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.

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020
Sunday, 04 October 2020 22:02

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020

Published in Poetry

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020

by Fran Lock


i cried for the highlands last night. for myself. there is something
writhing inside of me, a snake of mutant spleen. i waited for a storm
to make my terrors holy. concentrated days of dolorous affect, days
of squinting intensity. trump, how i hope that he chokes, and all
those social carnivores, glittering and slain. a mood of diffuse fiasco.
stubborn thing. return to the house, again and again, and dripping
wet. a bone planchette shuttled to 'no'. something, encrypted then
decoded. this volatile memory, my own. latency. of symptoms, data,
and desire. self-indulgence, self-defence. my tender recognitions
flaring up in autumn. home is terrible weather. i cannot fuss these
stanzas into flattery. the line is a slack elastic pouch; a flaccid
primordial belly, like cats. an ill-made thing, and will not
tailor my malaise to grace. i don't know how to hold my anger,
not to hate. starve a fever, someone said. and what are you, but
a fever in me? scrolled into my sticky creases, multiplying hourly.
feed a cold, and make your rippling flesh perform. wolfing, burn
the toast, and bury the bread. my mother counsels me to be
the apple round the razorblade, show 'em softness, give 'em
steel
. mother, i cannot. 'ana' is a virgin queen in a high lace
collar with an iron will, immobile and controlling. she wants
a tight enigma. poem be the tourniquet, the crawlingspace,
the tunnel in the wall. wasted or refined? to be the knife i hold,
my high ideal. flensing, flensed and thriving. so tired
of pretending, cried. a stifled recitation of all my faults and woes –
hazard, jacquard, jeopardy – my island's too, its rig-a-rendal
settlements torn up. predators, a violence as precise as law,
snagged with a pretender's claw. the crippled croft i scrambled
as a child. i did not know, the shin i skinned i scraped against the keel
of famine's ark. why are you crying, though? i answer that i cannot
reconcile: turbines, pipelines, cheviot sheep. bread so dear, life so
cheap.
a liar's mouth, drooping limply from a face. the fertile
valley limestone sacked. my worst nightmares are arid now. trees
torn up, our common pastures fallowed out by force. there's always
force. enticed, induced, tricked and trapped. a trawler, like a rake
through ash, sieving its silt bounty. let them eat slate, flint, sand,
and my attention turns to salt in looking back. offals, quarries, abattoirs.
i dream about the wicker kishes, ripped by wind. inside the kishes
stones for sucking, stones for smashing glass. we lived in a bungalow.
i'd climb from my window, roll down drifts of snow. i was so happy.
sometimes. they will not come again, those days, my dull hair
combed across my face in dialogue with crossing; cold air walking
over my arms like butterflies with green wings shut and slanted.
i'll say again, i cried for the highlands last night. i cried about
you, and the cloudy meat in super-markets, mountains of trash,
cinder-blocks, evictions, slash-and-burn, a silvery inevitable sky
we cannot breathe. chrome and choke. politicians pressing
their footprints into policy, the slicks, the culls, the mass
extinctions, motorways. peine forte of cops or climate. long
strides, and longer shadows, all those hungry thugs for money.
there's a hate in me, amplified, illegible with onslaught, how i thought
i could outrun, outgrow, forgive. so many mouths, liquid with desire,
 and glorified with gimme. these are my furies. a rage that will not
mean resistance – sorry mother – just collapse. the wilful shrinking
deep inside. starve a fever. as if i could refuse the world, and in
refusing fix or heal. i wish my mind were a cooing place, and not
this sickle den. screwdriven era, end of days. i lock the bathroom
door and howl my ghetto aishling to the gods of indoor plumbing,
black mould and metered futility. to despair is a sin, i am told, but
there's a moment in the day like a trapdoor in a stage, and i fall
through. i remember the cold, i don't remember being cold, until you.
and even in this sluggard winter heat i will never be warm. hate,
like an animal sound in the bowel, in the bone, in the brain,
in the bins at night, rooting through the rubbish. the knock and scrape.
the 'o' i keep on mouthing like a stunned ventriloquist's toy. in the night,
in the night the mind is both the nightbus and the nutter and we ride
this room to circles till our hurting circles the earth. merchants of this
circling, i wish i could forgive you, approach a wounded world with
perfect love, the carnivores and racists too, and johnson,
even trump. and every killing cop, and every crooked judge; think
-tank apologists, their counter-signed denials. rape is not a metaphor.
its own sinister unwelt, way of being in the world, a being in by
doing to. its opposite is love. i can't love you. if i could hold this hate
in my hand, could wear it soft like the sea, if a poem could encompass
this. tongue of a militant humanity: silence. in a stilled field kneeling

where the air is still green.

The image is Christ Forgiving St. Francis in a Vision, by Federico Barocci

Working-class poetics and heeding the 'cry of the poor'
Sunday, 20 September 2020 07:21

Working-class poetics and heeding the 'cry of the poor'

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about our potential to develop and publish a new kind of poetics, where solidarity and community can be fostered in moments of lyrical, dialectical tenderness. Above image by Imtiaz Dharker, from Witches, Warriors and Workers 

We are living through a strange and difficult time for poetry; for all of art, obviously, but for poetry in particular. Poetry is being asked to hold a great deal: to offer consolation and catharsis, to express some kind of universal human experience; to speak truth to power. Everywhere people are 'turning to' poetry. Everywhere it is harnessed for its connective potentials, mobilised by emerging radical movements, or instrumentalised as inexpensive pseudo-therapy.

At the same time the position of poetry – and indeed of poets – with respect to the wider culture feels increasingly pressured and precarious. Coronavirus has thrown this precarity into sharper relief, but in truth it has been with us since the Tories took power in 2010 – certainly since Michael Gove's disastrous educational reforms of 2013, which routinised and shrunk the teaching of English in schools, and produced a 'conveyor belt' curriculum in which sustained analytical rigour, expressiveness, context, and empathy were marginalised in favour of rote learning, and the relentless memorising of disconnected 'facts.' Ofqual's recent, unprecedented, and bizarrely out of touch decision to make poetry 'optional' at GCSE level is just the latest in a long line of such manoeuvres.

In 2019 senior management at the South Bank Centre's Poetry Library floated the decision to introduce a fee of over £30 a year for all new members. This announcement was met with such a wave of protest that management were forced to retreat, offering members the opportunity to 'consult' on other options for ensuring the future of the library. These options apparently included another form of paid membership, seeking corporate sponsorship, or asking better-off patrons to make donations. Fast forward to 2020 and the South Bank Centre confirms that over two-thirds of its workforce are liable to lose their jobs. At the time of writing, the Poetry Library is closed, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

All of which speaks volumes about the state and the status of poetry in this country. There is a piece of received wisdom that suggests the Tories' policy towards particular branches of the arts is indicative of inattention or disregard, but this is not so: the signature gambit of power elites has always been to marginalise or underfund cultural activities to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. Poetry, as an artistic medium, is the perfect mode of production for those who are poor in resources and in time: it does not require specialist tools or training. It is portable and cheap; it can be practised anywhere. In other words, poetry is one of the few cultural forms that the working class and the economically deprived are able to independently access. It energises and moves us; it is a way into discursive space for those who are abjected from, and censored or misrepresented within wider political discourse. It is a site of infiltration and resistance, a scene of solidarity, a space in which connections are made and communities are fostered.

Editing out working-class voices

To penalise or discourage this vital form of working-class creativity is to deal violence to those same, nascent communities. This is cynical, deliberate, and strategic. To reduce the teaching of poetry – or drama, or history, or art, or music for that matter – to a loveless tick-box exercise is to prevent working-class students from fully apprehending the long continuum of their own oppression. It is to limit their access to currents of dissenting thought. More importantly, it is to deny them the language in which such thoughts are often formulated, weighed, and reasoned; the language in which working-class critique and resistance are so vividly broached. It is to deny them something beautiful within themselves: craft and discipline, the pleasure of making. To rob poetry both of context and of joy, is to say to working-class students 'this is not for you', 'this cannot, and did not, come from you'. It is to reabsorb something radical, dangerous, and engaging back into the self-serving myth of bourgeois literary production: a white, male, classically educated poetic canon. It is to edit out working-class voices from future poetic cohorts.

This tactic is inseparable from the funding cuts that ensure inequality of provision and of access. It might well be true that some free resources and opportunities exist for young people, but these opportunities are hedged at best, either because they are solely concentrated in Greater London, or because nobody is there to guide young working-class people towards them. The Tories are trying to engineer us out of art young at a young age. The struggle to live and to define yourself as a poet is, for working-class people, often a demoralising and exhausting experience. We force our way into culture against grim economic disparity, lack of early stage support, and the expectation that we are incapable or unequal to our art. Sadly, this expectation is often fostered in us as children or young adults until it takes root within ourselves.

Never doubt that culture is the medium through which the covert work of ideology flows. It is also the space in which such ideologies can be countered and contested. It therefore serves the right to position art and literature as optional extras, as 'luxuries' or afterthoughts, outside of and irrelevant to the power dynamics of capitalism. If they can convince a generation of working-class students that poetry does not matter, that it has no bearing upon their own lives, they can prevent them from recognising and reclaiming this important source of collective strength. If they can silence us, the current generation, by making every ambition to further ourselves and our reach untenable, by draining us of creative mental energy, then they have won on two fronts. They have cut off that important conversation with our own traditions and aesthetics before it has begun. We must not let that happen.

Working-class poetics

Despite the Tories' best efforts poetry is increasingly popular with disadvantaged young people. When governments close educational avenues to art, the spontaneous and shifting networks of solidarity engendered by new media often provide us with an alternative route. As creators and publishing cohorts we can facilitate and extend this access by making work available for free to those who cannot access it any other way. By disseminating art and poetry widely online, through websites and publishing operations such as Culture Matters, we can help to wrest the balance of power away from traditional publishing cliques. Sharing work amongst ourselves challenges the implied audience for poetry: by removing artistic production from its elite haunts, and from the hierarchy implicit in traditional models of pedagogy, we can talk directly to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas. If there is no arbiter to mediate between artists and audiences, then the conversations that matter to us survive and proliferate long after their 'moment' in mainstream culture's perpetual 'cool-hunt' has passed.

This matters enormously: working-class poetics is driven by innovation, by a relentless determination to use every available poetic resource – the metaphor, the simile, the epigraph, the aphorism; the pun, the joke, the slang expression, the advertising slogan – to further the reach of our art. In this, our work forms a textual counterpart to the resourcefulness and pressured improvisation required from us in daily life. Material necessity provokes experiment and originality, and these acts of repurposing, jerry-rigging, cobbling and borrowing are the substantial and integral features of our writing.

We learn early how to stretch what we have, how to take the unlovely or the shoddily made and turn it into treasure, nectar, sustenance. This something-from-nothing-ness is the alchemical labour of all true art. It is also the stuff of working-class survival. The conditions of working-class existence exert a peculiar power over the rhetorics and aesthetics of our poetry, but more than this, they can be deployed by poetry as a transformative tool, one that has the potential to renegotiate terms of social and political as well as artistic encounter. Our voices matter, in all their urgency, multiplicity and difference.

The cry of the poor

I have been thinking recently about the imperative for art and poetry to heed and to express 'the cry of the poor'. I have been thinking about listening, to ourselves and to each other. It is only through sustained attention to the granular particularities of working-class experience that socialism – that any radical project of social change – can succeed. Poetry makes space to accommodate that polyvocality; it accounts for our diversity while providing an arena in which our common struggle may be apprehended, talked through and felt.

