Fran Lock introduces three poets writing loss in London
I no longer recognise this city. I map this city by what is missing. By which I mean, I map this city by what I miss, by whom I miss. There is a species of exile that Edward Said identifies as the 'unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.' The 'essential sadness' of that rift, writes Said, 'can never be surmounted'. This is not my rift. This is not my pain. There is another kind of exile, an exile of spatial dysphoria: a feeling of being bound to a place, but of moving within it disregarded or misunderstood, abjected from public cartographies; edged out or spoken over whenever the story of your city is told.
Ireland was my foremost experience of this: where the sites and settlements of a shared experience no longer existed, where our past was not meaningfully registered upon public space, was written over by an iconography of grieving from which we felt excluded. My own experience of loss was unaccomodated by Ireland’s nationalistic, religious, and sectarian scripts; scripts in which poetry – through the highly politicised, selective editing of an Irish National Literature – was heavily implicated.
Accepting that grief and the act of remembrance are experienced in and through physical spaces both public and private, then what should it mean for those of us with a vexed relationship to such spaces? Ireland was my first: excluding and devouring the dead by turns, folding them into her own mythology, inscribing their presence onto civic space. Unless. Unless they were not the 'right kind' of dead, the dead who did not fit the narrow arc of Ireland's nationally determined story. Traveller dead. Queer dead. Junkie dead.
I have written about this often: within settled communities the legacy of sectarian violence is explicit and readily legible, inscribed upon public space through acts of myriad vandalism and memorialisation; the demolition of buildings, the securitisation of streets. For sedentary communities buildings capture the continuity of collective experience, staging and reemphasising a shared cultural heritage. In the North of Ireland in particular, public artwork interacts with personal histories; mediates and facilitates the uncanny experience of memory between individuals and their wider communities, between these communities and the wider world. Traveller communities, whose settlements are, by their very nature, transitory, leave no corresponding trace or wound on the physical landscape. If we think of public space as a container for cultural heritage, then Traveller communities, their histories, and their memories, remain uninscribed, are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. To greive is to greive inwardly, invisibly. It is to find no place of recognition for your pain.
But lately, I have been thinking. This does not apply to Ireland alone, to Traveller communities alone. COVID-19 throws these thoughts into sharper relief, and it is surreal and sobering to reflect on which bodies society deems worthy of care. Jahan Ramazani writes about 'hierarchies of grievability': there are kinds of grief, and there are grieved for subjects, that it is not acceptable to mourn or to speak about. Who are we allowed to mourn? And how and where are we to mourn them, whose lives are characterised by the provisional, the precarious, the marginal and impermanent? How do we grieve poor, queer, vulnerably housed subjects? And how do we reckon with the trauma of that grief, when trauma, by its very definition, renders problematic the possibility of representation? How is trauma to be told when, through contact with traumatic experience, indivduals lose their ability to fully apprehend or integrate the memories of those experiences; when they are unable to give a coherent or consistent account of those experiences to others? How is grief to be rendered visible when the trauma of that grief is itself entangled in acts, official and unofficial, of forcible removal, denigration and erasure?
I am not sure there has ever really been a reckoning with this, politically or poetically. No one seems to want to ask the question: where do we even go to grieve once our landscapes are concreted over, our sites broken up, our communities dispersed, our squats torn down, our bars closed down, our dancehalls gentrified, our districts socially cleansed. I fear that where communities are decimated by our current health crisis, developers will move in. It has happened before. They will do it again. It is opportunistic, but it is also calculated: a willed amnesia, a way of denying that those 'types' they don't like had ever lived.
I no longer recognise this city. In an interview at the start of the year, I feel moved to describe London as a 'cartoon necropolis'. At the time even I wasn't sure what I meant. I am sure now: that there are ghost architechtures, ghost geographies that exist inside or under the surface of the offical ones. We have spent our lives occupying roughly the same spatial coordinates as other people, but we inhabited a totally different world. It has to do with how you map meaning onto space, how you inhabit and move through it. It is your langauge, your landmarks, your rich wealth of city lore. This is radically different if you are poor, if you are in some way 'other'. Or relationship to the city was – is – characterised by a sense of transition, by the logics of the provisional. But now gentrification is come. Austerity has eaten our city alive, and we can no longer find those makeshift makedo places to coalsese and heal. Camden has suffered so much. To be there now, it breaks my heart, the level and intensity of destitution is that acute. Life-long locals have been forced out, the same people who made that space vibrant and exciting, who gave it the cache and grimy glamour the moneymen now laud and fetishise and milk. There are cameras everywhere. There are fences. There are security goons in bomber-jackets with walkie-talkies. How can communities comes together to resist and sustain when there is nowhere left for real communities to form? When you are isolated and scattered and pushed further to the margins?
It happened in Soho. It happened in Brixton. It is happening in Camden and in Shoredich. And these same forces that make life impossible, exploit our histories, folding them into their own, claiming not only our territories but the discursive space – the very langauge – in which we formulated notions of community and resistence.
Poetry can, and must resist this. 'Empathy' is a big buzzword in poetry at present, but it glosses an arrogant assumption that we can ever inhabit the skin of another; that we can ever understand or truly illuminate the fatal extent of the differences between us. I think what poetry can do is open up a territory, a place in which to greive, to give us back the sites and situations of our loss, and allow us to register that loss in community with others. This, I have to hope, is the true beauty of poetry: a form not merely memorial, but relational, an acknoweldgement of self and other, and a way of holding each other in our several griefs.
