Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a some-time dog whisperer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks, most recently 'Raptures and Captures', published by Culture Matters, the last in a trilogy of works with collage artist Steev Burgess. 

Summer Poetry Round-Up
Friday, 09 July 2021 16:27

Summer Poetry Round-Up

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock reviews some recent poetry collections

Ox, by Martin Hayes (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

It has been written elsewhere that Ox marks something of a departure for Martin Hayes, who is perhaps best known as an outspoken poetic witness to the multiple indignities and oppressions of our cruel and increasingly unsustainable “gig economy”.

Ox has been described as an “extended metaphor” or “allegory” for the dehumanising treatment of workers under late-stage capitalism. This is true, up to a point, but when speaking about a book that has a blistering indictment of our economic system at its heart, the word “allegory” makes me a little squeamish. Certainly Ox is an allusive book, referencing prior texts, drawing on strands of myth, and working in and through the tradition of the fable. Certainly Ox is a figure for the suffering social subject within neoliberal culture. But the grim, arbitrary, and brutalising experiences that beset Ox are not allegorical. They are specific and real. They are happening now, to animals and to humans, and we lose sight of this at our peril.

It is also worth noting that this recourse to poetic conceit is, in itself, another form of tradition: in creating Ox Hayes manifests the difficulties inherent in writing about our material conditions under any aggressively surveilled system. As Fred Voss has already noted, writers who live and work within totalitarian regimes “have had to create allegories to escape detection by control-freak authorities.”  Hayes’ strategy, then, is not merely a free literary “choice” but a necessary negotiation around the strictures, limits, and ugly punitive logic that govern Ox's world and his own. His innovation is driven by the social and economic forces that are his target, and this pressured  invention has produced a bravura lyric performance of real wit, depth and intensity.

A particularly striking example of this is 'Ox Witnesses Yet Another Birthing' (82), a short poem worth quoting in its entirety:

here it comes the new born
with nothing in front of it
and everything behind it broken
who can predict what this fresh sun will investigate
its brightness is not for us but ours to devour
hot blood has already knitted the words of its poem
warming up not only its mother but other planets also
there is a depth to this deeper than known soil
it sits somewhere in darkness wearing darkness
we are resigned unknowing how it all works
no blueprints survive
we must go blind into the waters every time

The use of 'birthing' as opposed to 'birth' in this poem is significant: emphasising the agonising mechanics of the process (of giving birth) rather than the hallowed specialness of the end result (the baby) Hayes signals the way in which the natural reproductive cycles of both animals and humans are exploited and distorted under capitalism. Aside from the title, Hayes deliberately avoids using species-specific language, inviting a reading across both literal and figurative (human and non-human) axis; such a reading reveals subtle shifts and shades of meaning. Is the 'nothing in front' of the new-born the literal concrete wall of a leaky barn? Or is it the blank and circumscribed future of the labouring poor? Is the 'everything' that is broken behind the new-born a reference to the dilapidation of their immediate surroundings, the pre-fuckedness of the environment and society into which they are born? Or is it the physically exhausted body of its birth mother, hollowed out by hard use as a source of reproductive labour?

Without ever once using the word, the poem nevertheless merges both forms of “labour” in ways reminiscent of Ariana Reines' The Cow (Fence Books, 2006). As Reines’ text reminds us, both women and animals are similarly objectified under capitalism through the metaphor of “meat”, which allows both to be perceived as something “edible”, and ripe for different kinds of consumption. Reines' book connects the animal industrial complex to the treatment of women, exploited as mere bodies for their reproductive capacities, or for their flesh. For real-life cows and oxen, tied to the demands of both the meat and dairy industries, birth and death are hideously intertwined: male calves are born simply to be slaughtered for veal, cows are artificially inseminated and kept in a constant state of pregnancy. Often they are separated from their calves, their milk siphoned off for human consumption.

Animals are people and people are animals

This world of pain is explicit and constant throughout Hayes' collection. But Hayes also excels at the subtle and troubling lyric moment: 'there is a depth to this deeper than known soil / it sits somewhere in darkness wearing darkness', hints at a dimly perceived and not necessarily benevolent mystery behind the immediate real. Birth and death still have the power to stir and disturb. Ox cannot comprehend, but deeply feels the immensity of the 'birthing'. A sense of futile miracle hangs over the scene: I found it one of the most haunting passages in the book.

There are other “difficult” moments in Ox. As a lifelong vegan of the old school, I found some passages harder to read than others. What is both horrible and compelling about, for example, the visceral description of unblocking the “chute” in a meat-processing plant that opens 'Ox at the Gates of Heaven' (74) is not the graphic extract itself, but the way Hayes links the bland affect of the slaughterhouse worker to the genocidal consequences of human fascism globally. Each itemised part of the process of death is linked to a human tyrant, so we have 'the silver hooks of a Torquemada', 'the white ceramic guttering of a Pol Pot's throat', the 'lullabies of Marine Le Pen' in a long historical chain of oppression, dismemberment and terror.

We cannot, Hayes seems to say, separate the way we treat animals from the way we treat people. More importantly, in order to treat either animals or people with such shocking and casual violence, you first have to morally anaesthetise those who will carry out such acts. The most surprising thing about this piece, and the about the collection as a whole, is the empathy Hayes extends to the slaughterhouse workers of this world. An ambivalent empathy, perhaps, but still an important acknowledgement of our mutual exploitation.

As I read the collection I was reminded of Joan Dunayer, writing in Animal Equality: Language and Liberation (2001). Dunayer talks about the process of dehumanisation, and the inherent speciesism necessary for this process to work: to reduce the human to the level of an animal, we must first account the animal as nothing. The brutalising treatment of animals, then, is not merely cruel, but a necessary precursor to fascism, and to all kinds of human atrocity. As a culture we become accustomed to cruel acts by perpetrating them first against animals. Specisism also creates the language in which it is possible to dehumanise the “other” amongst us: the black man is a monkey, the Jew is a cockroach, the “gypsy” is a rat, etc. The figure of Ox is perhaps so unsettling because he serves as a hybrid between the animal and the human, because he demonstrates that the distance between animal and man, self and other, is not as great as some would like.

There is so much more to say to about this book: the poignancy of 'Little Ox'(85), which cuts the reader with the mediocrity of even our ambitions: 'Little Ox wanted more and more / of what he was being told / he wanted', a state of stunted imagination only possible when neoliberal elites have colonised even our imaginative space, and have naturalised their own shitty desires as the model for all aspiration. I could also talk about the eventual death and dismemberment of Ox, and the way the book takes us through his deconstruction into units of saleable product, while also showing us with an unflinching eye the impact this death has on those who cause and those who experience it.

I should also talk about the illustrations by Gustavius Payne, the softened lines of which often work provokingly against their disturbing content, or, in other places, such as 'Ox and Cow Under Moonlight' (77) or 'Little Ox' (85), catch you off guard with their tenderness and vulnerability. These pictures are an essential component of the book's relationship to fable and its implied moral lesson, accessible to children. But they also transmit their own meaning, extending and complicating the way we read Hayes’ words, not merely repeating or emphasising them.

This book is an intelligent and passionate work, the product of long experience and rigorous thought. It reveals Hayes as a exciting poet who still has more to reveal to us. If we're smart we will heed him, and follow where he leads.

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Afterlife As Trash, by Rushika Wick (Verve Poetry Press)

I must begin this review with a confession: I did not want to like Afterlife As Trash. My friends had been throwing so many superlatives at it that by the time it arrived on my desk I was quite prepared to find it overwritten / annoying / unworthy of the hype. But it isn't, not at all. As the extensive endorsements promise, it is 'pyrotechnic' and 'exhilarating' in its use of language. Wick conjures phrases that arrest and intrigue; her images, selected and choreographed with great care, are possessed of a beguiling strangeness and humour.

In the first three poems alone we find the speaker, rising above ordinary concerns, described as a 'swallow filled with helium' ('Diaries Of An Artist In Hiding', 11), sex 'like a multi-pack of Salt 'n' Shake, / each packet with its own blue sachet / containing exactly 0.6g of salt' ('ULTRAMARINE PINK PV15', 13), and sunflowers as 'velvet toys' (Deus Ex Machina', 14). Indeed, I could go through the collection happily stabbing out favourite lines and lauding their brilliance, but this would be to do Wick a disservice. This collection is far more than a trinket tray, it is probative and thoughtful too. It is also, I suspect, more political than it has been given credit for.

In 'Diaries of An Artist In Hiding', which opens the collection, the speaker conducts a 'social experiment' that sees her imaginatively incarnated as – among other things – 'the president', 'Matisse' on his sick bed, a 'love letter from Camille to Rodin', and 'a badger'. Each improbable transformation is a pleasure to read, full of the relish and the texture of language: 'flowering fingers, fractures, / scatters of light' etc. (12). It is a joy to meet with a poet so confident and accomplished in the practise of loading every rift of their subject with ore. But more than this, each leap has an aura of fugivity and flit about it; of small but necessary escapes and feints. The speaker is 'in hiding' after all; the 'experiment' takes place in 'the car / on the way to work'. These experimental selves inform a greater work of concealment and evasion, necessary to preserve whatever constitutes the artist / self from the car, and from work, and from the machine that sets cars on the road to work in the first place. 'Really', the speaker muses in the second stanza, 'the experiment is myself', and later, 'the experiment is boundless'. None of her disguises seem more essential or more “true” than any of the others. Instead, Wick seems to use them to interrogate the very notion of identity – to ask questions about how it is constituted, and more subversively, how it might be countered.

In 'Deus Ex Machina', the subject 'wonders how to make her money stretch / beyond rent and a bag of happy-face waffles', compressed like the poem's sunflowers 'in the hard corridor / between the road and tower block.' Within this space, Wick's gorgeous lyric lines function as units of resistance against the cramped precarity in which their subject is caught. The 'machine' in question is identified as an instrument of punishment or torture; it 'whirs without end' moving 'walls and ceiling' closer together like some kind of enormous trash compactor.  Inside this tiny space, Wick's subject 'writes on scraps of paper as night crumples the sky', or she sleeps, having taught herself 'how to wake up just in time, / gasping'. By literalising the vague semantic gesture of 'the machine', Wick solidifies the dangerous and often fatal consequences of late-stage capitalism upon the bodies and minds subjected to its horrible logics. 'God' in the context of the poem is the just-in-time awakening the subject performs, but it is also the subject herself: a creator nevertheless condemned to exist inside the endless circuit of whirring and crushing. Here the act of writing, or the work of the imagination, is not an “escape” as such, but an act of preservation.

In 'The Party' Wick contrasts a timeless scene of exhausted and endangered solidarity with one of contemporary neoliberal privilege, so that 'To stand together, united against the dragging through fields, the hangings, the spitting on children the taking of women like property' sits uneasily beside 'It was the kind of conversation where people living in comfortable homes full of art and fruit bowls confess that the time is such that they would be able to kill their political leader, should the opportunity arise, for the greater good.' (15).