What is 'the cry of the poor'? I will tell you what it is not. It is not the undifferentiated din of feral abjection. It is that pulsing, plural music under the skin of working-class life. To be poor is to live at the mercy of language, but it is also to be fed by several streams: conflicted registers, switching codes, many modes of speaking and saying, in celebration and vigour as well as exhaustion and despair. It is for  your ways of seeing and saying to be sharpened to a cutting edge. We, who are never 'at home' in language or in culture, who can never look to culture to see glowing rose-tinted reflections of ourselves, feel within its precincts, a deep discomfort. The 'cry of the poor' speaks of and through this discomfort. It offers both a challenge and a rallying cry. Making space for this cry is not just about bearing witness to suffering, it's understanding that the cry is also testimony; that if enough of us are speaking, the cry becomes collective rebel yell.

I am writing at a time when radical presses are urgently alive to this cry. Culture Matters has published a series of anthologies reflecting a diverse array of working-class voices. These anthologies seek to account not merely for individual struggles, but to map the points of commonality and divergence in our varied experiences under the multiple oppressions of late-stage capitalism. Anthologies uncover our hidden affinities, fostering class consciousness and expanding our potential networks of solidarity.

Working with Jane Burn on the anthology of contemporary working women's poetry, Witches, Warriors, Workers, provided a precious and very practical mechanism for nurturing a sense of community. The vision that emerged from this work was one of collective struggle and mutual achievement; the indisputable fact that that none of us ever rise alone.  The anthology provides a space in which to enact the sorority and class consciousness it dares to imagine.

This is a mighty thing. To acknowledge and to relate to each other as creators feels powerful and timely. Heeding the 'cry of the poor', is also to understand that we are not merely subject to the cruelties and caprices of power, but that we can meaningfully and collectively carve out space to challenge them. Poetry is ours, by right and by necessity, and we must do all we can to keep that knowledge alive.

To that end, the two poems I would like to introduce are by working-class women who, in different ways, bear witness to the complexities and sorrows of working-class life, but whose deftness and vibrancy of language inform a work of militant cherishing. The care and control these poems evince is a care and control that is seldom afforded the poets as citizens and subjects. The poems that contain this care function, then, as small units of resistance. Against alienation, exhaustion and fear they erect a moment of lyrical, dialectical tenderness.

I am Road, I am Mother, I am a Better Person Now, I am Failed

By Jane Burn

So I have this ache (suddenly) to run. Don’t go thinking I’m fit, that I flow
like a river. I just got sick, sick of the sight of myself, sick of the unpleasant
feeling of flesh. I have dreamed this cumbrance away for after all, I am only
a frame of weeping bits. I have spent too much of this elongated time
on my back (imagining sky), wishing my grody molecules would buzz
into the air, away like flies, like a bluebottle cloud. When was the last time
I properly slept? I get rid of portions of the dark – scald my corneas
on some book, blink on grit. Fail to feel the words go in. Forget
what I have read. Masturbate. Not because I’m thinking sex. Because
I have to find something buried in myself, like trying to remember
when I was last alive, like trying to get to the beat in a dead bird’s breast.
I just want to find some sign of now, some flicker of life. The rest of the time
I turn like a bundle of sticks, go numb, think or don’t think, turn the cogs
on morsels of the previous day, or let the coils of my brain be void.
My eyes swell like storm drains, my ears keep primed. When I hear the dawn,
I cry for the squandering of another night. I want to clamber out of this skin.
It weighs me like wet wool, a flaccid coat. Thirteen weeks of fear
have kept me to the confines of this home and I have crept like a fat automaton,
fridge to stool, rug to window, hall to bathroom, cupboard to bed, have pacified
my family with mountains of bread. I have filled my mouth and eaten my way
into pain. I want my bones. I want myself to carve her bright way back.
So I say to my son let’s run. I don’t say let’s run away from ourselves.
I think I broke for good. All I can think of is how many shitty things I did
or said. I didn’t know is no excuse and now I do, I see that my tongue
has been a knife, a cudgel, an evil fish. Every day I spew for fear and wait
for a hand on my shoulder, remember too much the shove in the guts,
fist on my cheek, a rip in my cunt. I kneel beneath an accusation of sky,
say please help me, help me please for I have almost had enough
of this kind of life. Smile, smile, smile, smile, smile. Smile and think
of the phone number that the clinic gave for such vile emergencies and I
(will not) have not phoned it because they did not remember how I said
I hate talking on the phone, would rather scratch my arm-skin off. I’m sorry.
I’m trying to make amends. So me and my son, we run. I found a road
where hardly anyone goes – past the church ’cause nobody has any time
these days for God – besides, all their doors are locked, so suffer your sin
in silence. Them that need some wine and wafer genuflection, I guess
just go without. Past the Shrine of the Two Marys – oh, how I have
worshipped their crumbling prayer, their sad relics, their pietà of mist,
their concrete knees. At least this Lockdown, somebody got round
to painting them fresh again, hung baskets of flowers on each side,
like pendulums keeping time. I stagger past and wish for selfish things –
MaryMothers, make me thin, MaryMothers, I’m not that person anymore.
MaryMothers, put out the pains in my head. In front, my tall son.
Me behind, running upon the long cast of his shadow, like he’s
getting away and always forever I’m failing to catch him up.

Packing Two Gold Necklaces

By Hibaq Osman

When there is talk of warriors
rarely do they mention the keepers of secrets
or how whole cities have been moved
under the cloak of night
what tiresome work it is
to carry lineage

      which is to hold
your great grandmother and great grandchild
in one hand
and a tasbeeh in the other
you say insha Allah, God will free us
and prepare for the unknown
often, water
           often, death

When there is talk of warriors
the bustle of kitchens is omitted,
but recipes are strategically altered
in new weather
on new lands

isn’t a sword just a knife
that has been repurposed?
Which is to say you have made do

behind the curtains of sons
and into the long memories of your daughters
whose minds are a maze of language
that cannot translate
your name

Nobody will speak of what you left behind
to carry us forward,
least of all yourself
instead:
Allahu aclam /
                        God knows best

Jane Burn’s poems have appeared in many magazines. Her poems have regularly placed in poetry competitions both national and international. Her pamphlets include Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen, 2015) and Tongues of Fire (BLER Press, 2016), and her collections are nothing more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams, 2016), This Game of Strangers (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2017 co-written with Bob Beagrie), One of These Dead Places (Culture Matters,2018), Fleet (Wyrd Harvest Press) and Remnants, co-written with Bob Beagrie (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019), Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020). In 2018 three of her poems were nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prize, and Jane is a joint winner of the 2020 Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite.

Hibaq Osman is a Somali writer born and based in London. Her work largely centers women, identity and the healing process with a focus on the often hidden, nuanced aspects of our experiences. Her debut poetry collection, A Silence You Can Carry, was published with Out-Spoken Press in 2015. In 2017 she released her online poetry chapbook the heart is a smashed bulb.

Witches, Warriors and Workers: an Anthology of Contemporary Working Women’s Poetry is available here. 

The Children of the Nation: an Anthology of Working People's Poetry from Contemporary Ireland is available here.

Onward / Ymlaen!: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Contemporary Wales is available here.

Almarks: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland is available here.

A Kist of Thistles: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Contemporary Scotland is available here.

The Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2020 is available to pre-order from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This article is being jointly published by Communist Review.

'Between Misery and the Sun': I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill
Tuesday, 01 September 2020 08:19

'Between Misery and the Sun': I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill

Published in Life Writing

Fran Lock reviews Charlie Hill's new memoir

Charlie Hill's memoir, I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, is told in a series of linked poetic vignettes. 'Vignettes' is definitely the right word too: each memory comes to the reader as a distinct and self-contained portrait, distilled with great clarity and precision. This is not the discursive 'anecdotal' memoir so beloved of celebrities. Hill writes with a pleasing economy of expression, and the deft arrangement of judiciously selected details. The book refuses to impose an explicit narrative trajectory onto events, but allows for the organic accumulation of small though significant moments, creating a sense of life as it is lived, without the heavy-handed interventions of authorial hindsight. In fact, Hill eschews a number of well-worn autobiographical manoeuvres, skilfully avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality, painfully obvious foreshadowing, and – my personal bête noire  – nostalgia-by-numbers.

This last matters enormously, and is crucial to an understanding of Hill's work as an important contribution to working-class life writing. Too often literary memoirs fall back on or into generalisations to create and sustain their sense of time and place: what was playing on the radio, what was happening in the news, what people were driving, smoking, wearing. Hill doesn't do this, and it is a relief. The effect is local, intimate, and compelling. There is no attempt, witting or unwitting, to homogenise the complexities of lived experience into a soup of what Peter Davidson has called 'benign pastness'. Hill's vignettes are particular and attentive, adroitly dancing between the subjective and the social. For this reason, the memoir calls our attention to the English class system in all its subtle and maddening gradations. Two passages stand out as especially well-realised in this regard. In the first, Hill is describing the persistent insecurity that surrounded his own and his family's class identity. Writing about his mother, a vicar's daughter, Hill states:

“We were poor,” she said once at a family do, “so poor we couldn’t even afford a television.” And then, “I’ll always remember the vicarage at Taddington. It had this enormous staircase with these great sweeping banisters that we used to slide down. (p.2)

In another memorable section, Hill begins an ultimately doomed career at the local grammar school, where he 'opens a book' on a fight between two of his peers, 'the cock' of his junior school, and a 'kid from Alum Rock'. For those not in the know – as Hill was not – Alum Rock was and is a notoriously deprived inner city suburb of Birmingham:

The fight lasted as long as it took for the kid from Alum Rock (look it up) to walk up to my man and drop the nut on him... (p.5)

There's a self-deprecating humour at play here, Hill making fun of himself and his own socially unaware naivety, but there's also something painful, an anxiety and a confusion about the grim social realities that drive and underpin such scenes. Although the loser is rather genteelly described as Hill's 'man', use of the vernacular 'drop the nut on him' signals at least a desire to identify with the other boy, the material conditions of whose life were shaped by forces literally unknown and unimagined by Hill. Elsewhere in the book, Hill describes his removal from the grammar to the local 'comp' where his father teaches, and where he comes under fire for being 'posh' (p.6). Taking on some of the poshness attributed to him, Hill describes himself as 'frequently involved in fisticuffs', a stoically understated way of talking about an experience few would covet. There is much to say here, about Hill's dexterity in playing with the slips and switches of code required of a child in his situation. Other writers might have eked this section of the memoir out for page after page of hand-wringing analysis, but a good part of Hill's characteristic skill is in leaving these unspoken tensions unspoken, by not applying an adult understanding to a child's intense experiences Rather, Hill uses language to signal the ever-present interplay of class dynamics: showing, not telling, in the best tradition.

It is also striking that Hill doesn't take a position on events, nor does he attempt to coerce or cajole his readers into taking one. He is not preoccupied with presenting an image of himself, either as valorous,  victimised, or villainous. He is not adopting a pose, but presenting a series of experiences for us to make of what we will. Again, this feels invigoratingly fresh. The image of Hill that emerges from the book is likeable, clear-sighted and astute, and – most unusually – without pretence or vanity. Not that Hill doesn't signal his own vanity and pretentiousness, but when he does, he does so with a redeeming self-awareness that reads as genuine and comfortable. Speaking about his early adolescent activism Hill writes 'I was, I suspect, insufferable on the quiet.' (p.7)

Later, describing his literary ambitions he makes the somewhat deflationary statement, 'I finish my novel about books. It has taken me a long time. I try to get it published and am buoyed by the responses of publishers who don’t publish it.' (p.86) What connects Hill's writing about both his politics and his career is his ability to laugh at himself without sneering at the causes or vocations that have mattered most to him. This is not Portrait of the Writer as a World Weary Cynic. No sense of 'knowing better' now haunts Hill's descriptions of idealism, excess or ambition. Rather, we see our humble narrator in a constant state of development or change, alert and open to new possibilities. In an era where neoliberal identity politics holds sway, and writers in particular are under persistent pressure to crystallise and calcify their image or their 'brand', Hill's approach comes across not only as zesty but potentially radical.