The poems I want to introduce today, through various lyric strategies, articulate the often uneasy relationship between memory, loss, identity, and place. These are poems of pain, sometimes fraught and full of a restless, reckoning energy, but that is also their resistence, that is also their fire.
by Dr Golnoosh Nourpanah
Another fucking Sunday when
There is no fuck but endless
Arguments about unfucked fuckers
Another Sunday when I bathe in a white
Well and pretend I’m clean
So clean I’m almost chaste like a fat virgin
So clean I lick my skin in search of a floral
Scent that would make me dizzy
Another Sunday when I stifle yet another scream
Even my white noise is onyx
I am dripping with words and this
Makes me a bitch. I wear my shrieks
Like a dagger under my garments
I tease my skin with the blade and
Slumber. But the Sunday chamber is
The loudest place to sleep in
I wake up, and my sweat smells like
Pickled aubergine so strong that the
Neighbours call the police. But there is
Always featherless hope, a way out, the path
To obsidian peace. If I take out
The blade from underneath my skin
If I find a cobalt vein, and cut it deep
If my black blood pours out
Like acid rain in spring,
These Sundays will end, and
There will be peace.
by Heathcote Ruthven
At a dub night in Village Underground
and think of you Jamie anew,
our punk racket in my living room
in love with the furious drums of Carnival.
Prone to feeling out of place
you might be uncomfortable here.
At the right time, you’d be all over it;
the bass notes hurt your throat.
What to say? To remember is to take a view.
Toward the end I didn’t know you.
Your boyish obsessions, your noble sighs,
old man playact, Attenborough till sunrise,
glazed to nature’s greatest cruelties.
The cordyceps fungi, a parasite,
can invade an insect’s muscle,
can make an ant beat its head
madly with a mandible.
Possessed ants climb the nearest tree,
grip with mouth and feet the vein of a leaf
direct above their family.
Then, merged with what it feeds,
fruiting bodies sprout out,
on repeat, spores blossom.
Whole colonies are petrified.
To my communism, you replied,
‘I’m attracted to the darker side of human nature’,
on that we never argued.
Your clothes were iconic,
Staring at yourself for hours
in the mirror, terrified, pulling faces.
Your whole life a strange war against pretension.
I struggle to remember how you danced in public
just us thrown round your kitchen:
Richard Hell, James Chance, Neubauten.
Last Exit To Brooklyn,
first novel by seaman Hubert Shelby Jr.
He got TB in the Forties,
had ribs removed and half a lung,
the other collapsed. He couldn’t work
so sat in bed addicted to morphine.
Said, ‘I know the alphabet, I can write’,
wrote brutal stories you saw yourself in somehow.
In my head you wrote a story
based on his second novel, The Room.
In my head based on the so-called
‘sex dungeon’, dilapidated basement
squat near The Elephant.
You dwelt there in broken moans,
half rushing or withdrawing.
The walls close in, everybody’s left.
Are you lonely or is it a peaceful gloom?
So serious you were almost spiritual.
They howl sermons here,
‘We all feel the temptation of corruption!
Such suffering in the world!’
Reverberation and low throbs shake up
our skins with a low lilt, a gruff purge,
horns convulse like you on sax
except they land in a smooth crash
in words of hungry bemusement
‘Why, why people funny bwoy’
sings a man I’ll not meet to
off beat strumming, a tight shake,
all that hot pain let out
slithers to a sweet cry,
a ‘shh’ that never stops.
Last week I heard a vicar repeat
‘the price we pay for love is grief.’
Bored, you and I went to a scrap heap
in Willesden. The materials of
city life torn up into fine trinkets
piled into mountains
we climbed, were cut by avalanches,
sat at the peak with a bloated blue bottle,
White Lightning. We’d celebrate fragmentation
then the stars and mist of suburban flatlands.
Now I lie exhausted with eyes closed,
use every muscle to try summon you,
discover new memories and feel guided.
You preferred instant coffee to real stuff,
when I drink it I imagine your mouth.
Gaze at the walls of Village Underground,
three stories tall, Gothic Victorian like
your name, James Edward Cripps.
by Matt Bates
London Scene, (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1995), pp.53-63. Transcribed pub listings page. The highlighted venues are the only ones still active in 2019/20.
Notes on poets
Matt Bates has worked in the books industry for over 30 years and up until June 2018 was the Fiction Buyer for WH Smith Travel. In 2016 he was a judge for both the Costa Book Prize (Novel) and chair for The Booksellers Association Debut Fiction Category Prize. He now studies English Literature and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London and is Editor-at-large for Muswell Press with a focus on Queer writing.
Heathcote Ruthven is a writer and editor at New River Press. He has edited poetry anthologies including Year Of The Propaganda Corrupted Plebiscites and When They Start To Love You As A Machine You Should Run. His writing has appeared in International Times, The Idler, The Independent, Vice, and others.
Dr Golnoosh Nourpanah teaches Creative Writing at Bedford University. She has read at numerous literary events across the UK and internationally. Her debut poetry collection, Sorrows of the Sun, was published 2017. Her acclaimed short story collection, The Ministry of Guidance and other Stories, was published in 2020. A second collection of poems is forthcoming in 2021. Watch this space!