The effect is disconcerting on a number of levels. The italicised section in a which a crowd gathers 'in the burning sun, in belief' is written in the active present tense, so that the speaker is part of the moment she describes. It feels immediate and urgent. The contemporary section is written in the third person, past tense, and encodes the very kind of ironic distance that could be said to characterise its subjects. From a position of relative safety they indulge in extreme political declarations. This 'creates some solidarity at the party but also deep discomfort'.

Here the use of 'solidarity' is defanged and depoliticised: the guests at the party cannot mobilise to form any kind of meaningful dissenting collective; their gestures (that of killing their political leader) are individual, grandiose, and hollow. Wick's use of commas to break up the “confession” create qualifying or rationalising pauses within the statement itself, a syntactic signal towards a deep lack of political commitment. Because the phrase 'The Party' merges political and social worlds, the reader is invited to consider the limits and intersections of both, and the way in which the latter often usurps or comes to stand as a substitute for the former.

Witches on a field trip

In the final stanza we are told that 'Others said that finally they had been allowed the time (because of reaching a certain stability or point in their careers) to become fully practising witches and what a joy this was.' There is a wonderful piece of Wicksian strangeness here, with the “witches” organising a field-trip to Mexico to 'scrape gilt off Madonnas at night.' But behind the enjoyable oddity of this image seems to lurk a searing criticism of those who, owing to the privilege and stability of their own positions, are able to ape, participate in, and appropriate the resistive tactics of  marginalised and persecuted “others”.

None of which captures the formal daring of this collection, or just how deft and supple these poems feel on the page. It is worth mentioning here that this kind of lively innovation is something that has come to characterise Verve Poetry Press, which has been steadily building a diverse stable of poetic voices, representing a wide variety of positions and approaches, publishing work by Geraldine Clarkson, Sean Wai Keung, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, and Charlotte Lunn (collections by Golnoosh Noor and Emily Rose Galvin are eagerly anticipated).

Indeed, Verve feels like the natural home for Wick, whose engagement with the blank space of the page is mercurial, curious, and unafraid to take risks. In poems such as 'The Pill' (40), 'My Identical Twin' (48) and 'Vocal Tics' (51) Wick proves herself an adept at manipulating the kinetics of the text to achieve a number of poetic effects. These poems evince an understanding of text as substance, structure, and stuff: the shape and placement of words on the page are used to complicate or extend meaning. In 'The Pill', the left edge of the text extends outwards in a convex parabola; the right edge recedes and impresses raggedly: the poem performs the pill dissolving, or the dynamic arc of the “high”, or the retinal lens across which intoxicated images rapidly jump and flicker. On the opposite page (41), Wick lists italicised 'side effects', which include 'taking control of stress that is structural in cause'. The interaction between these two sets of text might best be seen as the relationship between our subjective bodily experience, and the external (and structural, and systemic) forces that govern that experience.

Wick's work, then, is playful but with purpose. What impresses about this collection is that it wears its obvious intelligence so lightly. The connected soliloquies from 'The Dog' (19) and 'The Flea' (20) are both witty and charming, while still pushing language and logic to strange new places. My personal favourite piece is 'THE THOUGHTS OF VALERIE SOLANAS (in the minute before shooting Warhol and the minute after)' (30). This is a deeply convincing character poem without becoming a burlesque on Solanas' signature style. Both Wick's poem and Solanas' own writing are spaces in which thinking occurs; important thoughts strained through coruscating language, full of profanity, clotted alliteration, surprising metaphor, and brute fury. Wick gives us 'the oppression of pressed paper', 'being fucked roughly / like islands in storms' and lines of heartbreak and insight such as: 'I think of what makes you a success, / and me a sideshow, an extra' and the gunshot as: 'a hysterectomy / of sorts, the language of violence / has its own vowel sounds'. Solanas under Wick's care is ranting, frustrated, but brilliant. Wick writes with both energy and empathy.

The collection is linked by a series of short italicised vignettes, which treat of ephemeral and fleeting moments. These moments work well, they introduce space into what is a rich and generous debut. They also demonstrate that Wick is not a one trick unicorn: behind the fireworks there is a poet of brevity and silence. I sense Wick may need that silence sometimes, to gather her strength for whatever comes next.

Apricot Sun cover 

 

Apricot Sun, by Trisha Heaney (Culture Matters)

Trisha Heaney's impressive debut brings to fruition the mentoring package offered by the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, founded and facilitated by Culture Matters, and kindly sponsored by Unite. The package supports unpublished poets with their first collection, pairing them with an experienced editor and mentor. In the case of Apricot Sun, Heaney received mentorship from Jim Aitken, and this feels like a natural fit: both Heaney and Aitken have backgrounds in education and community outreach work, work that informs and infuses their writing. Both poets excel at the evocation of place –  geographical, social, and historical – an evocation achieved through strategies both painterly and dramatic, so that the teasing appeal to the eye contained within 'mushrooms bulbing in bunches; pears fattening / like bottoms' ('Bukra Insh'allah', 53) or the wistful lyric 'Traffic lines smudge / apricot sun tones to magenta. / Soon the city's poor / will be drawn here to sleep / in the feathering of doves / paracletes of Picasso.' ('Sketch', 81), are balanced by a virtuoso conjuration of voice: 'Decantit, tene-dementit, / in a botched experiment / we pour ontae thi fields / o South Nitshill' ('In the Scheme of Things', 17).

Heaney deploys dialect and demotic throughout the collection to superb effect. Nowhere more so than in 'Ghazal, In Sudan' (21), where the Arabic verse form holds a powerful expression of loss in Scots dialect. What impresses about this poem is that Heaney does not, as so many poets do, adopt the mere shell of form; there's no awkward shoehorning of ideas and images into a container they were never designed to fit. Rather, voice and form work together to produce a layered and complex interaction between strong vocal identity and inherited poetic tradition. The different sets cultural expectations associated with the speaker's voice and the Arabic form create a fruitful friction in the text, provoking questions about what it means to mourn, and the ways in which loss is contained and transmitted through accent and grammar on one hand, and poetic structure and tradition on the other: 'Ma soul at hame in tacht alignment wae Islam / ma hert forfeit, ablo zodiac signs, in Sudan.' Heaney's love of Sudan, where she worked for a number of years training teachers to teach English, is also palpable: 'Wae ilka letter woven we're entwined, in Sudan.'

Apricot Sun reflects a broad and serious concern with voice throughout: with who is given permission and space to speak, and who is listened to. The epigraph that opens 'In the Scheme of Things', the first poem in the collection, is taken from A Social History of Glasgow Council Housing 1919-59 by Sean Damer, and tells us that the testimonies of council tenants have been 'a strategic lacuna in the history of Glasgow.' 'Strategic' is the operative word in this sentence: silence doesn't happen to people, it is done to them. Heaney keenly understands that silence, as a consequence and structural component of poverty and neglect, is a form of violence. In places this understanding is politically explicit, such as in 'Dropped' (29), 'Ria Formosa' (76), or 'As You Lie Sleeping' (33) where workers brilliantly 'shrug the shiver off / the morning / [...] carrying the world.'

In others this idea is the dark and troubling undersong beneath everyday interaction. In 'Street Theatre' (22) Heaney places a beaten and bedraggled woman at the centre of a Shakespearean sonnet. Through repeated references to stage-craft –  'alley stage', 'she might have been an actress in distress / miscast ingenue', 'set a cardboard mess', 'She stammers lines' etc. – Heaney emphasises the complicity of both the onlookers within the poem, and the poem's readers, accustomed as we are to female degradation as a staple of popular entertainment, and to the odd conjunction of aesthetic pleasure and human suffering within art and literature. The closing couplet: 'The audience directs the final act: / conduct her safely home or see her whacked?' serves to sensitise the reader ('the audience') to their responsibilities toward the suffering “other” whose safety and survival are often dependent upon the choices we make; the extent to which we are willing to acknowledge our shared humanity.

On one level this poem is an exhortation against indifference and disdain. But it is also about allowing this abjected “other” the space to speak and to be heard, even if her speech can only approximate the 'lines of threatened violence' that have been repeated 'grunted' at and into her. By using a form enshrined within canon literature, the subject is afforded both legitimacy and care. The menace of the final couplet contains also the threat of forcible eviction from the elite space of literature and the precincts of human attention.

Radical solidarity

Heaney's signature gift is this attention, and whether it is directed at her own family, or at her playground peers in South Nitshill; with exploited and exhausted workers, with prisoners, or with the victims of global misogyny, her poetic gaze illuminates whoever she holds within it. By focussing with particularity and tenderness on the lived experiences of diverse individual subjects, Heaney reveals not their differences but their (and our) deep interconnectedness. This notion of radical solidarity feels authentic and inhabited within Heaney's work because her own experiences inform and intertwine with her writing about others. There is a great sense of vulnerability and risk within these poems, which form a rich seam of lyric memoir. This poetic vulnerability and exposure is not merely the “price of admission” for collecting the experiences and testimonies of others, but a metonym for the vulnerability that besets all women, but especially poor and working-class women inside neoliberal culture.

Vulnerability is one of Heaney's most persuasive themes: workers are vulnerable in literal and bodily ways, as in 'Sweat Shop Sojourn' (27), where blades 'chop down' and a machine operator may go 'in fear of losing fingers or / a red right hand'. Wives are physically vulnerable to husbands, as in 'Christmas Spread' (70), where a man brutalised by work (or lack or work) and drink, metes out violence to the woman in his life. Women are vulnerable everywhere: to men with power, to those without any real power and angry about it; to the endless arbitrary cruelty of the law, as in both 'Dirty Linen' (47) and 'Vale of Tears' (63), where intimate violence is compounded at institutional and structural levels, further victimising those the law purports to help.

An experience of poverty leaves you emotionally vulnerable too; this may be our greatest risk and biggest strength. It is certainly a strength within Heaney's writing, where empathy and compassion combine with real technical gift to create a compelling and inspiring debut.

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Crucifox, by Geraldine Clarkson (Verve Poetry Press)

It feels unjust to describe Crucifox as “slight”, although at a mere 37 pages, it is certainly brief. It is not, however, an inconsequential collection, and each individual poem is possessed of Clarkson's trademark riddling intricacy and zinging lyric flair. Where else could we expect to encounter lines of such audacity and flourish as 'glimquist and sunkissed on a burgandy chaise lounge / she turns phrase after phrase on the lathe of her tongue' ('lemonjim hour: brittle england', 24)? Or 'consonants mimicking kisses', 'myrrh mired-in-my-memory, passing gold' ('Labials of a Half-Remembered Lover', 30)? Signals of excess, indulgence, and abundance are shot through this collection like lamé thread. Although Clarkson's poetry is always linguistically rich, Crucifox feels pleasurably super-saturated. This is Clarkson with the dials turned up to 11.