The form Hill deploys seems to emphasise this sense of openness and change: a hybrid form, somewhere between poetry and prose, where the lines of each short paragraph are often connected and propelled by their sonic properties, for example: 'shinning up lampposts and schlepping round the council estates of Northfield espousing unilateral nuclear disarmament...' (p.7) or, from later in the book, 'We enjoyed particularly sensual, soft-focus sex but irked each other too and the mid-term prognosis was underwhelming; shortly after I dallied with an ex...' (p.62). Alliteration and half-rhyme abound, and Hill has the poet's knack for linking unusual and sonorous phrases; this provides each scene with momentum and texture, and lifts them from a mere recitation of stuff that happened. There's intricate work going on here, on the level of lexis and the level of sound, and this work leads us from moment to moment, creating a porousness between memories so that they bleed and blur like real life.

And in the midst of the bleed and blur there are the moments that stop you cold, either in their tenderness and beauty or their unblinking witness to misery. Midway through the memoir, there is this description, baldly concrete in its abjection:

A low point. It seemed everyone I knew was poor. The DSS office in Highgate overlooked two abattoirs. It had reinforced glass windows and the staff were suicidal. (p.44)

There's a kind of socialist realism to such descriptions, and this is where Hill's memoir resonates the most for me, when he conjures the peculiarly embattled feeling that saturated left-wing and working-class politics in the eighties and nineties. There was the sense of being on the cusp of change, of living in and through a time of ferment, of something about to happen. This feeling seems composed of equal parts vitality and futility. It produced a kind of hedonism, led by the optimism that just by living you could change things, and the suspicion that nothing you did made any difference at all. It was, is – and I find myself using this word a lot about Hill's memoir – nuanced. Hill seems at home with this ambivalence, and it brings to his writing a real complexity and truthfulness.

Other writers, myself included, would – and have – dwelt at length on the disillusionments and failures that marked Blair's election and tenure, and the collapse of a credible left into excess, apathy and liberalism, but Hill is not judgemental or moralising, and however bleak things get, there is always humour, and on occasions, arresting glimpses of beauty:

Now a baby girl, another never-ending new. Soon there is a photograph that will be forever in my head, of son and daughter leaping into the air above a meadow, waving sticks, suspended between sky and earth (p.89)

Reading the word 'suspension' makes me think of Albert Camus, and a quote that seems very applicable to Hill's writing. 'To correct a natural indifference', writes Camus, 'I was placed half-way between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn't everything.' Hill will undercut any notion of the memoir as a vehicle for individual exceptionalism by humorously downplaying his achievements into 'a defeat of many colours' (p.95), but also rejects the typical trajectories of misery memoir with moments of solidarity and love, 'I have a family and I love it with a love that is no part of any of this, a love that lives where all else vanishes or is unreal.' (p.84) Here, I think, is the real triumph of this work: its commitment to the ambiguities and contradictions of lived experience, in a way that is unique to the life it portrays while being deeply resonant with and for its readers.

Reading the book one afternoon, I sprayed coffee down myself while laughing at the following passage:

I was excited at the prospect of contracting Lyme disease, which can prove fatal if not caught. It is identified by a circular red rash, like a target and quite spectacular; unfortunately, I was fine (p.94)

I laughed, a lot. Because not in spite of the fact it really isn't funny. My laughter was a kind of resistance, a belligerence, in the face of a world where contracting Lyme disease might provide a welcome respite from precarity, tedium, and the soul-numbing effects of late-stage capitalism. Hill's book invites and summons that laughter, laughter which is a true expression of solidarity.

The book is available here.

Poetry and class in a time of cholera
Monday, 27 July 2020 11:03

Poetry and class in a time of cholera

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock writes about poetry and class, in the latest in the series of jointly published Morning Star/Culture Matters articles on the effects of the pandemic on cultural activities

During this Covid crisis, poetry is being asked to do a lot of good: to offer consolation and catharsis, to carry some kind of vague universal experience, to speak truth to power. But whose experiences, and whose truth? These are pressing questions.

Everyone, from practitioners to pundits, has an opinion, the same opinion:  poetry is a 'contemplative' form, productive of comfort and of empathy; what poetry does singularly well is negotiate between subjective feeling and mass social concern. True, but whether contemplation is likely to provide solace or to further empathy rather depends on what you're being asked to contemplate, doesn't it? And we might be equally involved in global events, but we are not all equally affected by them. The virus does not discriminate. Humans do.

This is where our current definitions of poetry fail, at a disparity so great it can never quite be broached; at the edge of an ONS report  that says there are fifty-five deaths for every one-hundred-thousand people in the poorest parts of England compared with twenty-five in the wealthier areas. For BAME communities the situation is even bleaker. Class dictates which of us will feel the effects of coronavirus the deepest, and who will be left to endure its legacy the longest. Under such conditions what should poetry do or be?

Poetry doesn't stand outside of capitalism's brutalising power structures speaking in. It is enmeshed and beholden to those structures; subject to and scarred by them. Artists are also workers: art is work, and the large majority of us do other jobs to support ourselves and our families. When the welfare state is failed by government, it fails us too, when jobs are cut, they're our jobs too.

The idea that art is an adequate salve to these wounds is ludicrous. 'Feeling better' should not replace collective, active and organised social change. This is the limit and the danger of 'consolation': we shouldn't have to find ways to 'cope' with an unacceptable situation; pressure should be applied to those who engineered it.

Catharsis is ripe for exploitation. The deep swell of feeling a poem prompts may seem profound, momentous even, but it is interior, entirely subjective, the oppositeof true sympathy, true solidarity. This kind of poetry, and the idea that it connects people through some golden thread of fellow feeling conceals the fatal extent of the inequality existing between us.

Catharsis makes a fetish of working-class resilience; it ties that suffering to a marketable performance of identity, where your pain has meaning and value only in so far as it elicits a profound emotional response in your audience. Writing the poem may help us, but its efficacy in challenging the attitudes and conditions that produce those feelings is limited.

I live – we live – a continual, exhausting negotiation with and within language; with and within capitalism. Our use of language is both an organic response and a purposeful riposte to the non-language of bureaucracy, the populist sloganeering of governments, and the reductive stereotyping of the mainstream media.

I want to fight back against the misuse of lyric; against the easy absorption it sometimes fosters. Capitalism uses ease of assimilation to slide its most toxic messages past us on the sly. Those are the enemy's tactics. Our poetry must do more. If the state were a body, then poetry should tell us where it hurts; to keep pointing to the sites of failure and neglect and saying 'Look! Listen!'

They don't listen. If they did funding bodies and publishers would have already moved past the tokenistic representational model of working-class inclusion to make real changes to the way in which financial support for artists is allocated and accessed.

Applying for assistance - before coronavirus and during - is a bewildering process. Many give up. In poverty you're asked to account for yourself in a variety of ways every day, just to access what you need to survive. We live with a level of scrutiny and required 'proof' that is intrusive and stressful.  Impenetrable bureaucratic processes are not helpful. Funding bodies frequently assume a familiarity with their processes, but often people are unaware of what's out there, what they're 'entitled' to. And there are talented artists who don't have the vocabulary to present the 'best case' for their vibrant and necessary work. Who, among the working classes, can afford to expend time and attention on a process they feel sure will fail?

Attention to diversity means reaching out, talking about the opportunities for disadvantaged artists with those artists. Regularly. Systematically. People new to funding processes may have no previous experience navigating these systems. It is about making space for them, even if their work does not conform to some preconceived idea of how a working-class person writes or sounds. It means recognising that a middle-class audience is not the default. It means making money available to forms of art that the working class can actually practice.

To occupy the same spaces as our middle-class peers we are performing a phenomenal amount of extra labour; it's labour we shouldn't have to perform. But if we do, if this is really the best system our cultural gatekeepers can come up with, then we should be allowed to be angry. The idea that art should or indeed can be apolitical is patently ridiculous, and it's a fiction that serves those already comfortably ensconced in places of privilege.

a break in the weather: flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism
Saturday, 20 June 2020 08:27

a break in the weather: flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism

Published in Poetry

a break in the weather

by Fran Lock, with image by Steev Burgess

even the dogs, distended with heat. i wanted rain.
women with their conscientious shopping washed
away. these mutant brides of hygiene, trending
and aerobic, who tsk my dirty boots in queues.
this mineral stutter. gardens stained with brute
occasion. chalk reproach. hedges choked with
bunting. england: a comic turn, drawing a string
of flags from his fly. rapture of hands. i wanted
rain. trampling the vintage of a sun-fucked face.
on days when days are graves. lack gravity or grace.
men, in the blank stare of their tatts, whose guts
are globes, whose biceps groan with empire.
anchors, roses, fragments of a fragrant name. rain.
to rinse this sickness, island ridicule from skin. this
city, where history exceeds its shadow. stall
and loop. audition the deadpan fault that feeds on
us. again, again. estates unspeak their skinner box
verbatim. smoke. and flame. conditioned
and engulfed. we are. i wanted rain to put these
civic fevers out. they're burning still. in vicious
figment cinders, still. my friend, to tread your
empty name to echo. to write the slant exception
of your name on dirty walls. the rain would wash
this too. and our illuminated wasteland: the futile,
sovereign portraits of our martyrs: bishops,
pricks and pawns. and you. any name to sanctify
a scene of threshing hurt. tread these borders,
boards, you walk abroad like thespy ghosts.
could cast your emanated arms in wax this
night. christ's face in the grain of the kitchen
table. his imprint in the splinters. rain. to dress you
in this deluge too, and all our mob, their masochist
vulgarities, in chains and chains and chains. cats,
made manx with mutilation, maimed like saints,
they spray their sympathetic wounds on everything.
i wanted rain. percussive stunt with thunder purge
the shape of me made minotaur and new. to flirt
my thrashing form through calendars and mazes,
prose. where others have been before. and i am
the turd emoji of trespass, an effluent refrain you'd
scoop from pools. i have written this poem before.
no, this poem was written without me: into the decimal
amber jots of a pit bull's eyes forever. into the garret
appetites of libertines, the somnolent garotte
of smack, mouths slack with musing, yielding in
their eyries to the pleasures of the spleen. and chains
and chains and chains. and rain. escape is begun by
betrayal. give me courage enough for that. to know
all flags are hoax, all names. to refute her slovenly
canticles, that fine old woman, who's lairy pastures'
rearing only weeds. she'd bind your bogmouth
shut with reeds. tell me, my friend, why i feel so
unclean. on the corner, some preacher spilling
wilful tight-lipped syruptone, his reflection warped
in windows. the fields have shed their shovels too,
and idiots are out there, begging brightness from
sky, the cryptic elegance of herons, cranes, the
chancy depth of rivers. i wanted rain. concentric
shocks that drive me inward toward you. something
clockwise breaking. covert and austere. england: rolling
up the sleeves of rumour, readies his ringmaster's whip.
god is a portable darkroom tonight. your image resolves
in a shallow chemical bath. a whisper arrives from
the outside world. the rain will come. canned laugh.
little white lies. promises, promises.

Flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism

by Fran Lock

 Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. This poisonous myth of 'resilience'. Politicians love that word, and in recent years it has become a useful get-out-of-jail-free card for those who would make a fetish out of working-class survival to serve their own devious ends. Don't let them do it. This 'spirit of the blitz' thing is a lie. This government's persistent attempts to analogise coronavirus as an invading 'enemy' is insidious bullshit of the first order. This is not a 'war' against ideological opponents. The virus is remorseless and motiveless. It isn't tactical. When politicians recruit the iconography of the Second World War it allows them to yoke values of endurance, stoicism and sacrifice to a creepy nationalistic script that is toxic to the notion of global solidarity. To class solidarity too.

If fortitude is continually positioned as an exemplary British quality, then those who are not comfortably or obviously accommodated within their narrow conception of Britishness become morally suspect by default. Hate crime is on the rise. Xenophobia is on the rise. Antiziganism is on the rise. Further, by presenting the crisis on purely national terms, the government is able to elide the inequalities that exacerbate the virus and which the virus further exacerbates, cynically presenting Covid-19 as some kind of great leveller, which it manifestly is not. If you are poor you are twice as likely to die. If you are a person of colour and poor you are four times more likely to die. These are the facts.

The cynical manipulation of language, memory, identity and the dead

Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. There was no Knees Up Mother Brown amongst the rubble. The outbreak of the Second World War saw a sharp increase (57%) in crimes of all kinds. There was hoarding, racketeering, speculation, a flourishing black market. There was violence too. The 'plucky resolve' of the poorest amongst us was a government fiction driven by propaganda films such as 'London Can Take it!' That famous photograph of the milkman picking his way through a bombed out street to deliver the milk? Fake. The man in the picture is not a milkman, but a photographer's assistant, posed in a white coat.

FL milkman 741x388

That isn't to suggest that acts of great kindness and courage did not take place. The point is, there can be no visual shorthand or semantic catch-all for the complexities of mass conflict or the trauma it initiates. To act as if there can is insulting and monumentally inattentive to history. Inattentive to the present too, and to those who exist under such conditions still; whose experience of the current pandemic is and will be shaped by the legacy of diplomatic sanctions and military intervention both. Coronavirus isn't war. It isn't like war either. Nothing is. But what does link both experiences is the government's cynical manipulation of language, memory, national identity, and the dead.

Listen, it isn't happening the way they're telling you it is. V.E. Day threw these manipulations into sharp relief for me, walking home in the sweltering heat, through a wasteland of flags and 'patriotic' bunting, the strains of Vera Lynn blaring through somebody's open window. I wanted to stop one of the women, flipping over charcoaled something on her barbecue, and ask her 'what are you celebrating?' but was worried the answer would only depress me. Many of the flags were accompanied by slogans, either posted in windows, inked onto the fabric of the flags themselves, or chalked inexpertly onto the pavement: 'Thank You Key Workers!', 'Thank You NHS', 'Stay Home, Save Lives', 'We ♥ NHS!' Laudable sentiments, as they go, but something about the way in which they were nationalistically framed is deeply disturbing. Something about the reductive sound-bite quality of the statements displayed against backdrop of union flags. As if we, the working-classes, had become the chief producers of our own propaganda.

The sacrifice of workers

The allied defeat of the Nazis is a testament to international cooperation, and the fight against fascism is an ongoing struggle, one worthy of commemoration and respect. However, mainstream media narratives have, for years, been subtly recalibrating these acts of remembrance to suggest that working-class life has value only when instrumentalised in the service of the military industrial complex. And 'sacrifice', particularly of poorly paid and exploited workers, has become the rhetorical and thematic hinge between a nostalgic evocation of war-time Britain and the Britain of our current crisis. The 'sacrifice' for example of front-line NHS staff. The 'sacrifice' of those providing essential services and exposing themselves to the risk of infection. The 'sacrifice' of care workers, bin men, and bus drivers. The 'sacrifice' of postwomen, check-out operators, and teachers. 'Sacrifice'. As if they were soldiers. As if the daily risk to their lives was a deliberate and meaningful choice in a world of infinite options.

When the government, through its various media mouthpieces, speaks about the 'heroism' of these people, it does so in an act of abdication. If key workers are engaged in feats of exemplary individual bravery, then their deaths are their gift to us. The state bears no responsibility for allocating adequate resources, or prioritising safe and fully-funded working conditions so that these deaths may be avoided. No, a floral tribute and a posthumous round of applause are quite sufficient. And the beauty of that system is that after these people are dead they can continue to be exploited, as political propaganda.

It's not the way they say it is. The 'sacrifice' narrative allows governments to arbitrate on which working-class lives are meaningful and which are not, contingent upon our 'usefulness'. It's a farce. Or it would be if it were remotely amusing. How can Johnson invoke the spectre of herd immunity – a strategy guaranteed to impact the poorest amongst us first and hardest – one minute, then bombastically extol the virtues of key workers the next? We are the same people, the same communities, but it is only those of us actively risking and losing our lives to the functioning of society or the machinery of capitalism who are worthy of notice. This was ever the strategy of the military industrial complex, which for years has mobilized the bodies of working-class men and women to recruit support for its interventions and to shield itself from criticism: if you protest the war – any war – you are pissing on the memory of those who 'died for you'. A proper display of 'gratitude' entails a tacit acceptance of the ideologies that produced that war, the exploitation of working-class labour by the armed forces, and the unacceptable conditions under which many military personnel serve. This is the government's strategy with regards to key workers too.

A stale, pale history

So, 'what are you celebrating?' What is being marked, remembered or enshrined? What kinds of equivalence are being posited? What notions of 'service', notions of 'endurance'? It hurts my head. On the phone that night to an elderly relative who tells me I'm 'overthinking', who says, 'of course you wouldn't join in, you hate Britain.' I almost want to cry. I want to shout. I don't 'hate Britain', not in the way that he means. I hate the way political elites exploit and abuse their people; I hate the way successive governments have made a fetish out of our endurance when endurance was unavoidable, when survival was our only priority. I hate the way they leave our traumas unrecorded and untreated, then reimagine us, years down the line, as cheerfully mucking in and making do. I hate nostalgia, and the way the Tories have weaponised it to turn us against one another. I hate the way our richly storied subjectivities have been flattened and diluted to produce a stale, pale history by numbers: Vera Lynn and victory rolls, polka-dot dresses and nylon stockings, gollywog jam and rationing.

FL Nelsons Column during the Great Smog of 1952

It's not the way they tell you that it is. I lay awake and thought about it for hours. I'd been reading about the Great Smog of 1952, a public health disaster that's almost vanished from popular consciousness. How Britain's cleaner burning anthracite coal had been exported to pay off war debts, which left thousands of predominantly working-class homes burning toxic 'nutty slack' instead. Over five days in December 12,000 people died as a result of a pall of poisonous vapour that settled on London. Mostly poor people. The government of the day – Churchill's government – were insultingly supine in the face of these deaths. The war was over. Working-class life no longer mattered.

I have always mistrusted public displays of remembrance. At their best they provide an opportunity for disparate people to coalesce around a moment, to find community and meaning in their separate experiences of tragedy. But at their worse they make a fetish of the dead. They lose the granular particularity and almost infinite tenderness with which human life deserves to be mourned and cherished. Such ceremonies embrace spectacle, which is hardly conducive to acts of probing reflection; they universalise experience, which tends to evade any form of reckoning with the historic and material forces that produced the death. They reclaim our dead from us, gather them up into narratives of nationhood or 'cause' or party. 'The dead' become an abstract concept, an undifferentiated mass whose job it was to die and to be dead. After sufficient time has passed we forget that they were people like ourselves. In which context, what does it mean to 'commemorate' or 'remember'? If the war is obscured behind period costume, sound-track and slogan, and all the aesthetic signifiers of its era, then what is it we are being asked to 'commemorate'? Who is steering the ship of public memory?

'Long live death!' is a fascist slogan. José Millán-Astray, a key military figure in Franco's dictatorship came up with that one. Nauseating, isn't it? And echoed everywhere throughout fascist discourse and rhetoric. For fascism the dead are always with us, an immortal moral exemplar, constantly evoked and enlisted through ritual; through myriad speech acts, inscribed upon civic space in countless memorial gestures. For fascism, it is death itself which confers meaning upon the life of a person. Conquest is glorious, but death is the sanctifying seal set upon conquest. That is, of course, if death comes at the service of the fascist state. The most exemplary deaths are those that take place during war: 'War alone brings all human energies to their highest tension and sets a seal of nobility on the peoples who have the virtue to face it.' writes Giovanni Gentile in the odious Doctrine of Fascism, ghostwritten on behalf of Benito Mussolini, 'All other tests are but substitutes which never make a man face himself in the alternative of life or death.'

Further on, from the same text, 'In Fascism man is an individual who is the nation and the country. He is this by a moral law which embraces and binds together individuals and generations in an established tradition and mission, a moral law which suppresses the instinct to lead a life confined to a brief cycle of pleasure in order, instead, to replace it within the orbit of duty in a superior conception of life, free from the limits of time and space a life in which the individual by self-abnegation and by the sacrifice of his particular interests, even by death, realises the entirely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.' Discursive, rapturous, and broadly nonsensical. Remind you of anyone?

I'm being somewhat facetious, of course. But only somewhat. Neither Trump nor Johnson are afraid to co-morbidly entwine notions of nationhood and sacrifice in ways uncomfortably close to fascist ideology. That doesn't make them fascists, not exactly, but it shows, I think, that capitalism and fascism are kindred spirits. There's an Adorno quote that is applicable here: 'Fascism is itself less 'ideological', in so far as it openly proclaims the principal of domination that is elsewhere concealed.' For Adorno capitalism is more dangerous because its messages are coercive, manipulative and insidious. Yet through its covert workings, its slick populist appeals, its slogans, its dexterous deployment of nostalgia, its sentimental appeals of concepts like 'resilience', and 'freedom', capitalism can help to bring about the conditions under which fascism can rise and flourish. And this should give all of us pause.

breath
Sunday, 31 May 2020 17:04

breath

Published in Poetry

breath

by Fran Lock, with image by Martin Gollan

inside this symmetrical fiction of skins, we do not court
the carnivore attentions of a cop with eyes like bullicante
glass. we do not wear our reservoirs. we do not bear our
freight of names upon the face; find a dirty jest of us in all
the ugly campaign prosodies of power. death, persistent
and repeating. our dying, sanctioned by habit. this habit
of skin. yes, we've felt our paddy slanguage also choked.
but no: that cop will never twist our workaholic wrists
behind our back because. and just because. such luxury,
this silence. to breathe. if breath could split this pidgin
midnight into mercy. if poems could. if meter weren't this
proxy skin, a creditable flesh, i'd breathe. and breathe this
swift and futile morning out. whose name is not a slogan.
whose skin is not a flag. whose saying should be supple
love. this poem, that takes up more space on the page
than some people do in the whole wide world. white
space of the page. white space of a lung. could open
this pieta! into seeming air.

Red Biddy
Thursday, 21 May 2020 16:46

Red Biddy

Published in Poetry

Red Biddy

by Fran Lock

red biddy, noun, a mixture of cheap wine and methylated spirits.

biddy, noun, of unknown origin; probably influenced by the use of biddy denoting an Irish maidservant, from Biddy, pet form of the given name Bridget .

