Fran Lock introduces Raptures and Captures, her latest book of poetry, which follows on from Muses and Bruises and Ruses and Fuses.
‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not.’ It’s a stern injunction. It is also a radical one. Saint Silouan, we’re told, struggled against demons. Specifically, he struggled against the demon of despair, against a feeling of abandonment, an absence of God’s grace. And so God spoke to Saint Silouan, gave him this electrifying ascetical credo, this moral imperative toward humility and hope.
Just think about that for a minute. Not the genesis of the idea, but the idea itself. It’s also Gramsci’s exhortation, to hold always to the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ and the ‘optimism of the will.’ It’s asking us to live in the world as it is, not as we would have it; to sustain a mood of vulnerable and sceptical questioning, even when the truth is bruising. It means a stalwart refusal to abdicate responsibility; to acknowledge our own implicatedness in all that besets us. It means not isolating ourselves in the self-protective echo-chambers of social media. It means seeing the worst and believing in better.
As I said, a stern injunction. It’s an injunction I wrestle with every day. Mental illness is a fucker. It doesn’t offer much by way of escape or sustenance. There are days I feel abandoned too, an abject absence of hope or love. Under such conditions it’s hard to preserve faith, political or personal. I look at the world sometimes, and I find it almost impossible to accept it or be reconciled with it. People are cruel, complacent, bigoted; the planet is perishing, culture is eroding.
I withdraw into myself, afloat in the black amniotic of depression. I forget who I am, my responsibilities, my affinities, to the people and things I believe in and love. And I can’t do one single sodding thing about those feelings. It’s the way I’m wired, the vexed result of everything that makes a life. I can’t change how I feel, but I don’t have to accept those feelings as absolute reality. I can remind myself that I am not my worst day. I can know, even if I can’t perceive it, that goodness exists. That there are things worth fighting for, moments of perseverance, triumph, joy.
I cannot do that alone. Nobody can. And that’s the thought this book emerged from. This isn’t a religious book. It’s not properly a Christian book, or even a Christian-Communist one, although that’s the soil its roots are firmly planted in. It’s about the need within all of us for communities, stories, solidarities – for something greater than ourselves. This book isn’t asking you to believe in the saints as figures with magical properties and powers, that’s not what’s being presented here. The figures in these poems are all struggling, in one way or another, with demons. They need a portion of transformative magic in order to survive.
Some of these poems are exhortations and prayers; others subject the lives of saints to the distorting stresses of modernity. In many of the pieces the speaker embodies both the legend of the saint, and the desperate, urgent needs of those who fall under their patronage. This is deliberate. The saints are compelling precisely because they are people, human beings with the same frailties and failings as any of us. And yet they are people whose radical example, whose deeds and teachings, rise above those failings to accomplish marvels. Tory Britain in the last decade has been a terrible place and time to be poor. More than ever we’ve needed those examples, those marvels. And more than ever we have needed to remember we are capable of being them.
‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not’. The speakers in these poems rise from or confront their several Hells, which are also ours. They do so, I hope, with an equal mixture of anger and compassion, sensitised, always, to the human cost of our morally compromised pleasures, our conveniences, our progress.
Saint Homobonus is openly weeping in Primark, tearing fabric into strips with his bare hands, less in protest than in sheer incredulity at the degree of moral disconnect required to accept a world in which a factory worker’s life is considered a fair swap for a shitty two quid t-shirt.
Saint Sebastian follows with sadness and infinite sympathy a teenage rent-boy in Soho, a figure whose swaggering sense of agency has masked the exploitation he is subject to. The saints appear at all our scenes of selective deafness, willed inertia, ethical amnesia: anywhere that people choose the path of least resistance. They appear to retune our attention toward the suffering of others, and they appear so that we who suffer know that we do not do so alone.
There’s a good ol’ lefty commonplace about prayer: that it’s a way of absolving yourself of responsibility without actually having to do anything. It’s an argument, I guess. But the prayers these poems incarnate are not prayers as daydreams or vague best-wishes, they’re prayers as places of testimony, they’re prayers as angry witnessing to pain, prayers as rallying calls and clarion cries. They are sites and occasions for protest. In prayer we coalesce around the common struggle. We listen and are listened to. We remember each other.
More than anything else, I see the speakers in these poems not merely as speakers, but as listeners. They understand that people deserve and are capable of better; that there is great courage, love and kindness in the most unlikely of us. The poems want to offer this space of solidarity. A communion. A communism.
Raptures and Captures is available here.
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.