The collection seems to mark a point of departure or change for Clarkson, and the opening poem, 'Janus' (7) feels like an apologia or manifesto of sorts for the unrepentant lavishness that is to follow. The speaker in 'Janus', having endured: 'a hateful hagiography of dragging winters / with incipient springs, word-ugly / and black-fasted, on the poorer side / of my life' assures us that 'now the worm was feeding / at the lintel, ready to rear up.' The use of 'hagiography' and 'fasted' are significant here: containment, enclosure, and worldly withdrawal– especially as these apply to religious life – were the signal preoccupations of Clarkson's previous collection, Monica's Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press, 2020). Although Monica's Overcoat of Flesh featured moments of flat-out fugivity and freedom, the poems and their speakers felt continually caught in a compromise between restraint and flight: raw lexical energy imperfectly held within the strictures of form. It gave the poems a restless, edgy quality, while in Crucifox that energy is a allowed to surge forth with strange new vigour.

Throughout the collection there are numerous instances of escape, revolt, or turn. Not merely within the lives and psyches of Clarkson's individual poetic subjects, but within the order of commonplace logic itself. In 'THE BOOK OF BLUE' (31), a monk 'glad from Nocturns', succumbs to the urge to illuminate a 'slippery and impure' (“blue” in the sense of “profane”) manuscript, 'extemporising nipples, buttocks, quim' at the stroke of a quill. While 'Apple Snow' (12) and 'FILTH' (17) are marked by moments of overrun and ruction in the fabric of daily life.

Pert mounds of blancmange

In 'Apple Snow' the speaker is gifted a 'big-chinned baby', left on the doorstep by her neighbour, my Grandet. After 'much shuffling of official forms' the speaker is informed that 'the girl' who grows prodigiously and quickly, 'will live with me, hereafter'. An illogical sequence of events the counter-spell to which is an equally illogical (poetic) solution. The situation rights itself in the following not, not in resisting the surreal surrender of sense, but in committing to it:

'she occupies herself in compiling an index of domestic magic, and will answer to the ancient English name Wigga. In return for board and lodgings she will source a daily breakfast of fruit, variously foraged and prepared: whiskey-poached pears, plum fritters; devilled figs, pert mounds of blancmange topped with apple snow'.

In 'FILTH' the chaos consumes an unwary emissary of the outside (rational) world. The 'mult' in 'Bella Langley's' closed-up home multiplies while the 'deranged house' urges the man inside and swallows him. No sign for ten days until 'the sirens, the lights.  / A blue suit stained.' There is ambivalence here, and threat, reactivating and filling with ominous portent the dead cliché of “behind closed doors.” As Clarkson writes, the collection traffics in 'female desire and feral impulses behind polite exteriors […] the silent and marginalised aspects of women, their masking and unveiling...'

Crucifox, then, is a place of power, but not necessarily a benevolent power. Within its pages flowers and cats speak, and booksellers offer vials of glowing emerald liquid, as in 'Compliments of the Patron' (25). Indeed, enchantments are continually proffered throughout Crucifox, but to enter the space the poems extend with safety one must be canny, fleet, and well-armed with sympathetic magic of one's own, with the 'informal cunning' of Fox in 'FOX NEWS: CREATRIX' (20) perhaps? Clarkson presents this poem as a series of crossword clues. The answers appearing on the opposite page in 'CROSSFOX: CROSSBOX' (21), are all variations on, or sound or sense components of, the word 'crucifox'. Because there is no such word, the ability to 'solve' the puzzle is a tantalising promise without hope of fulfilment. Meaning is illusive or labyrinthine. Here Clarkson is telling us something about language and its dangerous, mercurial potency; its ability to both bind and release us, to liberate or frustrate; to create or destroy.

In 'St Osburga's Surprise' (26), a nun is vouchsafed a vision of the future, and wonders 'Was this destruction or resurrection? Conventrated / re-created'. The same might be asked of Crucifox, and the answer is probably “both”. In the three felicities (36), which closes the collection, Clarkson ends with her subjects 'wreathed impossibly in sudden / lucky smiles, now self-assured and utterly reliable'. Does this poem signal that the charm is at an end? Are we released back into the 'reliable' world which has resumed its usual contours around us? Or is there an implied wink within that line? 'Crucifox is more a state of mind than a particular creature or person', writes Clarkson; having stepped once in Crucifox that state of mind stays with you.

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C+nto & Othered poems, by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press)

Although in June it seems early to start talking about The Most Important Single-Author Poetry Collection of the Year, and despite having already reviewed C+nto in depth, I still want to cheer this book here as a strong contender for that title.

C+nto is the culmination of both patient and difficult (in every sense) research, and years of working and reworking the white-hot stuff of the poem through the pressure of performance. Discussions of Taylor's work often describe her as a compelling “spoken word” or “performance poet”, and while this is undoubtedly true, such descriptions tend to elide Taylor's vigour and innovation within the body of the printed text. I do not use the word “body” idly.

A protean and charismatic reader of her own work, Joelle Taylor's poetry is embodied to a high degree; the intimate tactility of performance is a vital element of relish and risk within her work. The body is also Taylor's most vivid subject, specifically the bodies of those whose histories, political destinies, safety and survival are tied to their physical identity: women, and butch lesbian women in particular are variously fetishized, debased, erased, and destroyed by the social and economic systems that govern them. Taylor's texts seem to store the scars of this accumulated bodily experience; standing for the living bodies whose integrity is violated by various kinds of violence.

In Taylor's 2017 collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me, she uses a mixture of oral testimony, found text, and personal experience to bear witness to the trauma of her own sexual abuse, but also to confront the chronic and ongoing sexual exploitation of women world-wide. A similar dynamics of archivism, excavation, and witnessing takes place within C+nto, which is a work of memoir, of fearsome imaginative and creative reach, and of deep historicity. Taylor undertakes this work with love, dexterity, and wit.

You're visible in all the wrong ways

C+nto begins by providing a definition for the title, and its Latin root in the verb 'Cuntare', to narrate, or to recount. Taylor also provides a glossary of words from wildly different lexes: from the coterie argot of LGBT+ occulture, through scientific, legal, and cinematic terminology, to Taylor's own invented slang. Juxtaposing this concern with the origins and precise meanings of words, Taylor frame the poems in highly visual ways, deploying the trappings of cinematography or stage direction to create their 'scenes'. In the preface to the poems Taylor describes the central conceit of the collection in the following way:

Glass display cases appear across the UK outside the old bars, cruising grounds, and squats that once held the LGBT+ community in parenthesis. […]  Each case holds a different scene (13)

These cases are a metaphor for the moments in which LGBT+ history is experienced and communicated. Erased, repressed, redacted, it becomes impossible to identify oneself within any coherent system of “belonging”. The glass offers brittle and ultimately doomed protection for the exposed subject while simultaneously trapping her. This is the contradiction at the heart of being a butch lesbian: you are missing within official history; you are excised from cultural representation even within LGBT+ cohorts, and yet you are visible in all the wrong ways: an obtruding target for ridicule and violence, a medical curiosity, and a sideshow spectacle. Your visibility is politicised and policed. You are dangerously visible, rarely seen.

 Against this willed lack of perception, Taylor creates C+nto with a lyric and militant tenderness. The language with which Taylor holds her subjects performs an elegiac cherishing. In Dudizile, who: '...speaks difficult / rivers knowing too / many bois are lost / in them those rip / tides of sudden belief / the undercurrent of/ language she speaks...' (87) Taylor's poem catches the cadence of thought and tongue particular to her subject. The richness and originality of Taylor's lyric phrase-making gives these figures substance and voice. C+nto understands that the most we can offer the dead is our unstinting vigilance, our attentive and loving witness.

C+nto is also an elegy for place. Not some twee nostalgia for a vanished / imagined past, but a work of grieving, a lament. The Maryville scenes are amongst the most ambitious and exciting within in the collection, offering up an incandescent melancholic 'psalm'; both an evocation and an invocation, a spell:

o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us / let us drink too much / & awaken in each other's mouth / o Maryville / let us be ugly / let us unwash / let us language... (55)

C+nto seeks to create the very spaces that it mourns: however hedged, however temporary. The gold cover glows like a beacon of hope, a hope undermined, at least complicated, by the redacted 'u' of the title. The offence contained within the word 'c+nt' becomes metonymic for the “offensive” and unwanted presence of Taylor's lyric subjects.

Joy is abundant in C+nto: a hard-won joy that knows itself to be fleeting. Throughout, there is a sense of 'bursting' into existence, but that moment never arrives, is never allowed to coalesce and form enduring destinies. As the rainbow signifiers of “pride” are adopted by neoliberalism as a  hollow consumer brand, these truth feel especially necessary. In 'Eulogy' Taylor presents a litany of names compressed into stark columns, barely contained within the form of the text (113). This is the multitude that C+nto carries. These are the book's grieved-for subjects, and its truest audience. These are the voices that need to be heard, and that we need to hear.

 Picture32

The Brown Envelope Book (Caparison, with Don't Go Breaking Our Arts and Culture Matters, 2021), edited by Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R.

 A brief disclaimer: because I have work in The Brown Envelope Book I wasn't initially sure if I should write about it or not. It gave me pause, but in the end I have decided that this book is so much bigger and more important than any one contributor. And “should” is a funny word in this context. Are the niceties of writerly “ethics” really more important than maintaining the visibility of a book so rare in its creative energy, and so profound in its political implications? I do not think so.

The Brown Envelope Book collects poetry and prose on contributors' varied (but always harrowing) experiences of unemployment, of the benefits system, and of disability and work capability assessments. The poems were selected and edited by Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R, and the anthology features an important contextualising Foreword by John McArdle of the Black Triangle Campaign, established in 2011 to advocate for the human rights of sick and disabled people persecuted by the government's work capability assessments scheme.

Thinking about what makes this book so timely and so striking, it occurs to me that we inhabit a cultural moment where literature and the arts are deeply preoccupied with “identity”. Within such a moment it is often the case that the signifiers of identity – working-class identity in particular – are adopted, co-opted, and assimilated by the culture machine, while the social and material contexts under which that identity is forged, and under which our art is made, are wilfully vanished. The Brown Envelope Book feels significant for the way in which it triangulates artistic expression, social experience, and the ideological underpinnings that create and contour that experience. A number of publications deal thematically with “austerity” or “poverty” but by engaging with a specific piece of state apparatus, The Brown Envelope Book renders explicit the malignant functioning and human cost of this Tory government's political agenda against working-class, poor, and vulnerable people.

The title evokes the ominous “Brown Envelope” that brings with it news of sanctions, delays and denials of help, worked out according to some arbitrary and inhuman logic, and relayed in correspondingly inhuman language. When I use the word “inhuman”, I mean that quite literally. Many of the poems in The Brown Envelope Book incorporate fragments of this found text, which feels appropriate, as if, in their awkward construction, their evasive and affectless tone, these phrases have proved indigestible to even the most adroit lyric facility.

Forms must be brought in person

This is captured most starkly and completely in Angi Holden's 'Dear Client' (171), which reproduces the content of a DWP communication in the form of a poem, and in doing so demonstrates the impossibility of artistic recuperation for such a document. The content of the letter confounds the lyric reading expectations of intimacy and catharsis that are encoded within the shape and structure of the poem; the disorientation this produces is chilling.