‘All you young people now take my advice / Before crossing the ocean you’d better think twice’ – Jimmy MacCarthy

.1

ever hear the one about the man with two shadows?

one was a matador’s cape, the other a thin girl cut from the queasy cloth of her own bad self. this is a monday, mind. fire weaving hawkweed into hacking cough. he slipped his plimsolls running. leapt the fence. spread his hand to find his cocksure fortune full of thorns. took his torn palm into town, tarried his swaggering luck through lanes. bantam boy, bantering, jaw-jacked scally in the jackdaw dawn. his aggie ma, hauling his name across coals all the days of her life, till it rose on the roof of her mouth like a blister. scar of his slingshot pedigree. he’d never come back, each delinquent sinew stretched its short electric measure. said his going ripped the lining from her eyes. if sons were sovvies, silvered in the silk-purse of her seeing. said she wore his beaming counterfeit smooth across one side. and oh, he was the ether’s genii then, dreamt his chequered pleasures, walked each night towards the guillotine of sleep with baby steps. he was away, trailing his lustrous brawn through forecourts, car parks, foreclosed farms. following the bitter ribbon of the road to the north, to the west, to the ford-mouth of the hostings, to the old men buckled by husbandry, gingham girls in the grip of small town non-event. and oh, that canny lad, that diamond bruiser, that one time baron of ballinasloe –

and this was the man with two shadows? tell me.

i was coming to that. always i was coming. how he slept under hedges. his shadow was his pillow and his bindle and he carried the whole world knotted up in one wet corner of it. how he was spring’s pilgrim, hobnail apostle of the copse and culvert, anything cooked in a smoky hole. and it was thin going, till the whole dark sea laid out before him like a lead apron. and he paid his passage in coarse words for common objects, and his passage was long, and he slept standing up like a horse. how sometimes you’re not even moving, how a hard road travels the length of a man, his romanestan swelling and stretching inside. and he slept on the docks in his shadow, bound in its red-green wastrel cloak. and blue. when a man’s hand is his flag, and you can read his shadow like the grimoir of his poxy fate, and his mother’s voice in an auger shell, on and on, remorseless and rokkering. god. in liverpool they tell him his gold tooth’s got by alchemy, and they try his gilded tongue for passing twice through a wishing ring, and they sharpen their telepathy on the edge of a desk, and cut down the tree on which his mother carved his birth, and his mother’s voice ran silent then, as a stream runs mud.

is all this true?

yes. and his first shadow was a sling, and he carried his arms and his hunger in it. and his own mother wouldn’t know him from a scarecrow. and they called him scrub tinker, not even fit for sorting scrap. and he chewed all night on his daddy’s blackberry blood, mulled her pale face too, poor cow, who bore her grief like a basket of knives and could not love him. he could not sit still. he would not be work of many hands. chased from verges, grim billets of wasteland. wanted away and he ran. but that tongue, lord, inching through the soily hours of darkness like a worm, has its own earth-cravings, must speak brick-dust dirt to loam, find a way to sing.

and of the other shadow?

saw her by the union chapel, hawley road, driving spears of heather through the plush lapels of enemy gents like she wanted them staked and dead. they were frisking her lingo for a telltale cluck when she spat in their faces: talk to me about resilience, i’ll grind your bones to make my bread. pikey. worse. poshrat, answers to the suck of air between a plumber’s teeth. and has no name. cuts her hair to a cold hearth breathing soot, and doesn’t care. she has no tongue, she does not eat. nurses pry her teeth apart. all they find inside is another man’s fist.

this shadow is dangerous.

yes. but how like himself. and takes his hand. flailing his workshy meat in a warehouse. body, a deviant dance against gravity. hard life. lucks into sudden colour when she is near. a gallon jug of thunderbird, a tin of tea. an ambulance racing somebody to somewhere in the painterly night. mad alan with his rat tattoo, gone off his trolley in a squat. the waify and immaterial few, whose high a rome where all these mainline mazes lead. these lesser roads. these vandals and these goths. london is a cloned ghost mouthing her sweet nothings in every window. is a window for every ghost. the squat, that squat, that garrison of discontent. the rec ground gone to nettles, mad behind paddington, sweating out its lairy yellow threat, its green seam split, its ambush of weeds. affrighted edge, the paring blade of anywhere. london tests her raging mettle, his. lies with his back pushed into the earth, holding the whole world up by its ripped mattress. becomes a bootleg christ, sprawled and gormless against the plank he’ll walk to crucifixion. oh, she says there’s beauty in a daggered light like strangulation. folds him, strokes the clammy threads of his disorder smooth. bathes him in another name. not the moniker that swaddled him, but something rushy, wet. fixes his blood to hers with a razor’s partial grace. her fingers falter holes in his lobes with a pin till he’s pricked all over like a grubby bud of lace.

but how did they become tied?

i was coming to that. always i was coming. all her life, she said, she was smeared across the threshold of some man, worn in his buttonhole, drowned in his poacher’s pocket. and she ran too. made herself anew from a ragbag of silky fixings. scraped herself from barrel bottoms, sucked the pennies out of fountains clean. read borrow. said he’s well named and vexed his mildew-muddled ghost in stoppered bottles. read the world with gleaning eye, said oh, i rue the day i dipped my biddy tongue in your foul cant. england, where the torchlight traipses over her. where her pavee ariettas are the meat the organ grinds to tuneful mince. and spoilt. she wanted the world. not to treasure, but to smash. to master its daggers and turn them back on the hands that held them, to drag their bleeding précis through her patois gutter gorse, each faltering declension a barb in their moral hide. he was too hurt. wanted the voodoo of spoons, the sweet numb sleep, and a lasting drink of red. his vision drizzled into constellation. they have no word for stars, borrow said. oh, but please, a fulsome argot of moons. she tied him with her own cut hair. with shrove candles, baked apples, their subtle fragrance sealed in heat, her own wrists swimming in beeswax and blood, the golden sear on greyish meat, the burning of bundles of sage. flimsy bonds. shapeless kite, mithered by wind. barely snagged at her ravelled edge.

so they became torn?

in secret he’d fed his first shadow. it grew so big, shaking its rusty antlers. wran jag mask, dancer at the wake. shadow number one now a furbearing fluke of pain with his mother’s face. in his dreams the camp and the last of the fire, eating through sleep’s thin celluloid strips. and london’s vicious bridges, bearing his weary guilt on their backs. coward, they called him, cunning. work was long when work was to be had. and morning’s fearsome cold enough to drive the tattoos from his skin. he had no words, but those words going forth by day on the book of himself. how rocks tear the underbellies of boats, a thought of home would surprise him. where home is not a shore but a tongue that beg to wag. ganger, gavver, gaffer, they flattened him to paddy, poor paddy, a word with a chaser of bile brought forth from your own loathe gut. the north and its blethering fevers. a stubby finger stabbing his chest at closing time: which side are you on? until home is a chandelier sinking to the bottom of a wreck, is a dropped needle scoring a song through dusty shellac.

and so?

he ran. at first she clung to his back like a hump of his own dull flesh, but he slipped her when she was stringing her words into makeshift bandoliers some throbbing morning. how the last thing she said with a look like getting straight was i don’t know how to help you. and he was going back. and she was eating the night into abstinence. her tongue could cut water. his formed a wick trimmed especial for poison tallow.

and so?

he drank. he died.

and so?

you know. that look on her face, that body all lithe and pious, poised when you ask her where she’s from to rip your fucking throat out. you know full well. when she sits still and throws a sundial’s shape across paper. yes. did you hear the one about the woman with two shadows?

The older Biddy comes in three varieties: a sturdy, plain, bossy woman with a broad face, pug nose, a topknot and beefy forearms; a squat, simian-featured woman with a grizzled muzzle and big feet who is given to helping herself to household resources and to supporting Irish revolutionaries; and most simian of all, Biddy Tyrannus, an enormous menacing figure who threatens her employer... – Maureen Murphy, Bridget and Biddy: Images of the Irish Servant Girl in Puck Cartoons 1800-1890

FL Red Biddy Reared Biddy1

.2

will it all come good?

unlikely.

when will it all come good?

hers is the face of adversity, an adverse face, hung from her head like a horse-brass. this simian biddy is the stove’s hot doppelganger, matriarch of cloves. fire puts out its tongue to taste the brightness in her eye. kitchen-smith, sucker-up of pedant sauces: louth’s gunpowder physic. lemongrass, then pepper, thyme. this to ward of fever – honey-stave – and this to do god’s work. thumb the subtle gills of wild shiitake wide, and plumb the tureen’s teeming depths. her stock contains bestiaries, vinegar multitudes. pick the demerara layer from sleep. she does not sleep. can balance her reflection in a brimming spoon. it is not wood she’s burning, it’s evidence, until her conscience runs as clear as her soup. ever bust a knuckle on a side of beef? hold up the hollowed-out slippers of fish, as if for some cinderella? studded dismal bolts of dough with rosemary and sage? seen yourself in a sheet of bonfire toffee and wished you could die, just die? she is my dream, her and her calendar of tatties, my fate. running round the covered market like a minotaur, termagant for oranges. the butcher sells her porcine sawdust prisoners, tied together at the waist. alone, she rubs the patchy nap from a velvet word like fealty, soaking her feet in a cracked plastic bowl.

won’t she ever be free?

of what? famine wastes the figurines she’s polished them so hard, this simian biddy. purified the puffy faces of their children with her own fenian spit. outside, the plum trees, sagging with sweetness. a white rooster strutting like a prison snitch between the condemned cell and the strawberry beds. she’s not immune to pain, it’s what the lower orders have in lieu of conscience. slipped disks and twinges. golem of the sink. how one time she bit the head from a china shepherdess, she was so angry. they

pretend to be afraid of her. she’s draining the grease from a skillet like a sawbones bleeding a vein. they pretend to be afraid. motes of brackish coffee circle the plug, and jeyes fluid worries her gloves of reddened flesh to temper. was your name ever a stone in your earshot? did you make a crown of poet’s laurels from leaves of sweetheart cabbage? will your shape ever shuffle in the memory of mastiff dogs? are your caresses cudgels? do you save the stubs of candles? have you balled your gridlocked fists by your sides, while smart rejoinders breed in your apron pocket like skinny ferrets?

was it always so bad?

no. and that’s the hell of it.

will it always be so bad?

scrubber. skivvy. scullion. drudge. let me answer your question with a question: have your lips been numb and blue from biting back a grudge? and have you ever had to separate the chicken from the pillow? are you a simian biddy? think carefully. could you hit your boss so hard you knock the dandruff from his roots, the spinach from between his teeth? could you pull a corset tight enough to crack a rib, to cut her damsel’s waist in two? have you cleaned her house? has she wrinkled her nose at your ripped raw skin? does every third trip to the shops end in belligerent fisticuffs? well, there you are. she is my dream. she has tied on her face with a permanent scowl. she has fashioned her ringlets from peel. in the heel of her boots she has hidden the hair of her enemies. has seasoned their bisque with her menstrual blood, has blown her nose on their scented towels. don’t laugh. weak sun. its lackpenny pendulum sets her in motion. you could eat your dinner from this hardwood floor. oh, her sleeves are wide enough for silverware. you’ll not catch her concussed by accusation. no grovelling apology. and she has smuggled mahogany sideboards out under her skirts, has skimmed the cream with her tongue, has smeared her aching legs in your quack balms, has spiked your patent specifics with ground up glass. in her tenement, potsherds glint on a gimcrack mantle, and the fire curls the edges of photographs.  mildew, and at night the stains turn into sons. her lovely boys. pictures pinned to cheap emblems of wilderness: mummified sprays of heather. their dead eyes gleam like toys.

biddy, noun

1. adult female chicken
2. young bird especially of domestic fowl 
3.  generic for an Irish maid
4. derogatory slang term for women
5. an elderly woman, regarded as annoying or interfering
6.  slattern or prostitute

or

7. from the Celtic Brigit, meaning ‘exalted’.

