza seems to zero-in on what generations of indigenous people have always already known: the disaster has happened, this is the aftermath, the wreckage. Capitalism was and is the apocalypse. This is a difficult stanza, moving between particular and personal grief, and the strange future-conditional grief of ecological devastation so often experienced by those in the West.  There is also a grief not for life but for life-ways, the pain that comes from inhabiting the 'aftermath of free will', a destruction so total that it has foreclosed even the possibility of imagining an otherwise. Here 'friends' are 'fossilised in debt'. This is a brutal line. It concretises both the immobilising nature of poverty, and its potential lethality, linking it to notions of extinction and to deep, immovable time. The speaker is depressed, and confides that they wish to 'rot in bed' most days. A sane response, and not merely an apathetic one, but one that contains a yearning to re-enter the slow-time of nature, to rejoin the nonhuman commons by any means – any process – necessary, up to and including that of decay. To 'fossilise' something is to preserve it, trap its course. To 'rot' is to compost down amongst a teeming multitude. There is an idea of healing in it, and connection. How can we grieve if we are stuck in the moment of trauma? Arrested and suspended inside an endlessly repeating now?

Hangovers, houses and hurricanes

In the sixth and final stanza images from the preceding stanzas return but re(dis)ordered so that hangovers, aviaries, houses and hurricanes are whirled together, performing both the skewed and slipping time of trauma, and the endless, arbitrary stream of undifferentiated data that marks our tech-dependent cultural moment. It is striking that at the start of the stanza the speaker's 'work-issued therapist links/ nausea and vomiting to a traumatic/ event a few mothers ago'. The speaker goes on to suggest that the therapist is wrong: suppose their malaise were not neatly specific but sprawlingly general? An amorphous ecological and economic anxiety, rooted in 'fiscal deviance/ plastic haunting my digestive tract' and generating its own rebellious symptomatology.  The body, of course, remembers what capitalism does its best to suppress: that we are nature, and the harms inflicted against nature therefore inflict ourselves.

This final stanza also nails capitalism's creepy privatisation of “care”. The reader can't help but feel that 'work-issued therapist' ought to be a contradiction in terms. It's a phrase that transforms the therapeutic encounter into a purely instrumental one, and the therapist themselves into a tool. The end goal of 'work-issued' therapy is not health but functionality: for the speaker to operate successfully as a productive worker, model citizen, and consumer subject. If the job of therapy is to allow us to accept an intolerable, life-denying situation; to frame as individual pathologies, social and political problems, then is it worthy of the name?

More to the point, what else is there? How should we dwell within the now that capitalism has produced, a place we can neither deny nor accept? This poem does not offer any easy answers to this question, but it does offer us a space in which to sit with unease they generate. The poem is also a place, and it invites us to be with/ within it.

How and when the body collapses
Saturday, 23 September 2023 10:48

How and when the body collapses

Published in Poetry

How and when the body collapses

by Fran Lock

/ there's a breach in the breath.
/ in that which surrounds and circulates.
/ in the warm gulf between neighbourhood and nation.
/ in the weak procedurals of harm.
/ between sluggish cells and excited atoms.
/ we are nourished and sickened from the same source.
/ this era of machines, their overtures and operatics.
/ the fury that is broached inside a moan.
/ england, imposing its failed grace all over us.
/ the school-room sags, forlornly totalled.
/ money, in its hoarder's hood, its useless furl of numbers.
/ us stink-eye pillicocked violently.
/ or not-money. i sew the unspoken up in me. stupidity will be insufferable, itemised.
/ you can declare war on a country, but you do war on a people.
/ between the declaration and the doing, mouths will be abscessed with obedience. the palpitant vowel is buckled into tantrum.
/ going o! o! o! o!
/ much good will it do us.
/ eyes, averted and impeded. or turned toward the shaved blue of the atmosphere.
/ which itself is dying.
/ and still, these desperate bellows. bruisewort, soapwort, comfrey. their mantles of soft lather.
/ soak up the rosary words for such beauty, sealing the wound with a sweet green wax.
/ understand, us is the enemy. wash us neverbody out.
/ us words profaning the purpose of print. exhaustions they will screw us down inside of.
/ salaried carnivores, eating us kids into dutiful crew-cuts.
/ black crepe. black cap. wooton fucking bassett.
/ it is war.
/ inside of war. burning consensus of sinews.
/ breaks the arm in three places to improvise salute.
/ bend back on usselves in crude, circular obeisance.
/ rank and cavalry. infantries and troops. troupe of exorbitant woe. these minstrels of dull affray.
/ the kid in the advert is poor.
/ the kid in the advert is poor and bored.
/ the kid is going nowhere. on a scooter. in his circlet of downward potential.
/ the recruiter's crook. to bag him in the patent pocket of manhood.
/ the elastic and deodorizing pouch of manhood.
/ the rubberised, suction-sealed canopy of manhood.
/ the fifteen million plastic bags of manhood.
/ with lightweight webbing handles to facilitate lifting.
/ in a leaky wallet of waxed canvas where spills his manhood.
/ recruiters on the corner, and all my swearwords have deserted me.
/ this bailiff's gang. back-thumpers of bad faith. the mean and furtive eyes of funeral mutes.
/ who set the snare?
/ who tightened this town around his one way out?
/ there's a breach in the breath.
/ fanfare survivalists. toy fists bumping up and down.
/ my chest hurts. compassion's impossible monody.
/ they scoop up our children with both hands. like pebbles. like pellets of bread.