Elsewhere, the language of these letters is burlesqued and satirised, as in Penny Blackburn's 'Jumping Through Hoops' (98) or Joel Schueler's 'Questions of Validation' (276). I will not say that Blackburn and Schueler exactly “exaggerate” the inherent absurdity of this language, rather they use bleak humour to make both the violence and the Kafkaesque illogic of the letters readily legible. Blackburn does this in subtle shifts and accretions, showing us that absolute nonsense is an ever-present prospect, a question of degrees: 'Each significant piece of information / must be accurately placed / within the correct, identified box / of the specified form — / available Wednesdays, bi-weekly, / when the moon reaches the nadir. // Forms must be brought in person / to our top floor office (no lift) / 3 miles from the nearest road or rail link, / open every 5th Friday (mornings only)...”

Schueler takes a more direct approach, stating nakedly the bigotry and threat contained within these communications sotto (but only just) voce: 'Dear sponger, / No parachute will be necessary. / Move away from the funds / without as much as a day to prepare / for your nothingness.'

Another striking feature of the anthology is the sheer number of times the letters themselves are referred to or described. They initiate or punctuate the poems, breaching and disrupting lyric space; they interrupt, command and coerce. As physical artefacts they have an almost totemic potency. This potency is figured most hauntingly in Rachel Burns' 'We do not know when normal service will resume' (113): 'and the letter unfolded itself like a broken wing / the wrong kind of origami'. The letter 'unfolded itself', it is not inanimate, it has agency and momentum. It is 'the wrong kind' of origami, a malevolent magic, bad juju.

These envelopes are metonymic for and de facto extensions of the brutalising state; they condense the power of that state into one easily recognised symbol (the brown envelope), so that the symbol itself transmits that power and the fear it provokes. The hateful presence of these letters in the lives and homes of vulnerable people serves as a form of remote terror, a kind of distance-bullying. This metaphor is captured beautifully by Fiona Sinclair in 'Fear of Letterboxes' (284): 'Sundays, strikes and snow, she is a school kid / whose bully has been excluded for a few days.' Anyone who has known bullying will understand this feeling: the giddy bitter joy of brief respite; the horrible uncertainty as to when your torment will resume.

Epistolarity itself carries connotations of intimacy; the very act of being addressed, and the spectre of implied response invoked by address render the recipients of letters uniquely vulnerable. When governments and state institutions address their citizen-subjects through letters they mobilize epistolary rhetoric in a variety of ways: to compel the individual and command the public; to coerce cooperation and engineer consent. The dreaded brown envelope is a particular kind of epistolary communication: it speaks not to us, but at us, with an intrusive and imperative address that  demands response but denies our right to meaningful reply. Our subordinate and dependent position is inscribed not only through the language of that address, but through its very presentation. The brown envelope itself silences us.

We're vital, alive and as mad as hell

The Brown Envelope Book creates against this silence a space of reply. In subverting the signifiers of the brown envelope – the cover is designed to mimic the appearance of a DWP communication, the font and typesetting have the look of “official” letters – the anthology attempts to return some of our accumulated fear and distress to sender. By allowing the recipients of those envelopes an opportunity we were never afforded as citizens and subjects, the anthology forms a powerful work of testimony, it gives us back the nuance and complexity of embodied experience, a complexity shaved out of tick-box bureaucracy, and the deliberately limiting anti-language of assessment criteria.

This is invaluable to those whose experience of the world and of themselves has been reduced by such criteria. Reading The Brown Envelope Book I was deeply moved by the depths of creativity, the intellectual rigour, and the artistic dedication of my fellow contributors. This anthology is proof that we make, in our different ways, a valuable contribution to our communities and culture; it is proof that we know how to spin nectar out of shit. The Brown Envelope Book never allows that nectar to provide a tacit justification for the shit either. Rather, it begs the question: what might we create or accomplish if our government allowed us to be seen as human beings? In this way our art is not merely cathartic or therapeutic solace but a manner of critique, a way of holding power to account. This comes across clearly in Clare Saponia's poem, 'The importance of being an artist' (275): 'That voice shrieking: / “You’re a slacker” / IS NOT YOURS! / It’s the rage / of the system / slamming its doors. / It’s the whip / of red tape / that doesn’t want you to feel. / It’s the guilt / in your bones / that work doesn’t heal.'

The anthology also provides a way of mediating these varied experiences to the wider (especially political) world, and of beginning to unpick the damage caused by decades of misrepresentation and barefaced lying about who and what we are. Many of the poems answer and challenge these misrepresentations directly, as when Maria Gornell, in 'In Sickness and In Wealth' (152) writes 'because you can’t be sick / and clever at the same time / send me more brown letters / to reinforce my absolute / uselessness on earth.'

These poems prove that perception a lie. We are vital and alive, and as mad as hell.

Visibility and Voice: C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 
Tuesday, 29 June 2021 07:53

Visibility and Voice: C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock reviews C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 

When I talk about Joelle Taylor as a “wordsmith” I do not choose the epithet idly. Having read with Taylor numerous times, I have been fortunate enough to hear several of the poems in C+nto during the formative phases of their development, and to witness how she uses the stage as a kind of blacksmith's forge, working and reworking the white-hot stuff of the poem through the pressure of performance, before it is finally ready to cool onto the page. I have followed Taylor's trajectory through contemporary UK poetry for years now, and this still strikes me as a remarkable feature of her practice. More remarkable yet is that the poems on the page seem to condense, rather than dissipate, the sheer physical intensity of their performance. Discussions of Taylor's work often describe her as a compelling “spoken word” or “performance poet”; while this is undoubtedly true, such descriptions tend to elide Taylor's vigour and innovation within the body of the printed text. I do not use the word “body” idly either.

I mean by this that as a protean and charismatic reader of her own work, Taylor's poetry is embodied to a high degree. Taylor has a background in theatre, so it is not surprising that she understands intimately the relationship of her words to breath and to gesture, as sound and as substance. The effort required to produce those sounds, to force air from the diaphragm, to take long irregular breaths, to twist the tongue around a particularly sinuous phrase exacts a toll from the poem's speaker. In early ‘choreo-poems’ such as Naming (Oval House Theatre, 1994) and (w)horror stories (Oval House Theater, 1996) Taylor rejects the conventions of narrative and dramatic realism to make meaning from the rhythms and sonic texture of verbal language. These pieces combine spoken, sung and chanted language with pre-verbal and non-verbal sounds, body-language and silence to shape her performance. The tactility of those early performance pieces is still very much an element of relish and risk within Taylor's work: she is an uncanny and joyous manipulator of live language, but behind the sensual pleasure of the words there is an ever-present anxiety that they might exceed or exhaust the body of their performer; that they cannot be accommodated or contained; that they will not be controlled.

The body is also Taylor's most vivid subject. More accurately, the bodies of those whose histories, political destinies, safety and survival are tied to their physical identity: to gender and to sexuality. The bodies of women, and the bodies of lesbian women in particular are variously fetishized, debased, erased, and destroyed by the social and economic systems that govern them; systems in which the bodies of women are both the argument for and the evidence of their subjugation and abuse. Throughout Taylor's large poetic corpus, her texts seem to store the scars of this accumulated bodily experience. I would also suggest that they often stand for the living human bodies whose integrity is violated by various kinds of violence and trauma.

In Taylor's 2017 collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me, Taylor uses a mixture of oral testimony, found text, and personal experience to bear witness to the trauma of her own sexual abuse, but also to confront the chronic and ongoing sexual exploitation and abuse of women world-wide. In ‘Songs of Survival’, roughly midway through the collection, Taylor's lyric text is suddenly intercut by two copies of the Department for Work and Pensions form NCC1 4/17: Support for a child conceived without your consent. On the left-hand side an unmutilated copy of the form, the stark and almost unbearably banal cruelty of which forces a sudden interruption in the reader’s fluid interaction with the text. On the right, portions of the form are obscured or redacted in a simultaneous inversion of and comment upon the institutional erasures of women’s testimony. The copy reads 'Support... rape... through... this... mean... detailed... coercive... and controlling... form' (92-93). The insertion of this profoundly unmusical piece of state apparatus into a work of performance-led poetry functions as a critique upon the narrative demands of witnessing imposed on the victims of rape by governments, societies and systems. It demonstrates the way in which the intimate territory of the body is interrupted, administered and diminished by these same systems.

Visibility and Voice

It feels important to note that Taylor's work is not merely about rendering difficult or occluded bodies visible, but asking questions about that very visibility and its complex interaction with voice. Visibility and Voice could well be seen as the twin tensions that underpin C+unto. Taylor begins by providing a definition for the word, and its Latin root in the verb 'Cuntare', to narrate, tell, or to recount. Taylor also provides a glossary, which includes words belonging to a variety of different lexises: from the coterie argot of LGBT+ occulture, through scientific, legal, and cinematic terminology, to Taylor's own invented slang. Against this concern with the origins and precise meanings of words, there is the highly visual framing of the poems themselves, which deploy the language of cinematography or stage direction to create their 'scenes'. In the preface to the poems Taylor describes the central conceit of the collection in the following way:

Glass display cases appear across the UK outside the old bars, cruising grounds, and squats that once held the LGBT+ community in parenthesis. They come in the shape of snow globes, fish tanks, jars, crystal music boxes, vivariums, bottles, and grand music cabinets. Each case holds a different scene (13)

There is such a complex fragility contained within this image: the glass acts as a barrier between the scene's subjects and the outside world, but also between the subjects within different scenes; this makes poetically and hauntingly manifest the difficulty in apprehending any sense of continuity, history, or community for LGBT+ people in general, and for butch lesbians in particular. On one level, the glass cases serve as a metaphor for the small pockets or revelatory moments in which LGBT+ history is experienced and communicated. This history has been erased, repressed, and not suffered to be inscribed upon civic space; it becomes impossible to identify oneself within any coherent  system of “belonging”. You are present but apart. You live in stilted, looping moments, ultimately exiled.

These cases function as both inadequate shelter and inescapable prison: the glass is a brittle and ultimately doomed protection for the exposed subject. Outside the box, the ever-present threat that contours LGBT+ relationships with the cities beyond. And here Taylor nails the contradiction at the heart of being a butch lesbian: you are missing within both the archives and the architecture of official history; you are excised from cultural representation even within LGBT+ cohorts, and yet you are visible in all the wrong ways: an obtruding target for ridicule and violence, a medical curiosity, and a sideshow spectacle. Your visibility is punitive (punished?), politicised and policed. You are, to put it simply, supremely, dangerously visible, but rarely ever seen. 'There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world.' Taylor writes in the preface. A statement with which it is impossible to argue.