FL Red Biddy no dogs no irish

.3

this was her mountain, yes?

yes. where women are not killed so much as turned to birds.

and this was her name?

they made her a cipher for livestock. penance of cutthroat sex. they said her name so that it sounded like a splayed hand being soaped. they wrote papers about her, then slept, twin hares jugged in a thick indifference. talked about the time his cigarette made freckles. and her voice spilling its own peculiar quarrel. a language so wide her teachers removed their teeth with pliers.

when?

time of wiping his hands on a new growth of grass. time of sudden crack!s sending shockwaves through a shadow and it breaks apart as starlings. time of schemes for robbing the rainbow’s end, when, up all night, she’d known them talk their teeth to air. time under a bridge. time of methylated alchemy. time of magpies, little hitmen, cocking a song at her temples. time of swallows, martens, every feted thrush. time of blackbirds, lilting their thrifty waste not warning to the formal dawn. time of music, pushing up through london’s sodden bedrock, of bleeding in a moshpit, ecstatic as a sky on fire. time of women made from matchsticks, struck against the concrete walls of laundries. time of green grows the lily-o, and a rash on her hands from pulling up banes and worts by the root. time of skips and bins. time of fireworks tied to a cat’s tail. time of ritual diminishment in a rural church, and the fuchsia going psycho where they scattered his ashes. time of you can lead a horse across the border but you cannot... time of screwing to fusion with the windows open in venice no less. time of a word coming loose with the give of elastic in an ankle sock. time of rinsing their spit from her hair in a school shower. time of saviours and hatemail and crying like a caravan on fire. time of the human league singing leb-an-on! belfast, by bony m. time of cher doing gypsies, tramps and thieves, and the boys at the bus stop doing gypsies, tramps and thieves until she riddles their leader’s lip into blood. time of no time at all, long cycles of neglect and grind. time of flies on ruined fruit. time of skinning a knee in the stonebreakers’ yard. time of lead lifters waxing their aerial conjuries to angel. time of murals with the eyes of mediaeval portraits, following you from one end of an alley to another like a mad ancestor twice removed. time of under the counter contraception, of bootleg records in brown paper bags, they don’t play our songs on the radio, etc. time they staked a resurrection gate above the telluric pulse of her tongue. time of bobbed apples and him standing heliocentric in a system of charmed bees.

when else?

a seduction of humming wires leading her on to cities and cities and cities. honey-buzzard, feathered desperado, shrieking from a derelict watchtower. tart notes of quince and burning charcoal. and kiss his intemperate headlong under the juvenile willow like outlaws once. when love’s liquefaction fails her, and she sulks in stalemate’s sackcloth tearing hair. but also her gorgio husband’s back in the bed when she could spread his majesty like marmalade, loveliest mensch. most of all, though, it is the nonsense of his coffin, a puzzlebox unlocked only in the mineral tedium of sleep.

she went far from home.

with blunt eyes, yes. and says you’d be amazed, when they’re all laid out, just how many bones a body contains.

so far from home?

but you know what they say? home is the lining of a coat. when you spread it out you’re hanging your map on a branch. these territories will jut and suck and mushroom under any hand that tries to rub them out.

but can she live without her mountain?

yes. and no. tomorrow the gangrenous forest-future, making poets of us all. is hamlet’s cod philosophy printed in a christmas cracker. is a million mouths begging the bare city bare. she’ll be alright. she can’t unlearn the black anchors of this arms, but sees how the tattoo parlour has emptied its anchors in favour of rainbows and butterflies, the gnomic allure of letters in a language no one here can speak. if she had the needle. if she could sew one foible phrase to her skin, it would be hunger, or pivot, or sliabh.

can the mountain live without her?

a name is what we measure the dead against, rolling them out like bolts in a crowded bazaar and crying our wares to the vaulted roofs of churches. there are only proddy churches here, immaculate and empty, the hollowed-out volcano lairs of bond villains. what i mean is, a mountain is a kind of scar. there are the scars of harm and then there are the scars of loving too well. biddy’s been singing his name through this dizzy imperial city long time. she knows a rainbow isn’t painted or la-la-ed but walked. she’s a survivor. see her crooked teeth catch light, their irregular plates pushed into a smile.

FL Red Biddy Biddy3 our lady resized

Now what? Grieve, care, and rise with your class.....
Friday, 24 April 2020 13:57

Now what? Grieve, care, and rise with your class.....

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock continues with the second part of her reflection on working-class resistance and beauty, caring and grieving, struggle and solidarity.

I shaved my hair off yesterday. Our clippers are old and pretty knackered, and the process was hardly as seamless as film and television might have led you to believe, but still, I managed it, in my own typically shambolic way. Newly shorn, I joked with friends and family that my decision was taken in homage to the imaginative sorority of anchorites around whom much of my recent reading and thinking has centred, but in truth it’s not even as complicated as that. At various times in my life I have worn either punk’s aggressively dorsal ‘Mohawk’ or chosen to go full skinhead. It’s simultaneously ‘not that big a deal’ and critically important to me.

I shaved my head for the first time at thirteen. I won’t dwell, but psychologically I wasn’t ‘in a good place’, largely because I wasn’t in a good place in a literal sense either. Since that time both individuals and institutions have insisted on seeing my shaving my head as a sign of instability, a kind of crude barometer of emotional distress. Why else, after all, would a woman or girl choose to do that to herself? This was irksome and outdated even then, but on some level broadly correct: I wasn’t happy.

However, the act was absolutely reasoned and volitional. It was also resistive. It was also joyful. Being passing-pretty in the tedious conventional sense had led to no good place for me, or the other women and girls around me, so my shaving my head was, in the first instance, defensive, my armour against the objectifying gaze of predatory men. More than this, it was a renunciation of the worldview to which that gaze and its crass aesthetic judgements belonged. I didn’t value ‘pretty’, it seemed a shallow metric for self-worth to me. I wanted to publicaly and irreversibly denounce that value system, and everything it wanted or expected me to be. It remains one of the things in my life I am most proud of.

Care for yourself

I bring this up now only because I want to stress and affirm the importance of autonomy and self-care as the necessary precursor to any kind of collective and radical action. When asking what we can do to bring about change, an important step for any woman, but for working-class women, and for working-class queer women in particular, is to begin to unpick the self-strangling, effacement and abnegation of decades.

I’m not talking here about the docile self-coddling of Instagram influencers, I’m talking about Audre Lorde, writing in A Burst of Light that: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ It’s about survival. It’s about preserving yourself in a world that is hostile to your existence, your identity, and by extension, to your communities. In these circumstances honouring your autonomy is also about remembering that not every woman has that opportunity or freedom.

And that’s a beginning, as grieving and carving out the space in which to grieve is a beginning, but it isn’t enough. It’s hard to imagine what is. Every time I try to write intelligently about a way forward, I find myself recapitulating the old prescriptive dictates of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’, circling a narrow and instrumentalised vision of art and culture that is every bit as monolithic and blinkered as that of the capitalist patriarchy.

I certainly have very strong feelings about the kind of art I want to engage with and produce at the present time: art that isn’t merely ‘about’ our besetting crises; art that moves beyond coronavirus, climate, or capitalism as subject and into a profound textual reckoning with their rhetorics and aesthetics. I want more than the purely topical. I don’t want poems that hoover up our daily pain as imaginative fodder in reactive or exploitative ways. I want stress and rupture on the level of language. I want damage done to theme and form. I want difficulty and discomfort.

But I also want beauty. I want John Clare and Jane Burn offering pyrotechnic prayers to nature. I want Maxo Vanka’s Pieta, and Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. I want Szilvia Bognar singing ‘Lily of the Valley’, and Natalia Goncharova’s Liturgy six winged Seraph. I want dancing in my socks to Billie Idol with my brother. I don’t believe art is less worthy or authentic for being beautiful. And beauty, however seemingly superficial, can kindle hope, can offer us an ‘otherwise’, can say ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, can lend us strength when everything around us feels abject, lost, or ugly. It preserves and strengthens the spirit, and I wouldn’t wish that portal shut for anyone.

What I don’t want is to temper historical injustice or present crisis with aesthetic pleasure. What I don’t want is to be beholden to some power elite’s defanged idea of beauty, beauty as palliative, as distraction, as a papering of cracks. I want art and poetry whose seeing and saying stimulates; whose seeing and saying is sharpened by experience. I want working-class beauty, beauty with the stakes raised, beauty that feels – and is – hard won. I want moments of ecstasy, flashes of brilliance. I want to read, see, hear, and feel changed.

This is something we can do in our daily lives as artists, sure; these are the issues we can choose to live in sensitised daily communion with, but the burden to produce change, to make space for these voices, shouldn’t be placed on the backs of individual creators. Working-class creators are already overburdened, and our art is integral to the machinery of our survival. You inhibit and homogenise art when you start talking about what people can and can’t make; what their responsibilities are, their sanctioned forms and subjects, the correct way to approach them. You diminish art, and you also – more importantly – damage people. Working-class women in particular have seen enough violence and silencing as it is. How then, do we drive change and speak to crisis effectively? How do we move from mere catharsis into meaningful resistance, collective dissent?

Rise with your class

Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any, and that can be frankly terrifying. If the responsibility for change lies with the seemingly impenetrable systems that administer us – the publishing cohorts, the academies, the funding bodies, etc. – then we can feel overwhelmed, impotent, powerless to act, but we are not. There is always something we can do. I’ve been thinking about that a lot these last few months. Even before coronavirus, my own life had changed in a variety of ways, good and bad, and I’d been thrown into a period of profound reflection about what comes next for me. In poetry and in the academy I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve come as far as I’ll ever be allowed to go.

This is infinitely frustrating, and there are days I feel like a failure. It helps to understand the dynamics of the system that has put me and keeps me ‘in my place’, but it is nonetheless a struggle to maintain any sense of self-worth of forward motion within a culture that seems explicitly designed to exclude me. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this because a large part of working on Witches, Warriors, Workers with Jane Burn has been about fostering networks of solidarity with women from all walks of life, many with stories to tell about their experiences of exclusion and erasure inside of cultural space. The most important lesson for me from all of those conversations has been: rise with your class, not above it.

Doing for your community raises you. It is succour and soul food in and of itself. It gives you back a sense of agency and control. Truly, this is Lorde’s vision of self-care: an outward-reaching and embracive act of love for your comrades. In practical terms this act of love can look – has looked – like: editorial attention to polyphony and difference; an active seeking out of stories and voices beyond our comfort zones and cohorts. It has been encouraging, including and furthering voices that might not otherwise have been given space. It has been reviewing each other’s work, recommending each other for prizes. It has been taking that work out into the world in unexpected ways: pushing it into elite cultural spaces, and the hearts and hubs of local communities alike.

Struggle for your community

We can do this. Even now, even from our separate anchorite cells, we can connect to the world in ways that bring these voices into focus. We can say ‘hey, this is worthy of attention’ and ‘hey, this demands space.’ This can – and has – looked like specifically foregrounding working-class women’s voices at online festivals, making working-class artistic production the subject of academic essays and conference papers. It has looked like a persistent obtruding onto the notice of publishers, magazine editors, and event organisers. It is not waiting to be invited, not asking to be included, not fretting about looking needy or stupid, but continually stating ‘here I am’ and ‘here we are’ and ‘this deserves to take up space’. It is publicaly questioning ‘why not?’ when they shut the door on you.