The Burning Hope
Thursday, 14 September 2023 17:42

Igniting the Fire: Poetry and Keeping Hope Alive

Published in Poetry

I began writing this quarterly column looking for reasons to stay ‘hopeful’, whatever that means. I used to know. Or else, I thought I did: something like Gramsci's riff on Romain Rolland: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ Which is not merely a clear-eyed understanding of how bad things are, but an acknowledgement that the conditions for revolutionary change do not yet exist. Such change, for Gramsci, could only be brought about through organised, disciplined action. Specifically, through the vanguard party seeking to establish a workers' state. Obviously, this is not within the scope of our daily lives, but we can still find inspiration in the fact that Gramsci's ‘hope’ – like our ‘solidarity’– is a verb and not a noun. It exists only in its active expression.

This is what I and others lose sight of at times: this sense of hope as something we do and not something we feel. We have given up the idea of hope as purposeful, collective action. We have been looking for the wrong things in the wrong place. We should be seeking, not reasons to be hopeful, but ways of being hopeful. This realisation is potentially significant: it allows us to see how the notion of hope has been co-opted by various neoliberal forces as a means of discouraging action in the face of oppression. If hope is neutered from its intended action-oriented nature, then it becomes individualistic and passive, an adult form of wishful thinking, an ongoing distraction from the work we are called to do. The more I sit with this thought, the more I see the rebranding of hope as supremely tactical, part of a pincer manoeuvre that attempts to deny poor and working-class people the experience of hope through the twin levers of destruction and appropriation.

Robbed of hope

In the first instance, we are robbed of our capacity to hope, to imagine a future with us in it. Hope is destroyed by an all-pervasive inequality of access, opportunity and provision; our oppressions are daily, multiple, and utterly exhausting, so much so that they seem absolute and inescapable. We are so consumed with the work of daily survival that our strength is too sapped for anything else. In the second instance, our hope is diverted into self-transcending narratives of ultimate ‘success’. Hope is repurposed as idle escape fantasy, or the cut-throat hustle to rise above our class. Such narratives are as popular as they are insidious: they paint achieving change – especially economic change, and especially as it concentrates within individual lives – as the sole motivator for working towards change. No value is placed on common struggle, no credence is given to the generational and on-going nature of hope. Rather, hope becomes a closed circuit: a privatised end, not an open, collective means.

Aaron Kent's poem ‘A Collective Noun is a Hostile State’ takes this tendency fiercely and directly to task. It does so in a number of ways, most potently by collapsing the seemingly intangible political forces that govern our lives with the injured sick and suffering bodies they act upon, suggesting that these forces may also be shattered ‘like glass, like kneecaps, like dreams’.

The poem is delivered in four terse tercets. Each stanza contains some kind of bodily emanation or contortion, and each contains the threat of violence or collapse. Yet I found the most compelling stanza to be the almost whimsical and least overtly violent second one. It is the only stanza in which the poem's speaker is a tangible presence; this lyric ‘I’ announces itself, it seems, to undercut precisely its own importance in contrast with the collective, both contingent and historical. The speaker's opening gambit is ‘I have nothing to offer besides’ and they go on to list their meagre contributions: ‘cover for/ shoplifters’, ‘excuses for [Guy] Fawkes’, and weirdly ‘pirouettes for smoking ballerinas’. Each offering emphasises the marginal, futile, or non-serious nature of the speaker's contribution; this stands in stark contrast to the monolithic nature of much contemporary lyric poetry that privileges its speaking subjects as originators of profound moral and artistic insight. There is no room in Kent's poem for the exceptionalism of the individual, they are part of history's chorus line, tendering their precarious pirouettes.