But against this willed lack of perception, Taylor creates C+nto with a lyric and militant tenderness. Her subjects feel alive, fully realised and present, and the language with which they are held performs an elegiac cherishing. Dudizile, who: '...speaks difficult/ rivers knowing too/ many bois are lost/ in them those rip/ tides of sudden belief/ the undercurrent of/ language she speaks...' (87) Taylor's poem catches the cadence of thought and tongue particular to her subject; the skittish undersong of a mind revved up and ready to go. Or Jack Catch, 'in her houndstooth suit / oxblood brogues / knitted tie / sharpens the air she walks through...' (77). Or Angel, standing at the centre 'of her own ring', for whom 'bare knuckle fighting is a kind of birth' (92). These are not “characters” but people. The richness and originality of Taylor's lyric phrase-making gives them substance and voice. C+nto is a collection that understands that the most we can offer the dead is our unstinting vigilance, our attentive and loving witness.

C+nto is also an elegy for place. The bars and squats, the clubs and stomping grounds that breifly held Taylor's protagonists in common. This is not nostalgia for a vanished time and place, this is a work of grieving. These sites were not “safe” spaces – not for their patrons, or from the brutalising predations of social cleansing – because nowhere was safe. Rather, let's call this a lament for a sacred space: not merely somewhere to go, but somewhere to be and to become. The scenes where Taylor describes Maryville feel among the most ambitious and exciting  in the collection, offering up indandescent prayers in a melancholic but enervating 'psalm'. This poem is both an evocation and an invocation, it has the power of a spell behind it:

 o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us / let us drink too much / & awaken in each other's mouth / o Maryville / let us be ugly / let us unwash / let us language... (55)

Within the pages of C+nto the book seems to create the spaces that it mourns: a place, however hedged, however partial, however temporary. The gold cover glows like a beacon of hope, a hope that is almost undermined, at least complicated, by the redacted 'u' of the title. The offence contained within the word 'c+nt' becomes metonymic for the “offensive” and unwanted presence of Taylor's subjects, a rejection with which Taylor is herself intimately familiar.

This is not a “happy” book. It is, in places, celebratory and triumphant, but it is celebratory and triumphant in the teeth of a world that still refuses to acknowledge its author as fully human. Joy is abundant in C+nto, 'bursting' as Tayor writes in 'Legend of the First Butch', at the seams, but it is a hard-won joy, and a joy that knows itself to be fleeting. Throughout the collection, this sense of bursting into existence or becoming is everywhere signalled, but the moment never seems to arrive. There's so much energy here, so much purpose and potential, but it's never allowed to coalesce, to form communities of destinies that are recognised and enduring. Taylor refuses to shirk the often fatal consequences of daring to experience this joy, historically and presently. And at a cultural moment when the rainbow signifiers of LGBT+ “pride” have been adopted by neoliberalism as a hollow consumer brand, an easy, purely gestural way of accumulating cultural cache. I often wonder when doing my shopping in Sainsbury's just exactly how the supermarket is supporting me as a bi woman. Will staff come to my rescue next time I'm being harassed or threatened for my shaved head and unmade face. This feels unlikely. Within this context, Taylor's work is especially important.

In 'Black Triangle', Taylor describes the patches lesbians in Germany were forced to wear as a symbol of their antisocial nature, a symbolic scoring out of the c+nt as anything other than a source of sexual and reproductive labour. It is also a poem about the cost of being the wrong kind of visible, of living your life surveilled not just by the state but by anyone who might be watching. There are three sides to a triangle, says one of Taylor's subjects, 'your lover, yourself / & whoever is watching...' (104).

'December' is also a poem about brutalising and fatal homophobic violence, but it feels mournful and exhausted. In the final line there is 'a rainbow flag thrown over a coffin', an image that captures the true risk, weight, and meaning of “pride” (112).

'Eulogy' is also a litany: names compressed into stark columns, compressed and barely contained within the form of the text, and within the sorrow of the speaker (113) This is the multitude that C+nto contains. These are the book's grieved-for subjects, and its truest audience. C+nto is a work of memoir, a work of fearsome imaginative and creative reach; it is also a work of patient and dedicated historicity. As with Songs My Enemy Taught Me, Taylor rigorously researched this collection. That is the true measure of her empathy and discipline as an artist. It is not enough to conjure voices out of air. It is not enough to merely write your own story. To be the witness and the storyteller these histories demand is to be the unblinking archivist to generations of pain. That Taylor does this work with love and with elan; that it reaches us as sonorous and soaring poetry is a testament to the alchemy of her craft.

C+nto, by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press, 2021), ISBN 978 I 908906 48 9, 125 pages, £10.99

the policeman knows
Tuesday, 29 June 2021 07:41

the policeman knows

Published in Poetry

the policeman knows

by Fran Lock

Romany man dies after being knelt on by Czech police - Guardian, 24 June

a killing is called for. your romany man
for a frankenstein. tomáš, a necessary
neck. you inhabit the holes in his eyes
forever, your fine mouths boarded up,
your deaths both cheap and pure. your
bodies are packets of stale contraband;
the glorious fact of your shadow, a witch.
you are beaten with sticks until your own
mouth evicts you. you cannot inhabit
even your breath. the policeman knows
what is left of you: a barren sleeve,
the candle consumed by its thin no
comment. the split hairs of refusal,
turning white. he knows you will not
emerge into magic. there is only death
and its council of spades, sifting
the earth into absolutes. in the end
you are denied even fire, your fire
i mean, that slender escapist, your best
and other self. the policeman is made
of bronze, of granite, the steel
and concrete press of the town
beyond. each night, he consecrates
his meltweight to the scales, pleased
by what he's gained. his kneeling
knows no prayer. your faces dwell
in his mythology of mirrors. he sees
you looking back at him and is
afraid. his counter-spell is gravity.
do not go shirtless and feather-
weight into the night. do not throw
your convulsive survival
at the world. crouch in corners,
shrink. he will wade in you up to
the waste. in the silvery destitute
streets you have no right to walk.
the policeman knows where to
redeem your teeth, if necessary.
they will open you up, searching
for a proportionate fact. as it was
in dublin, in carrickmines, in smithy
fen, in teplice and anywhere,
the policeman knows. the cracked
rib that he calls god is on his side.
oh, to be washed clean. to be washed
away.

Solidarity suite for Cynthia Cruz: Review of The Melancholia of Class
Monday, 28 June 2021 15:38

Solidarity suite for Cynthia Cruz: Review of The Melancholia of Class

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock reviews The Melancholia of Class, by Cynthia Cruz, published by Repeater Books - 'a link in the chain and a light to see by'. Images by Fran Lock unless otherwise credited

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It begins, as it must, in shock. We have been asleep, 'asleep in the belief' as Cruz puts it, that our colleagues and our peers regard us as equals. We have entered the academy; we play out the pretence. We are somnambulists, amnesiacs, protected by forgetfulness, by daily acts of effortful dissociation. We are adept at this, so much so that we convince even ourselves, and especially ourselves, and only ourselves. Indeed, our deepest delusion is that anyone else is fooled. It begins, as it must, in the moments we run up against the Real. Cruz' mentor tells her that she doesn't 'dress or talk' like somebody from the working class, and she is stunned, speechlessly bewildered and appalled.

To read The Melancholia of Class is also to be stunned. I experienced this book as a series of concussive blows. This is not hyperbole. We encounter others like ourselves within neoliberal culture so seldom that to meet a shared experience upon the page is to reel from the recognition. In so many ways Cruz and myself have lived parallel lives. No, more accurately, our very different lives have been marked by the same moments of disruption, erasure, and impediment; by the same endlessly iterative series of rude awakenings. We are not regarded as equal. The middle-class culture in which we find ourselves scarcely regards us as human.

Class? What class?

Numerous times over the last ten years I have been told that the “class system” in England is a “thing of the past”, that it has simply “ceased to exist”. Cruz' writing is startlingly sharp on the kinds of Janus-faced manoeuvre that make such pronouncements possible, and on the specific pain, for working-class artists, of occupying the position of the absent subject. She writes:

 I was not aware I was not middle-class until my being working-class was interpolated onto me as a child. Furthermore, because neoliberalism insists there are no social classes, there is, according to its ideology, no working class. By default, the working-class subject miraculously does not exist. This being the case, the working-class subject is a ghost, which is to say alive but not living, a double, a contradiction.

Cruz asks how one is to write about social class, something that 'informs every aspect' of her life, when for many, it does not exist? She writes compellingly of how it feels to persist within culture as a haunting, or as a collective hallucination: spectral, a fever dream.

I have often described my own existence as a working-class woman within popular imagination as a kind of poltergeist or boggart. “Pikeys” are spoken around with superstitious fear, approached, but never met; glimpsed but never seen. We are known only by our effects: the saucer of milk upset, the smashed glass, the crackle of static. Within the elite space of the academy, nobody would deny that poverty exists; everyone is quite prepared to perform distress at the existence of poverty. It is a terrible thing, but it is always happening elsewhere to an idealised victim whom you do not resemble. Worse, for many middle-class artists this poverty becomes a kind of inscription surface, an aestheticised stele, a depthless backdrop. The poor and working-class people who negotiate and inhabit this poverty are always somehow missing. The social forces that create and contour the experience of living in poverty are, as Cruz puts it, 'razored out'. We flicker across this backdrop in vague gestures, 'oblique references', 'tropes emptied of meaning'. The rocking chair rocks by itself: spooky.

Cruz Picture6

If you deny the existence of the poor, then poverty becomes empty and up for grabs, another hollow symbol. This is an integral part of the mechanism by which gentrification operates: class is erased in the very instance it is enacted. The middle-class talk endlessly about “regenerating” “deprived areas”. Areas are not “deprived”, people are. The human is edged out of language as a precursor to being edged out of civic space. They arrive in our communities – attracted precisely by the frisson of glamour, the cultural cache, the aura that surrounds poverty – and they begin living life without any responsibility or reference to those their presence has impacted and displaced. They don't ask themselves where we go to. They see florists and boutique bakeries flourish around them and they are well pleased. They walk through people as if we were not there.

Cruz Picture21 camden Frans old stomping ground

Ghosts and ghostliness are significant features in my writing. Cruz identifies the recurrence of the spectral within her own work as signalling the presence or the possibility of death that hovers over working-class existence. Simply put, death and illness 'haunt the lives of the working class', and so they haunt, inform and constitute our art. When I attempt to talk about ghosts I feel as if I have been telling the same story on a loop forever: a photo exists of myself and my London-Irish squat-punk friends, sat on the bridge at Camden Lock. Of the twelve people visible in that photograph, only four of us survive. I am, as far as I know, the only one of those four survivors who might also be said to have “thrived”. I tell this story because our ghosts are also literal, and their existence is everywhere refused. Cruz describes an incident in which work informed by her teenage years living in an abandoned house with other teenagers was mischaracterised by an 'eminent writer' as 'dystopian'. She states that: 'He simply could not comprehend what I had described occurring in the US.' The middle class has been so effectively naturalised as the sole implied audience for art and literature that they feel no qualms about using their own experience of the world as an absolute model for all human experience.