Never doubt this process is exhausting. It is a struggle. And here I find my attention returned to the edicts of the anchorites: to suffer without love is a waste of pain, but to understand your struggle as one in common with and on behalf of your community is to give it back purpose and dignity. This is not to make a fetish out of struggle, or working-class resilience, or to lionise it for its own sake, but to remind ourselves that we are not passive, that this pushing forward is work, a political mission.

The Ancerne Wisse (a 13th century guide for anchorites) tells the would-be ascetic to ‘gather into your heart all those who are ill or wretched’ and to remember that the privations and perturbations of secluded life are undertaken on behalf of the community, that you ‘hold up’, others through your sacrifice. This injunction had made the rounds a few times since lockdown started, and it’s easy to see its particular relevance to coronavirus and the practice of self-isolation, but it’s also a useful mantra for any of us, as activists and artists, as women in the world,Any time we’re kettled, arrested, detained without charge; any time our work is rejected, or ignored, or ridiculed; any time we are denied funding, when we are spoken over or shut out; any time we are threatened and bullied legally or physically, we are persisting, we are manifesting resistance, not just for ourselves, but for all of us.

You close the door, I open a window

And once you grasp this thought, you realise that there is so much you can do, a thousand tiny acts of everyday solidarity. My favourite of these has to do with access. By making work available for free; by disseminating art and poetry widely online, we can tip the balance of power away from the old publishing elites. Obviously, not everybody has access to the internet, and I don’t want to uncritically trumpet technology as the saviour of working-class art and literature, but it does open up possibilities. It changes what’s available to us in terms of form, what we can technically achieve. Colour can be present to a greater degree; the spatial relationships between text and image can diverge in extreme and surprising ways, and most of all, our ability to collaborate with and choreograph a variety of voices expands ten-fold.

Our implied audience changes too, because we are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts. We are connecting to each other, we are talking to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When cultural elites close a door, we can repurpose a window. And isolation might provide the impetus to these projects, but their staying power is potentially limitless.

When we decide we no longer need the permission of cultural gatekeepers to publish or to mediate between ourselves and our audiences, then the conversions about issues that matter to us can be kept alive long after their fads for our tokenistic inclusion have faded. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to breach their protected enclaves, but there is tremendous value in carving out space for ourselves on our own terms. Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry has been offering one such invaluable space for years, and it’s time for more.

These thoughts keep me energised at a time when it’s tempting to sink into the lethargy of depression. Trapped in the house for hours every day, with the literal reminders of my failure to escape the economic and social precarity into which I was born, has been wearing. More wearing is that I have no real outlet for these thoughts and feelings. It isn’t that I’ve not been given the opportunity to celebrate my achievements, but I’ve found that those celebrations tend to minimise or outright invisiblise the unequal effort involved, in favour of some endlessly tiresome version of the self-transcending narrative: that my achievements as a working-class person are the result of exceptional individual talent or skill. And that’s wrong. If I rise at all I do so with the help of or at the expense of other working-class people. The space I occupy I had to compete with others for, and the place I attained has been granted to me through a combination of hard work, insanely good luck, and the almost extravagant kindness of those who went before me, leaning down and giving me a hand up.

This is something else that it is important to acknowledge at every opportunity. When you’re given a platform, talk about where you came from, and how lucky you are; honour those who helped you on the way, and remind your listeners how unfair it is that luck has to come into it at all. Tell the truth, even when they call you militant and shrill, even when you make them palpably uncomfortable. Know where and to whom your gratitude belongs, and know what and who has kept you back.

Without my dear friend and mentor, Roddy Lumsden, I wouldn’t be about to complete my Ph.D. I wouldn’t be publishing poetry at all. Roddy was a tireless champion not just of my work, but of any work he believed in, irrespective of aesthetic disposition, irrespective of where it came from. Roddy wasn’t narrowly political, he just wanted exciting and vibrant work to be heard because it mattered to him, he really cared, and in caring he gouged out cultural space for queer poets, BAME poets, working-class poets and Traveller poets. He furthered our reach and he taught many of us how to respect ourselves as creators, even when the outside world doesn’t want to.

Which is where, I think, I came in, with the importance of grieving, of honouring our dead. Isolation affords us this opportunity, to think about who we are and the kind of work we want to do in the world; to remember that we are not really alone, but part of a long continuity of mutual care, links in the chain.

Pietà
Wednesday, 08 April 2020 14:27

Pietà

Published in Poetry

Pietà

After the mural by Maxo Vanka

by Fran Lock

we have held him too, and wept our reticent
alchemy. have worn our aura of knives. have
rocked these cumbersome puppets: sons,
brothers, fathers, all our lovely wayward
vanguard. a ventriloquist’s doll, death made
of him. we have covered our hair. we have
entered the green glass eye of the marble.
our hands have been shuttles in the lean
machinery of grief. we have knelt, we have
stooped, voyant with insomnia. we have
addressed our contortions to the aertex
ceiling. we have been pulled about by our
sleeves, by the hoods of our winter coats.
we have been spat on by midget policemen.
we have held him too, a thousand times, our
boys: separable and trembling, inscribed
against the edges of a prison cell, a junkie
squat, this street, this bed, and the pillow
is thin, is famine’s very ration book. we have
prayed. and praying, we have spiked our
prayers: antimony and vinegar. forgive us.
those nights we’d take a razor to the law,
to the sky, to anyone who’d rinse his
strutting warren blood to milk, who’d
make him theirs, who’d rid him of his
wounds. his wounds are real, and also
ours. boys, with their incendiary ventures.
boys, with their nocturnal confrontations
in the no-place common to capital. we have
held him, until he smelled like a stranger.

the immigrant mother raises her sons for industry maxo vanko

awfulness in its finite aspect. and we
became feral with reproach. and we
have screamed away their platinum
lacquer. he is not a gilded bowl, his
asymmetric fractures fixed with gold.
preserve the dull earth fact of him. no
nectar, splendours, no luminous lullaby’s
sugared tyranny. before he can rise he has
to die. he died. her boy, our boys. by
the structures of sin, the abattoir
vocabulary of capital, which grinds all
names to mob. how many boys, partial
and abolished, sewn inside futile
routines of punishment and riot? we have
held him too, and so we know: after
grief is the glowing time. is the goblet
of fire and the tongue of fire and molten
soul made ball. he will come again,
amplified in acid flashback clarity
of blue-black emerald frenzied red.
he’ll wear his love like an ideal sun,
clarion against their tedious malevolence.

the capitalist maxo vanko

he will rise, to slit their throats where
they sit, reciting their vampire creed
into screens. he will rise in their world
of gentrifiers, pesticides, of every
crowd made ghost, their bland disparity.
she will let him stand, sharpened by
sunlight, fabulating crisis into miracle.
but first she is, we are, empress
of humiliations. holding her son
like a sallow candle. light of the world,
oh, you are my sunshine. wax of him
right, ready for burning.

Images: Pietà, The immigrant mother raises her sons for industry and The Capitalist, by Maxo Vanka, murals at Millvale, Pennsylvania, 1937-41

 

'Prayers to the environment': Jane Burn on nature, her writing, her life - and her new book
Tuesday, 07 April 2020 20:19

'Prayers to the environment': Jane Burn on nature, her writing, her life - and her new book

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock interviews Jane Burn, author of Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020)

Fran: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer these few questions about your latest collection of poems and illustrations, Yan, Tan, Tether. I’m really excited to do this interview with you, firstly because both the poetry and their companion images speak to my own interest in mediaeval beast poems, but more importantly because a better understanding of how we relate to the animal others in our midst has never been more pressing or more necessary.

I don’t know if you’d agree, but I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about the way art has traditionally made use of the animal world. I was reading an old Guardian interview with Kathleen Jamie the other day, where she talks about nature writing having been ‘colonised’ by ‘middle-class white men’, who produce this decidedly anthropocentric poetry where the animal is only meaningful in respect to the sensations, emotions or ideas it produces in a privileged human observer. One of the most admirable – and I want to say radical – aspects of Yan, Tan, Tether, is the kind of mutuality you evoke between your human and animal speakers. Your animal subjects aren’t ciphers for human experience, and your human observers are attentive and respectful to the otherness of the animal. I want to ask first how conscious you were when putting this collection together of writing back to or against that middle-class white male model of contemporary nature writing, and what parallel traditions you might have been drawing from?

Jane Burn

Jane: Have you ever sat, quiet and frozen absolutely still and held your breath in order to see how close a bird will come to you? You hardly dare move as this amazing, fragile being (that you could crush with one hand) weighs you up. You become aware of every twitch, every hop and flicker of the bird. You see so much expression written on those tiny beads of eye. You notice each little feather in such unexpected detail. You try with all your might to project to the bird how safe you are, how you would never dream of hurting it. It watches you, head cocked, every mite of it poised to fly away at a split second’s notice. You have absolutely no idea what that bird is thinking, or whether it considers you at all beyond a brief curiosity. It measures you quickly – friend or foe? The quieter you stand, the less ‘human’ you are, the nearer it will come.

A couple of weeks ago, I stood just like this in my front garden, statue-still, watching the birds on the bird table from a safe distance. The sparrows came and went individually – blue tits landed on the peanuts in twos and threes. A wood pigeon made an ungainly crash-landing on the fence. A robin flurried among them and drove them away. I thought about how they have their own society, their own complex rules, their own desires and needs, their own individual songs.

In a moment that was over before I had the chance to really register it, a sparrow suddenly landed on my shoulder. After a brief second, the noise of its wings as it flew away sounded in my stunned ear. In this moment, it was like a meeting of two universes. It was a rare connection between our different worlds. It wasn’t a Disney Snow White moment – the birds weren’t there to accentuate my sweetness, to add their backing vocals to my virginal voice. They weren’t there to light upon my delicate, unblemished hand and thrall at my young, doe-eyed beauty (doe-eyed – don’t get me started on that one). They certainly weren’t there to help with the housework. In fact, you could probably go on a lot longer about Disney and his ‘birds’, like when Sleeping Beauty, with her thick tumble of blonde curls, her 18” waist and miniscule feet wanders through a wood spangled with fawning blue and canary yellow songbirds bemoaning her lack of a man.

I am interested in a different kind of ‘magic’. Sometimes I think women have only been allowed nature if it is a foil to keep us in our place. I remember us watching and re-watching our VHS copy of Legend, way back in the 80’s. I loved the film so much but today I am irked by the scenes that emphasize that those beautiful unicorns can only be touched by pure maidens – white clad virgins who reach with awe towards that horn. I think too about how it was a woman’s fault that the wonderful world there was plunged into darkness – ’twas Beauty led the Beast to bay.

By way of a follow up question, I’m aware that there’s this easy and rather patronising assumption of affinity between the feminine and the wild or rural, which I think has been used to marginalise or dismiss women’s contribution to the poetry of the natural world, particularly working-class women, who, in any case, never receive the same critical attention as their male counterparts. Something I really admire about this book is that is shows us the wonder in the ordinary, in the ‘scary’ or the ‘slimy’ too. There’s both reverence for humble things and pity for the damaged, yet not in a sentimental way that softens their rough edges. This feels like such a powerful middle-finger to both the Disnification of nature, and to the arbitrary and shallow distinctions people make about what (and who) is or isn’t worthy of care. One of my favourite illustrations in the whole collection is the slug in ‘Mollusc Song’ wrapped with a speech scroll reading ‘still I find a way to dance’. I wonder to what extend you see Yan, Tan, Tether as a feminist collection? And do you think being a working-class woman has coloured the reception of your work generally?