In the third stanza I am struck by the brilliantly alliterative ‘clusterfuck/ of fences’ and by the idea of ‘a haemoglobin swollen/ beyond the devolution of a body’, which once again merges body and the body-politic, pointing to a sickened surfeit of both consumption and suffering. This grotesquerie signals something equally morbid in our shared political organism. The final stanza suggests that if the poet's response to such sickness is prioritising (and poetically aggrandising) the self, by ‘meditating/ on a dandelion puff’ and discharging anxiety in peaceable catharsis, then such a response is, at best, inadequate. At worst, it produces a kind of ‘astigmatism of the soul’ where one sees a distorted reflection of a world made small, and where one is distorted in their turn.

A true attention to how things are – to the ‘hostile [political] state’ – would indeed require a ‘hostile state’ [of mind, of existence] not in renunciation of hope, but, as writer China Miéville  puts it, alive to the idea that:

There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. […] We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford. In the face of what is done, we cannot think utopia without hate. (The Limits of Utopia, Salvage, 2015).

In other words, hope – like anger – is an agitating energy. Its opposite is not hate, but indifference and apathy.

The poem ‘Your Life is Paused’ by Peadar O'Donoghue captures this sense of apathy and its entanglement in our social media technologies. The title and opening lines adapt the language of online streaming to highlight our enmeshment in the digital world, turning life itself into another form of arrested ‘content’. With short, deceptively simple lines, O' Donoghue is able to convey the stuck, frustrated feeling that assails us when our devices or platforms fail. The poem also creates an under-song of creeping suspicion: that our own lives are similarly suspended in digital limbo, hours lost to dull-eyed doom-scrolling.

What I think is the most significant feature of the poem is its bottomless barrel of becauses. Superficially, they resemble answers, while in reality they provide no adequate explanation or relief for the apathetic disconnect of being ‘on pause’. Instead, their very repetition generates its own well of meaninglessness into which speaker and reader alike disappear. The vaguely paternal homilies ‘Because, because, child’ and ‘Because night follows day’ sit uneasily beside references to neoliberal surveillance culture, evoking an infantilising differential in power, knowledge, and status that is as sinister as it is depressing: ‘Because we know all about you/ Because you know nothing/ about us.’

This poem got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about ‘apathy’, which is often characterised as a sense of boredom or lack, a kind of negative space. O'Donoghue's poem gives us a slightly different take. In ‘Your Life is Paused’ apathy arises from numbing inundation, from emotional burnout and attention fatigue. As with Kent's poem the lyric ‘I’ is absent, but not out of deference to the glorious, insurgent collective. Rather, ‘Your Life is Paused’ gives us the depersonalised despair of being without hope. There is a kind of generative negativity that can stimulate desire and motivate action towards change, but the horror of O'Donoghue's poem is that there is no space for such desires to seed, such intentions to form, and no community towards which the speaker can reach, only disconnected data points in an unmappable matrix of profit and carnage.

The need for solidarity

What's missing is solidarity, and the reflective space in which solidarity might be imagined into existence. What O'Donoghue's poem points to is the need for and the lack of such spaces in the lives of so many of us, but it also tenders the poem itself as one such space, however narrow and however hedged. This is also what I would like to offer: the poem as a way of being hopeful and the act of reading as a form of resistance, repair and survival.

Scott Alsworth's ‘The History of a Spear’ closes on an image of ‘an artefact, almost conquered and forgotten’, a museum piece, stripped of activating agency, inert behind perspex. What is particularly striking about this poem is that it does not merely describe the spear, but addresses it directly, endowing it with human qualities. The effect is to blur the line between the poem's addressee (the spear) and its reader, a collapse of identities signalled through the Alsworth's use of the ambiguous pronoun ‘you’. Because we feel implicated in the speaker's address, we understand that the poem is about more than the characteristics of a Bronze Age implement.

Specifically, I think the poem asks us to consider how dignity and an almost limitless potential can be eroded or rendered null over time. Across five tightly turned, unrhymed couplets, Alsworth shows us the spear shaping daily life ('Fish curling from your point') and pivotal in history (‘In Christ's side’). Crucially, we also see the long imaginative shadow the spear casts across cultures: from ‘Ron’ (the spear of King Arthur in the Welsh Arthurian legends), through ‘Gungnir’ (the spear of the Norse god, Odin), to the ‘Gáe Bulg’ (the magical spear of mortal pain belonging to the Ulster Cycle's most famous hero, Cúchulainn). In listing the spear's multiple mythical incarnations, Alsworth creates an aura of importance and richly storied symbolism around an ordinary object, used by ordinary hands. The power of these names is then swiftly undercut by the spear's current condition: trapped in ‘spells of perspex’, ‘ageing with time's flesh’. Alsworth's use of ‘spells’ feels telling. It points to a warning that the aims and ambitions of museum collecting are not necessarily benevolent or neutral. In the precincts of elite intellectual and cultural space, who gets to tell those stories? Who gets to decide what those objects mean? What does that do to our idea of ourselves and what might be possible for us? Against this process of diminishment, Alsworth erects the unbounded imagination, the scene and the space of literature. The spear is only ‘almost’ conquered and forgotten. While stories, poems, myths and legends can still be recalled and retold, we have a language in which to dream a better version of ourselves.