Cruz Picture8

I have written before about how an early manuscript for my second collection was rejected by an independent middle-class publisher because – and I quote – 'working-class people do not speak that way'. I was told that I was 'ventriloquising' and 'inauthentic'. I had explained – I thought, painstakingly – in my cover letter, that the work grew out of an actual correspondence and actual conversations with a person I had loved and whom I had lost. The rejection was arrogant and callous, and a function of almost breathtaking privilege: because my poetic “performance” of class did not comfortably confirm the stereotypes that middle-class culture had itself created about me, I could not “authentically” belong to the working class. Because the working class, as this one white middle-aged, middle-class man imagined them, did not sound or think like myself or my lost friend, then we must be a put-on, a fabrication, a fiction.

Cruz' book is riddled with such moments. As when her mentor measures her against an imagined working-class person and finds her reassuringly dissimilar. As when an 'Ivy League educated professor' tells her simply she is 'wrong' when she points out that the working class do exist; she knows this for a fact because she is working-class. That is real power: when your illusion has more weight than somebody else's reality. Frequently, we are not trusted to be authors of or experts in our own experience. In recent years, my writing has been called “depressing”, “morbid” and “abject”. I have been disparagingly described as a “poète maudit”, accused of “romanticising” “the margins” simply because I write about those who inhabit them with empathy and love. I was asked once where all the “good” or valorous poor people were in my work. That one disturbed me most of all. As if the figures I write about had a moral obligation to be “inspirational” or “heroic” according to the arbitrary standard of a culture they cannot access or participate in. To the middle classes an “inspirational” subject can only ever be one who “transcends” the socio-economic conditions into which they were born. They welcome only work that endorses the belief that this is possible. Further, they refuse to credit any other kinds of “success”, or to understand, as Cruz also points out, that the working class may not want what they want. They refuse, absolutely to recognise their own desires as subjective and contingent. They are the world.

Class-based oppression within art and literature

Time and again while reading The Melancholia of Class, my mind returned obsessively to that initial rejection of my manuscript. Not because the rejection itself is still painful to me, but because it both typifies and exposes a significant aspect of class-based oppression within art and literature, one that I am only beginning at this late stage of my “career” to fully comprehend. What strikes me now is that when encountering my text, the editor in question felt able to discount one of the most fundamental and well-established “rules” for reading poetry: that poetry is, at best, an imperfect sieve for lived experience; that poetic language is not the unfiltered real. How could it be? Poetry is heightened speech, is crafted and refined, whether larded or stripped. I do not write exactly as I think or speak in the supermarket or down the pub, nobody does. I make, as every writer does, aesthetic choices, and these choices are every bit as deliberate and disciplined as those of my middle-class contemporaries. But rather than attempting to understand the aesthetic basis of my work, he insisted upon seeing my various poetic strategies as “proof” of deception or inauthenticity. This reading of my work tells me two things: that he believes poetic invention to be the exclusive property of the middle class, and that a voice characterised by artless “sincerity” is the only kind of working-class voice he could possibly abide. Artless sincerity is not threatening. It confirms him, once again, in the exclusive ownership of intellectual techniques and tools that he understands instinctively as belonging to himself and to his class cohort.

Cruz Picture15

Throughout my erratic trajectory as a writer, words such as “raw” or “edgy” or “fauve” have followed me, heavily disguised as compliments. They function in related but opposite ways to the charge most frequently levelled against my work: that it is – that I am – “too much”. That is “too angry”, “too sentimental”, “too depressing”, “too political”, too “melodramatic”, “excessive” and over-the-top. As I have long understood it, this type of language allows my middle-class critics to admit, without ever having to credit, the rich aesthetic basis for my creative practice. By persistently figuring features as bugs, and choices as accidents of untutored energy, they preserve the myth that rigour and innovation are solely the fruits of middle-class literary production. Reading The Melancholia of Class has helped enormously to clarify my thinking on this process. As Cruz writes:

 by creating terms such as “outsider art”, “primitive art” and “Art-brut,” middle-class art historians are able to label work that does not fit into already established modes, work that tends to be made by artists not already inculcated within the middle-class art and literary worlds, as backward or inferior.

 This is deeply true of poetry. The book is also particularly insightful about capitalist culture's perpetual cool-hunt; its insistence upon frictionless linear “progression”, its surface-skating quest for the “avant-garde”, the ever-new:

Middle-class culture does not engage with the concrete and material conditions on the ground – or, if it does, it incorporates the symbolic terms or language of such conditions in order to capitalise on their edginess. 

 A topical gloss, in other words, masking a shallow politic, “Marxy”, to quote UK poet Verity Spott, not actually Marxist. This coolness manifests in riot porn and social safari; middle-class bands posing against a backdrop of somebody else's post-industrial decay. It manifests as poets haphazardly deploying the signifiers of working-class precarity in a gestural and fleeting manner.

If working-class artists are “too” anything, perhaps we are “too present” in the events and experiences we describe. “Cool” presupposes a distance. “Cool” does not grieve. Distance itself is a function of privilege. For working-class and poor people our only option is to inhabit the world with a strained, hyper-vigilant intensity, because to live inside of capitalism demands of us a continuous negotiation. We are eternally reacting, seldom afforded the space for reflection. Neoliberal culture is endured as an exhausting series of assaults on our time and attention; on our communities and persons. The world is a barrage: encroaching and inundating. It requires, always, a pressured attention language, to the business of simply staying alive. And for us, there can be no exit ramp, no territory of tactical retreat. Except perhaps for the hedged retreats of empty sex; of drugs, alcohol, and ultimately, death.

Assimilation or annihilation

Where, after all, would we go? What would we be escaping into? This question haunts Cruz' book, where the urge to “leave” or to “become” something – anything – else is enacted in a variety of ways: the working-class person might – as Cruz did – move far away from the family and community in which they were raised. If they are fortunate, talented, dedicated, with a modicum of support behind them, they might work, in this new place, towards a variety of educational and creative goals. Or perhaps the working-class person will marry “up” and out of their class, tying their fate to a socially mobile partner. Perhaps they will walk a more reckless route, seek temporary respite within the fatal cocoon of narcotics. They might find themselves swallowed up by the military industrial complex, or by sex work, consumed by any one of a million false promises. As Cruz is at pains to point out, even in the best-case scenario, the working-class person is only and always “escaping” into a world where: 'one does not exist, being ignored and, at the same time, being the subject of daily acts of violence.' To live in such a way is 'difficult, if not impossible'. Cruz presents the bind in which we so often find ourselves in the starkest possible terms: 'assimilation or annihilation'. Choices which aren't really choices at all, for “assimilation” can only ever be imperfect:

Having abandoned her working-class origins, coming up against the threshold of the middle-class world (which will not allow her access), she is neither working-class nor is she middle-class. She is a ghost, existing between worlds, a haunting.

I find myself thinking about this a lot, about my own erratic and ultimately doomed attempts at “escape”. These attempts fail for a variety of reasons, not least because I have no objective criteria for success: I neither value or desire anything that neoliberal society has to offer. Their failure is also an imaginative failure: the void at the centre of my escape fantasies. Trained as I am to understand the world as not being for me, I have no future to project myself into. I can imagine my life only in increments: from month to month, from day to day. In part this is the result of a long socio-economic precarity, but it is also driven by a lack of confidence in a version of the future not actively hostile to my existence.

       .2

I read a nauseating article recently, which dwelt upon the “enchantment” and the “mystery” of the circus, the fairground, “gypsy” encampments and of other such “liminal” spaces. Not having access to the elite publication arena in which the article appeared, I found no zone of response, and no place of respite from the waves of cold, rolling fury the piece initiated in me. I could type out an essay to no one. I could send it to the two friends I felt would receive it on its own terms, with understanding and empathy. I could submit it to the one online journal that reliably publishes my prose. I could put it out on social media and cause a brief controversy. But the author speaks with the weight of her agent, her publisher, her academic institution, and her entire social circle behind her. Authority and status are encoded into her every pronouncement, her every digital gesture. I am hopelessly outmatched. We are both “early career academics” and published poets, but I am older, uglier, and less sure of myself; it has taken me longer and cost me more to arrive at a less-good version of the same place. I have worked every bit as hard and every bit as well. I have achieved every bit as much. But she is middle-class.

Cruz Picture10

For the author, the margins are devoid of context, of the class dynamics that created them, and so they become a mirror, or a hollow repository for her awe and sense of spectacle. In the process, she erases the real people who occupy those margins, and who have not the opportunity or the ability to reply. As she erases them, she also imbues them with a silent and fascinating power. That power is the pull of her “enchantment”. Cruz tackles this same emptying out in her thorough and loving treatment of director Barbara Loden. Talking about the ways in which middle-class female writers have received and interpreted Loden's film, Wanda (1970), she describes the process of mystification that occurs when an understanding of class dynamics is removed from a reading of the film:

Loden's social class does not exist because the working class is symbolically dead; because we are told that there are no social classes. Or, rather, class does exist, but only the middle class, which is the only class represented in the media. As a result of this deliberate erasure, Wanda appears enigmatic, incomprehensible. At the same time, due to the erasure of her class Wanda and Loden (because for non-working-class female writers the two are one and the same) becomes a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which middle-class writers project themselves.

Cruz points out that Loden has articulated her artistic intentions for the film and the motivations of Wanda's titular character numerous times, but Loden's own words were not consulted by the middle-class writers engaged in draining her film of meaning. Rather, middle-class discourse overwrites the very working-class art it is ostensibly attempting to understand or to describe.

The essay on enchantment made me feel obscurely overwritten too, and all I could do was to push back with my own cancelled voice, as if the author could hear, as if she were listening, as if the voices of people like me counted for anything. I told her: beholder, the magic was inside you all along. I told her there was no “enchantment”; this frisson is the feeling of one who beholds from a place of relative safety. I told her that to run away there must be somewhere to run from. I told her that for the solid middle-class citizen, the circus is an escape from the settled, conventional centre, but that the circus is suffered to survive only because it helps this centre to hold, because it acts as a psychic purgative, a place to keep their secrets, their sex and sugar-rush taboos. On a certain level the circus is the deepest possible expression of a moral and cultural status quo. I told her that “circus” is a word for an illusion; that the word works as a denial of its moving parts, that “circus” is a euphemism, a nominative blurring of the real, a form of abdication, like “porn”, like saying “sausage” so you don't have to reckon with reconstituted flesh. I told her that the lion in the circus is not an Aztec sacrifice; that the lion in the circus is August Ames. A sacrifice is special. A circus animal in one among many instrumentalised “others”, is the other whose otherness is the very argument for their instrumentalisation. The circus is a spectacle, and spectacle at its most fundamental is a retreat from empathy. Of course, this is the crux of the attraction: cheap holidays in other people's misery.