Animals are not meant as a metaphor for ‘ideal femininity’, are not there to accentuate our innocence, beauty, delicacy and sweetness.  Most of them would avoid us absolutely I am sure, if they could. They dig, bite, kill, screech, chase and catch. They shit and fuck in the open, having been spared our human notions of shame. Think of the fear men had in the past of strong women and their affinity with animals. Got a cat? You’re a witch. Even the thought that a woman might somehow transform into a hare was enough to burn them at the stake. 

Part of my working-class make up is that I live in terror of my own ideas of intelligence. The overwhelming attitude that nobody is going to be interested in you. It’s alright telling me that it’s all in my head, or my ideas of class are my own, or I’m just paranoid, or I am just silly, or it doesn’t exist. My schooling was crappy and I had no idea of the opportunities out there. My parents had no idea of the opportunities out there, not really. I was too shy to say boo for too many years. I am a victim of bullying and abuse. I have been a physical and metaphorical punchbag for so long that my voice was knocked out of me. I have no confidence with anything that requires me to sound like I know what the hell I’m talking about, so please excuse the way I tiptoe around these questions and probably fail to answer any of them at all properly.

Of course I read books about the characters’ varied jobs and lives but they were the lives of other people, not some irrelevant lump, stuck in a nowhere village, grasping books from jumble sales and thanking the stars for the local library. Look at the way they have closed libraries down. What are the children like me going to do now? How are they meant to cobble their own education together now? I have given up feeling sorry for myself but have remained angry. I don’t fit into anyone’s box. My writing doesn’t fit into anyone’s box. I feel I have so much more to prove. I feel as if I am always fighting and that gets very tiring, sometimes. This feeling has been with me so long now, it’s not something I can shake. Call me chippy, go on. I’ve been called it before. I often wonder if I can feel that ceiling above me – that no matter what I write, I have got as far as I am ever going to go.

I want to move away from my heavy-handed political reading of your work now, because I feel like I’m in danger of sucking the joy from what is absolutely a rich, strange, and vivacious book. Instead, I’d love to ask you about the texture and tactile pleasure of your language. There’s a particularity and exactness of phrase in this work that feels intuitive, lived and local. It reminds me of John Clare, who is perhaps my own favourite nature poet. Could you tell me to what extent do the poems in this collection grew out of your own relationship to the landscape and animals around you?

I am terrified of grammar and punctuation. Perhaps that is why I love to free myself within other voices, voices that free me from the idea of restraint. I love words – I am a complete and utter collector of words. Because I don’t belong anywhere, I can belong everywhere (if that makes sense). I can hop and jump through districts and dialects. I make up words of my own and this comes to me easily because maybe I never learned the rules in the first place. To grow up an outsider even in your own community (because you are weird) was not lonely for me. I didn’t want their company. My mother had a hatred of seeing me sitting in some corner reading, or scribbling and sketching onto envelopes, cereal packet backs, etc and would physically turf me out.

I would wander miles on my own – this was something I was used to, right from reception class where I was expected to walk home from school on my own. It was always horses that I sought. I was a master of waiting – it was always worth the wait when they came to the fence and they always tolerated me. Let me touch them. My comfort was being reflected in their eyes. To many, the main thing with horses is riding upon their backs. What about getting to know them first? A big animal that could kick you into next week can hold you with such gentleness in its heart.

At my saddest, I would dream of changing into something else. I galloped round the garden, leapt imaginary fences. I squatted in the garden watching the travelling of snails, pretended to be tiny as a ladybird in the grass. I think this is where the theme of transformation comes from. I have never managed to be at peace with myself as an adult either. I hate the way I look, that I can never be in control of what I am eating, or saying. I am taciturn, loud, inappropriate. I am lonely one moment and hate the idea of company the next. I make my world into a protective shell and feel comfortable within it. To imagine transforming into the purity of an animal’s soul is something that has always inspired me. If I held a mirror up to my own beloved horse’s face, he would do nothing more than shade it with his exhaled breath. A kitten sees its reflection and plays. I look in the mirror and recoil. Imagine the freedom of the sky! I feel it so strongly I get giddy. I root the soil with my fingers and it seems like I sense every molecule in it. I feel connected, unjudged.

I don’t ‘mean’ to write. I tried to describe it during an assessment last year – that it was a sort of rain that falls down all around me and in some places the words begin to string themselves together like beautiful beads. When the words are good, there is no better feeling. When the words are bad, I try my best to ride the waves. Either way, after one of these experiences, I have to race to the nearest writing equipment and put it onto paper. Maybe it’s like speaking in tongues – it’s not something you can control or help. Being possessed like this can be so uplifting yet so draining. There is no escape from it  – yes, it has upsides and downsides but it is me and I couldn’t live without it, even if I knew how.

JB BeFunky collagesx

As a related question, I’m also curious about the mythic or folkloric qualities of the poems, qualities that are underscored by the beautiful companion illustrations. One of the things I love most about the book is that it brings into collision these two medieval forms: the book of hours, and the beast poem, so that there seem to be both Christian and pagan influences at work, both ancient and modern sources of inspiration. Could you talk a bit about the different influences and traditions that went into making the book? What was the impetus for the collection as a whole?

I believe that a lot of folklore and myth has sprung from similar places. When I was very young, I loved Greek and Roman stories. As I grew older, I read more and more. This is a place where nothing needs to be what it seems, where there is magic, where there is pleasure and pain, where people and animals intertwine. I was fascinated by creatures like the minotaur, and centaurs and harpies. The idea of two creatures living in one skin was always something that somehow comforted me and gave me hope. I felt much less alone and it felt natural to me to connect in this way.

I was raised a Methodist and yes, I have such fondness for those pared down, plainly painted chapels. My mother was a Catholic however and I had such a fascination and craving for rosary beads, statues of the Madonna, pictures of the Sacred Heart. This led to learning about iconography (especially Russian icons) and manuscript illumination. Every wire of my brain strums at the sight of them. To me, they are the epitome of faith, skill, patience and joy. They are unashamed celebrations. If you wanted to express your greatest love on paper, that would be the way. They are glorious and the book of hours takes everything to the next level. They are such staggeringly precious expressions of devotion. They are exquisite – raw and real with colour, fearless in their purpose.

I have often wondered, over the years what my faith is to me. I came to the conclusion that it has never been just one thing.  It is the cobbling together of a lifetime of love – the greatest love of all being the natural world. If I had to choose one thing as my church, nature would be it. To make a sort of book of hours of my own, one that could also be enjoyed by others as part of their own ‘worship’, seemed a natural progression. I don’t think the poems would function so well without the illuminations. Both lend so much extra depth to the other and adding text to the pictures helps to connect them even more. 

I’ll try to make these last questions a bit more practical and succinct: firstly, could you tell us a bit about the relationship between your painting and your poetry? Calling the images ‘illustrations’ almost seems wrong – let’s call them ‘illuminations’ instead in every sense – as they feel just as integral to the collection as a whole as the poems. Could you perhaps talk a little bit about the particular work each art form is doing? Does one form always precede the other?

I had these images in my head as I was writing the poems although I didn’t commit them to paper until after the poems were written. I wanted to wait until I was ready to give myself over to the production of them as a whole as it can be very distracting to have to keep packing up artwork or jump from one project to another. I knew I had a good number of them to produce – 23 in total (including the cover). The earliest poem in this collection was Froghopper, which was written in 2014, and the illuminations were produced through the winter of 2018. Just like an ancient monk, I set my table up with equipment and worked tirelessly on them and it was a pleasure to be able to give myself over to such an involving project. It was great to finally be able to set the images free from the confines of my head. The book was beautifully and sympathetically published by the wonderful Indigo Dreams in December 2019, so I guess it shows sometimes how long it can take a book to come to fruition.

The borders for the images were just as important as the images themselves, just as they are in original religious works. For me they also allowed me to include and acknowledge some of the other artworks I love – canal art, rosemaling, the decoration on vardos, folk art. These are the works that I love. You might not see much of it in galleries but they are beautiful to me. I felt I had to include references to these styles if I was going to remain true to my own heart.

Last of all, I’d love for you to tell us something about the animal friends and collaborators in your life, as it feels really appropriate that we give these important figures the final word.

These are the friends that I share my life with currently – my horse Orca and dogs Iggy and Patsy. Orca came to me from the Traveller community when I was 37 (I’m 48 now). He lived with a huge herd of mares and foals that roamed free on a massive acreage of grazing. I was told, simply, to go ahead and walk to find them and choose one. Many of the foals were friendly, some even bold, but it was the tiny red and white, peeping warily from behind his solid mother that instantly stole my heart. Each foal was completely unhandled and had been born in the field at the mercy of nature, as they would have been in the wild.

Orca would come nowhere near me. I visited the field three times a week for six weeks and as you can see from one of the pictures, I spent the time pretending to be a horse as much as possible. I stayed low so I wouldn’t tower over him. I kept my hands to myself – what would have been the point of trying to forcibly catch a wild creature in a 50 acre field? For four weeks, he came closer and closer. Curiosity brought him to me but he kept a safe distance between us. Weeks five and six brought with them touch and trust. He is twelve this summer and I truly believe our souls have become inseparable.

JB dogs

Iggy and Patsy are Jack Russells, and couldn’t be more true to type if they tried. One of my friends that knows them well says they ought to have their own TV series! Iggy came from someone who bred them as ‘foxing dogs’ for the hunt. It is a victory that he lives a completely different life with us. They are 9 and 8 years old and show no signs of slowing down. I could say that they are wilful, stubborn, vociferous, destructive, escapologist tearaways but that would be me projecting my own humanity on them. They are just 100% themselves, always filthy from digging and smelly from rolling. They love and protect us with a passion and we love them right back, though they are quick (especially little Patsy) so watch your fingers!

I guess when it comes to the wonderful creatures we share our world with, I have found that while you can learn some secrets from them, they teach me so much more about myself. They give me a voice that I use with confidence. They free me from constraints of language. They never look at one another as a kingdom to be conquered. They just are.

Thank you so much for talking with me. I really hope that wasn’t awful!

I hope that I have managed to provide some of the answers to these questions at least. I hoped that people will read the book and be inspired to get out there and use each page to inspire their own ‘prayers’ to the environment. The more you learn to love it at its most fundamental, the more I hope we become conscious of how much we need to do in order to protect it. The small changes are as important as the big ones. If you know the value of insects, you might be more aware of where you place your feet, or might not get the bug spray out so readily. The more you love the birds, the more you might let your hedges alone so they can nest, the more you might offer them food when times are tough. The more you get out into the open, the more you might fall in with the natural order of the seasons. I hope this book manages to do that, even a little bit.

Jane's poems have appeared in many magazines including The Rialto, Strix, Butcher’s Dog and Under the Radar, and anthologies from publishers such as Seren and The Emma Press. Since 2014 her poems have had success in 43 poetry competitions. Her pamphlets include Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen, 2015) and Tongues of Fire (BLERoom, 2016).Her collections are noting more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams, 2016), This Game of Strangers (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2017, co-written with Bob Beagrie), One of These Dead Places (Culture Matters, 2017), Fleet, (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2018), Remnants (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019, again written with Bob Beagrie), and the astonishing Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020). Her poems have been nominated for the Forward and Pushcart prize. She is co-editor of Witches, Warriors and Workers (Culture Matters, 2020) and is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters.

Yan, Tan, Tether is published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, and is available to purchase here.

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