Is this enough? Maybe not. Not if this insistence is considered as a dry, disembodied assemblage of ‘text’. But poetry has another self that exists in the shivers and chills we experience when reading or hearing it; the hitch in the breath when we speak the words out loud. Such feelings are a kind of communitas, that is a fleeting sense of being present and part of something bigger than ourselves. We've all felt this. I've felt it hearing poetry on picket lines. I've felt it at sweaty Crass gigs. I've felt it, conversely, in church, or simply when wrapping my mouth around a favourite poem from the past. I got to experience a version of it again after being sent Pink Punk Poetry, a collaboration between Swedish writer and performer Lou Ice – aka Louise Halvardsson – and Avzounds, a small scale, not for profit music production company based in Teeside.

Spoken, Halvardsson's poems have a relentless, nervy quality that suit the buzzing soundscapes they are  paired with. Thematically, they centre on a desire for escape and autonomy from the strictures of political, social, and familial life and the limiting expectations they engender. This sense of suppressed fire is matched by Halvardsson's verbal delivery – sometimes a cool purr, sometimes a choked snarl – her voice stretching itself in multiple directions at once, creating its own idiosyncratic rhythm. On the page, the pieces have a direct, no-nonsense quality, the niceties of ‘technique’ subordinate to the urgency of their themes. This is not to say that Halvardsson has no knack for a striking image or an aptly turned phrase, but that's not where the poems live or how they're meant to be encountered. To do them justice, to meet them on their terms is to listen to them. Loudly, here.

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Lou Ice

The hope I detect in Halvardsson's poems is the through-line in all of the pieces I've shared this quarter: it’s the doing, the active, urgent movement in the world, the determination to attest to and make a life despite all and in the teeth of all that besets us. The poems are not consoling, their purpose is not to help their readers endure the endurable. Rather, they point to the work that is still to do: building the collective that we anticipate and desire.

A Collective Noun is a Hostile State

The verisimilitude of law is that it too
shatters like glass, like kneecaps, like dreams
caught in the turbine of sleaze.
I have nothing to offer besides cover for
shoplifters, excuses for Fawkes,
pirouettes for smoking ballerinas.
London isn't a pipe dream, it's a clusterfuck
of fences, a haemoglobin swollen
beyond the devolution of a body.
You can't change the system meditating
on a dandelion puff, or thinking yourself worthwhile.
Bettering yourself is astigmatism for the soul.

By Aaron Kent

...

Your Life is Paused

Because it is being used
in several locations
Because, well let's face it,
where was it going?
Because we know all about you
Because you know nothing
about us
Because, because, child.
Because night follows day
(but never knows where)
Because there is so much
Because there is so little
Because war makes money
Because sides means war
Because Halliburton
Because.

By Peadar O'Donoghue

...

History of a Spear

here, a black
disintegrating leaf, copper

scrollwork — dark shard in the heart
of man, it’s hard to think of you now

in primatial hands. Fish curling from your point.
In Alexander’s dreams of Kleitos. In Christ’s side.

Ron, Gungnir, Gàe Bulg
in spells of perspex, all your antiquity and might

are ageing with time’s flesh
an artefact, almost conquered and forgotten.

By Scott Alsworth

...

Aaron Kent is an award-winning poet and publisher from Cornwall. Aaron is a working-class writer, and particularly wants to advocate for more working-class voices in literature. He had several poetry pamphlets published, his debut collection, Angels the Size of Houses, is available from Shearsman Books, and his 2nd collection, The Working Classic, is available with the87press.

Scott Alsworth is a video game developer, political activist, and reviewer for the Morning Star. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Geoffrey Dearmer prize. His work has appeared in Poetry Review, Brittle Star, The Literary Review, Challenge, and the Morning Star, amongst other places. He lives in Norfolk and manages a co-development studio.

Peadar ‘King Badger’ O'Donoghue writes things (that are a bit like poems) and takes photographs, tries to paint, to assemble things found on the beach, vainly tries to sleep. He co-edits all at PB Press with his wife Collette. His ambition is to be reborn as a badger. He has published two critically acclaimed collections, Jewel, with Salmon poetry, and, The Death of Poetry, with PB Press. He has published poems all over the place, most recently in The Irish Times.

AVzounds are based in Teesside, UK, and work with spoken word performers. Amongst other projects, they are currently working with asylum seekers to help tell their stories, which will be set to music.

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