I wrote and I wrote, pointlessly, against my own erasure. Lately, I have felt this pointlessness, this sense of numbing futility, more deeply rooted within the heart of my creative practice than at any time since my early twenties. The Melancholia of Class arrived on my desk at a moment when I felt consumed by a like form of melancholia. Worn down by my repeated attempts to evade, surmount or negotiate a stacked system, frustrated by the hedged or partial nature of even my victories, I also felt – feel – lost in a more amorphous way.

Cruz uses Freud's model of melancholic mourning as a way of understanding that particular feeling of diffuse, pervasive and ambivalent loss experienced by the working-class subject who cannot or will not assimilate into neoliberal culture, and yet who stubbornly persists, “alive but not living”. I was initially somewhat resistant, somewhat sceptical, about adopting a psychoanalytic framework for understanding my own relationship to class, but Cruz is both persuasive and clear: because neoliberal culture refuses to acknowledge social class, and because the working class are symbolically dead, the working-class subject has no language in which to articulate that which they have lost, no language in which to name, and to release their attachment to the lost love object. 

Cruz Picture25

Cruz draws on her own formative experiences of having shame of her class background 'interpolated onto her as a child', and the ways in which this shame was internalised, the way it warped her understanding of herself and her community. This feeling is familiar to me. Self-loathing is familiar: this obtrusive and often overwhelming sense that I am defective or “less”; that something is wrong with me. Cruz writes movingly about the mechanics of this experience:

I didn't know that my social alienation was the direct result of my class and that my being marginalized was too. The few friends I had at the time were also bullied. Some dropped out of high school, some ran away from home, moved to San Francisco where they became homeless. Some ended up addicted to drugs, some were forced to sell their bodies in order to survive. Many eventually killed themselves. By the time I left my hometown for college, most of the working-class kids I'd known were dead or had gone missing.

No tools, no space, no way

To read these words produces an uncanny feeling: this is one of many places in The Melancholia of Class where Cruz' experience appears eerily similar to my own. But it is not eerie, merely sad. The intense identification I feel for Cruz in these moments is itself the result of a vast cultural silence surrounding class-based oppression; a fiercely willed inattention to the voices and stories of poor and working-class persons. Myself and Cruz are not, in fact, two exceptional individuals united by some kind of supernatural affinity; I do not doubt that our experiences are shared by hundreds of thousands of other working-class women and girls. But because we were not given the tools to understand ourselves as a class cohort, and because our stories are seldom afforded space within the dominant discourse, we have had no way of apprehending that fact, of finding each other; we have remained isolated. This is one significant reason that Cruz' book is so important: in its appeal to horizontal solidarity, in its empathetic and embracive reach, The Melancholia of Class performs 'an act of communal rite, a calling-into-being'. Through this act, Cruz aims to 'begin to awaken from the death-sleep of amnesia.' This book might awaken others too.

Cruz review depression

Am I awake? Truly awake? Or simply wondering around the corridors and battlements of my own isolation like Lady Macbeth: my eyes are open but their sense is shut, etc. I am not dazed. I am jaggedly alert, unable to relax. I drink a lot of coffee. When I am working, ideas and images pass in intermittent flickers across the fitful continuum of my attention. This is not an inability to concentrate as such; rather “concentration” itself consists of something other than what is typically meant by “concentration”. Cruz touches upon this in the opening chapter of The Melancholia of Class, writing about the ways in which working-class people experience and perceive time under capitalism; the ways in which our time is perceived, valued, and managed by others. The middle class are allowed leisure. That is to say that economic and material security afford them the time and the space to be idle. It is also to say that they are permitted this idleness, that no moral taint attends it as it does for the working class. As Cruz writes, we are expected to conform to an endless cycle of 'work and recovery', and any refusal of this pattern is punished both by moral disapprobation and the withholding of essential resources by the systems that administer us. The DWP and like agencies feel perfectly entitled – indeed morally obligated – to waste our time: we do not require leisure because we are not capable of using it profitably.

We have no abstract thought, no long-term desires; we are not curious or enquiring. We cannot appreciate, and consequently we do not deserve travel, or culture, nature, or art. Our pleasures are supposed to be immediate and crude: the compulsive joyless gratifications of sex, food, and alcohol; the stupor of daytime television. We are taught to be ashamed of our idleness. We are told that to rest is “lazy”. My mother and I have both internalised this shame to a dangerous degree. Sometimes the fog clears and I am able to see this objectively: here are two generations of working-class women, workaholic over-achievers who nonetheless feel themselves to be lazy, derelict and failing. When work is offered that we neither want or particularly need, we take it anyway. The flip-side to shame is guilt, the desperate desire to prove that we do not consider ourselves “above” the work that is offered us, however menial or degrading the labour, however over-qualified and eminently unsuitable we are for the work.

Cruz Picture17 As seen in North London

We do not wish to appear “ungrateful” for the “opportunity”, when so many working-class people are desperate for employment. This anxiety has permeated every level of our lives. At the time of writing, my mother is so busy, so tied to her desk, that she has not been outside for a walk in over a week. I am, frankly, a doormat at home, piling domestic drudgery on top of research, teaching, writing, editorial and publication commitments. I occupy numerous voluntary positions, all of which I love, but which eat into and through my days like acid. I clean frenetically, cook from scratch. In the free time that remains to me I walk or run. I can “rest” only when I am physically exhausted, when my mind is quiet and I can allow myself to believe that I deserve this respite. I put the radio on and hear nothing. I stare at a screen without appetite or interest.

I have written a great deal about the impact these cycles of shame and guilt have on working-class literary production: for middle-class persons the act of reading is most often conceptualised as a leisure activity, as inherently pleasurable and restorative. But it is also an exercise of pleasure through which the reader participates in the acquisition and confirmation of cultural status. It is a prestige-seeking activity, which situates the reader within a cohort of similarly well-read peers. Reading, and being seen to have read the “right” books, contributes to a sense of shared class identity; contributes to a “house style”, a common fund of formal tropes and characteristic concerns. For the middle class, to read is to connect to a community of others like oneself. There is often a significant overlap between the life experiences of readers and the writers whose work they consume. There is a level of identification and comfort between writers who submit their work, and the journal editors who decide what is published. This kind of entitlement is impossible to imagine for even the most joyful and voracious of working-class readers, the most driven and devoted of aspirant writers. Although we may also read for pleasure, we do so in omnivorous and opportunistic ways, clawing back time and attention from myriad material demands and from the unconducive conditions of home and work. When we read, we must read with the ambient hum of alienation and shame at the back of us. We do not recognise affirmative reflections of ourselves in literature, and we feel uncertain of our right to either literature or the time required to access it.

The idea of what constitutes “good” (middle-class) prosody emerges from the mistaken assumption that working-class writers share not only the same material and social capital as our middle-class peers, but that we also share an experience of time. We do not. And compression, interruption, impediment and delay – all the discomforts of working-class existence – combine to exert a peculiar power over the rhetorics and aesthetics of our poetry.

The rhythms of our lived experience are often punctuated and messy. Against the relentless routinised scheduling of work, the endless accounting to government agencies, there is every conceivable kind or disruption or incursion: barking dogs, wailing sirens, the stutter of drills, the screaming of kids; the stereos and televisions of our neighbours, the ticking of a clock that announces we must return to paid employment, take the dinner from the hob, pick the children up from school, or collect prescriptions. This affects how we think, how we read, write, and study: our default is not silence and space. This translates onto the page in numerous ways, and constitutes a central component of our work, its context, its aesthetic basis.

Anorexia, rage and rejection

Am I truly awake? And not just fretting through my days in a state of hyperarousal? I suffered from insomnia for years; insomnia produces its own kind of waking death-sleep. Mine was an experience of mental and bodily exhaustion which served to intensify rather than dissipate the manic energy inside of me, and inside of which I existed. Throughout my life, this insomnia, and the anorexia that accompanies it, have returned to me with varying degrees of ferocity. Cruz is one of the very few writers I have encountered who articulates anorexia as something both disciplined and – in Cruz' terms – 'vigilant'. Uncanniness creeps in again here: Cruz and I share an understanding of anorexia as a form of negation, of principled refusal. To be anorexic, writes Cruz is 'to become indigestible to the capitalist system. The anorexic is rage made manifest. It is a stance, Antigone's No without explanation.' I find myself extraordinarily grateful to Cruz for giving form to these thoughts because I have long struggled to write about my own eating disorder and its complex relationship to my class and ethnic identity.

Cruz Picture13 Battle jacket

At times it has seemed to me a manner of resistance, a refusal of work, domestic, emotional, and sexual, as well as in terms of the labour market: drained of “erotic capital”, “unfit” for most forms of paid employment, and sealed inside my own impenetrable act of bodily defiance, I was truly surplus. I had zero utility. I lived counter to the clock, against the grain of routine. But it is more than this. For the longest time starvation was the language of my self-and-world-disgust. I did not have the words for what I felt. Literate, but not articulate in the ways that mattered to me. And having only broken phrases in what should have been my “mother tongues”, I had tried repeatedly and without success to unmake the pain of English with English: a language I belonged to which did not belong to me. English – that is the middle-class English that administered and bound me – suffered me, it seemed, condescended to me. It held me, but held me off, and down, and at arm's length. I found it hard to shape my mouth around it in the approved ways. It was slippery and mean. When English and the English world entered me, it made me feel sick. I swallowed it like a sword.

Anorexia nearly killed me. I didn't want to die, quite the opposite was true. More than anything, I wanted to speak, but my mouth was a nest for an enemy language. I hated the sound of myself. Not English or Irish. Not anything. When I spoke “proper” what proceeded from my mouth could never amount to more than a bargain basement version of my tormentors' voices. In refusing to eat, I was burning the English out of me. I was making myself empty and clean. I could not name the ugly things that happened to me with their ugly English mainland words. By refusing food I was refusing their world. I wanted nothing from it. It could not sustain or nourish me. I would not let it keep me alive. I was completely obsessed with the Hunger Strike, with ascetics and mystics; acts – political and spiritual – of absolute renunciation. How else does one resist? How else to stage my counter-claim? This body is mine. I do not recognise your prison or the laws that it upholds.

Hunger has such a profound relationship to Irish identity, and to working-class Irish identity in particular. Historically, it is not merely something we have suffered, but something we have fought with in extremis, when there was nothing left to lose, nothing else at our disposal but the self. When we are denied our language – as countless generations of Irish and Traveller people have been denied – either by law, or by the slow workings of cultural attrition, then all we have left is gesture. Gesture is both language and a failure of or substitute for language. It is not merely that I had no words for articulating my pain, but that eloquence itself felt deeply suspect. Language acts have a tremendous capacity to devastate, oppress, and to coerce. To speak English and to “talk proper” is to compound and to bolster the original trauma. How can language hope to provide a solution or a “cure” when discourse itself is implicated in producing the wound?

Cruz Picture18 Frans boots with Peter Clarkes permission

Fran's boots, photographed by Peter Clarke

I had long connected these ideas to my ethnic heritage, but in the fifth chapter of The Melancholia of Class, writing about 'the libidinal working-class body' Cruz brings into focus their relevance to all displaced and traumatised working-class communities. In a long passage about Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis, Cruz explains how 'a body filled with rage and sorrow, that must remain silent in order to survive, is a body reduced to the act of the gesture'. On stage, the silent accumulation of pain is converted into Curtis' signature delivery: compressed, contorted, urgent, flailing. Cruz makes an important and subtle distinction here: Curtis' onstage affects are not a “performance” as such, but a “distillation” of his traumatised working-class identity. It is worth, I think quoting at length from the section in which Cruz describes Curtis' working-class body becoming:

the vessel for his sorrow, for his melancholia. And it is through his body and gestures that Curtis performs this affect. Growing up working-class in a culture that ignores and abhors the working class is to find oneself marginalised both economically and physically. Add to this the daily subtle and not so subtle insults and slights and what you have is a body filled with sorrow and rage. At the same time, the legacy of this poverty (being raised by parents who've grown up in poverty whose parents grew up in poverty) and the violence incurred through the lived experience of this daily poverty, results in trauma […] With no escape from one's life, from its constraints, the body becomes the only vehicle through which to perform the unsayable. The terror and the hopelessness are internalized, repressed, where they gain power.

Cruz uses Freud's notion of the “libido” to explain that the power of Curtis' delivery on stage is derived from his affects – all that pent up rage and pain – being repressed for so long beforehand. On stage we are witnessing the abandonment of the self to its bottled-up libidinal energies. It isn't, as it is with some other bands, a simulation of “sex”, a performance of snarling, unappeased energy. No, Curtis is releasing his own terror and manic intensity without 'the interpretive buffer of cultural translation', without, in other words, the ironising or ameliorating effects of “distance”. This is why to witness Joy Division live was shocking.

Throughout my writing life, one small source of perverse pride has been to have my work described as both “spasmodic” and “grotesque”, words which also attached themselves to Ian Curtis, and to Joy Division's live performances. These visceral descriptors are telling: they identify my writing absolutely with the body that produced it, with the poor, “other”, working-class body that obtrudes into elite literary space. The grotesque bodies of the poor haunt middle-class imagination: dishevelled (Cruz' term) and sloppy, obtrusive and uncouth. We are too big and too loud in every way. Our physical frames are awkward, ill-disciplined and ungovernable. We are too “there”, a physical reminder of the inequalities that govern our existence; of working-class suffering and middle-class privilege. I connect “grotesque” to the middle-class kids at my school calling me “fat”, or “smelly” or “ugly”. I wasn't any of those things, but I was visible, and that was enough. I disrupted their uninterrupted view of a future fully stocked with others like themselves; their seamless illusion that they and their class cohort made up the world. They didn't understand it in those terms of course, and neither did I. I was merely being punished for my “difference”.

Chav!

When I am anxious, over-tired or angry my carefully cultivated accent suffers slips, exposing me in my paper-thin pretence at “passing”. The speed with which middle-class colleagues, peers and audiences pick up and pounce on these slips is eye-watering. Immediately following the death of my best friend, I was obliged to fulfil a reading commitment in London. Two days before, the shocking news of his loss had reached me in Belfast; I was trying desperately to process this news, but I needed to go straight from the airport to the reading. I had barely slept, and I'd been wearing the same scutty jeans, trainers, and my beloved “Norn” hoody since I received the news. I did not want to be there, but felt constrained to be professional. I knew it was a mistake as soon as I stepped through the door, and an audience member turned in her chair to the friend sitting beside her and hissed chav! in a poisonous sotto voce.

The reading did not go well. The more I tried to keep my voice level and controlled, the more pronounced and wonky my accent became. At the end of the reading, the event organiser, a middle-aged, middle-class man cornered me by the coffee urn, leaned into my face breathing read wine fumes all over me, and told me I was “unintelligible”, that I needed to “enunciate more”, that my voice made me seem “angry”, and began interrogating me about where I was from, as if the way I sound must be continuously explained and atoned for. Accent or vocal identity is inseparable from my status as a working-class woman, and from the expectations that identity engenders. Within elite literary space that sound becomes a way of speaking to and through shifting perceptions of education and class, and subverting or denouncing the political, social and poetic assumptions contained within notions of “accent” or “dialect”. At an event that described itself as “experimental” and that celebrated the decentering of the lyric I, my strong vocal identity complicated and undercut that very decentering, tendering an implied critique of their much lauded “post-identity” poetic moment. They did not like that. And so I was raked over the coals for failing to modulate my class identity, and unsubtly mocked for the way my working-class body presented and took up space.

As Mary Russo writes in The Female Grotesque:

images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from bodily canons of classical aesthetics. The classical body is transcendental and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with “high” or official culture [...] with the rationalism, individualism, and the normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, and changing.'

The grotesque is an open wound, a denial of catharsis, a refusal of what Lara Glenum calls 'the aesthetics of the pure. “Catharsis” is from the Greek verb “to purify”. It is a coercive cleaner-upper of pain, which means, for the working-class artist, a cleaner-upper or banisher of class identity. 'What the public wants from the working-class female artist is a Pygmalion transformation', writes Cruz. 'They want to see the poor working-class girl with her crooked accent, her bad skin, and poor taste traded in for a clean, sleek, aspirational version of her true self.' Cruz points to the tragic trajectory of Amy Winehouse as an example of ways in which the working-class subject who does not buy into this trade-off is hated, hounded and punished.

Cruz Picture22 Amy

When Winehouse died her image was everywhere, finally purged of her grotesque, troubling identity, emptied into pure surface, absolute myth. They prefer you dead, those people. They make a fetish out of music's doomed heroes because in their world doom itself is exceptional and exciting, so much so that it confers a kind of status. And being dead, these figures are freed from their difficult contexts, subsumed into a textureless meld with others superficially like themselves. The dead are safe, ready to be packaged, repackaged, re-written, written-over, claimed and reclaimed by discourse: there's a white middle-class discourse for every working-class subculture you care to name. Mediation, intervention. The white middle class create the archive, the archive becomes the crypt. We cannot win. It is only inside of the work that all we are asked to carry and contain briefly spills into life, touches the edges of a complacent middle-class culture, our auditors, our readers. We manifest “too muchness”, excess, not as indulgence, but absolute negation. We supply rather than receive the shock. To work is to wake, to be at our most vulnerable and most conscious, inside of writing, music, inside of our art, if nowhere else.

Cruz Picture23 Amy graffiti Camden

        .3

The heat over the last week has been stifling. I have carried The Melancholia of Class from room to room with me, looking for a cold spot, privately stewing. The weather broils me, heat-sealing me inside of my own skin, but the general slow grinding unfairness of things broils me too, and I am tired. I do not aim to collect grievances, but they accumulate nonetheless, and there is nowhere for them to go. I try to explain to my friends why it is that I am so wound-up: being long-listed for yet another poetry prize is like being picked to play the sheep in the school nativity play, you're acknowledged, but not really. You're included, but only to the extent that your obtrusive presence has made inclusion absolutely necessary. If you so much as suggest that class and race might have anything to do with your inability to ascend, then you're “paranoid” and “chippy”, excusing your own lack of talent by playing a “card”.

One of the unique joys of being a “white, other” is that you present an opportunity for white middle-class people to comfortably indulge both their racism and their classism without ever having to admit to the existence of either. They don't “see” your class, either because you do not present to them like a “typical” working-class person according to the tropes they themselves invented, or because they do not believe that the class system really exists. They filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove (as Cruz also notes) the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic working-class people, while refusing to acknowledge the roll racism plays in the perception and treatment of working-class white others. My friends make sympathetic noises, but in the main, they don't get it. I want to explain that it isn't the endless barrage of rejections or disappoints in themselves, it's the overwhelming sense of stuckness and delay they feed into, of constantly striving but never arriving, of doing the work but wasting my time.

Time again. For us it is always pressured and constraining. After ostensibly accepting two of my poems for publication and soliciting another, I have now been kept waiting for one year and six months by a “respected” (middle-class) literary journal. I notice that in the interim, the editor has been teaching my book as part of their course on “working-class poetics”, so that we are now in the unusual position that they are able to profit from my work and indeed from my class identity, while I, the actual working-class person who produced the work, hover in limbo. Precarity of this kind is not merely inconsiderate, it is, after a certain point, re-traumatising, inscribing over again the lessons learnt while sitting in Job Centre waiting rooms: that my time and energy not valued, that they do not – that I do not – matter. Hierarchy is etched into this interaction. Their treatment of me is only possible because of the power differential that exists between us.

On days like these Cruz' book is both a comfort and a provocation; when she writes of her alienation inside the academy, and of: 'the voices of teachers and classmates, colleagues and students, who make it clear to me, on a regular basis, that I do not belong in the world in which I now find myself', I am stupidly close to tears. I am crying for and in solidarity with Cruz. I am crying for all of us. I am crying, more selfishly, for me. Throughout the book, Cruz' perceptive essays on working-class creatives are interwoven with strands of memoir, a hybrid form that demonstrates just how entwined is our class with our creativity, performing an ethics of fusion and remix. The Melancholia of Class is a genre-blurring, border-stepping text. Intellectually rigorous and probing, but also tenderly embodied within lived experience. Reading the book, I have come to especially relish Cruz' intelligent and attentive writing about music and musicians; she speaks with such loving precision about the working-class bands (especially The Jam) whose music shaped her formative notions of class solidarity. Equally, I have come to feel a familiar queasy gut-punch each time she writes about encountering a middle-class cultural gatekeeper; each time somebody tells her “no”, sets out to dismiss or diminish her. These dismissals and diminishments are also my own. Life is long, and sometimes I feel them rising up around me until I am immobilised, until only my head is visible: like Winnie in fucking Happy Days, buried up to her neck. Assimilate or die. Assimilate and die. In the end, what's the difference? I feel hopeless, and I am angry at myself for this hopelessness. My life is good. I have work, and finally after many, many years in a south London shit-hole, a beautiful place to live. I am loved. And taken individually each slight or barb or block is easy to dismiss as trivial, petty or imagined, or both. But they are real, and they build and build.

Cruz Picture14

On days like these I miss Marty. Marty was my best friend. He understood. He understood too well. He chose annihilation over assimilation. Marty had fought a daily battle with depression, and addiction. We had lived together for such a long time that I had become intimately familiar with this battle; in many ways I had taken it on as my own. Most days he'd struggle, and most days he lost, but he fought with so much heart. There was courage there, often outwardly obscured by the fuck-ups, busts, and general drama that attends any crippling addiction. When he died, my sense of failure was total, a molten mixture of anger, sadness and guilt. Marty and I were so similar in so many ways. Outwardly, we cultivated the same look, an Irish- squat-punk aesthetic we referred to as “croppy-core”: combining the scrapyard audacities of early punk with pro-Irish Republican and kitschy Catholic signifiers. When we could get hold of the materials, we also incorporated elements of “low-Irish” Victoriana: a dirty and much battered silk topper, a badly dyed black tails shirt. I made, or he shoplifted, most of the clothes we wore. We traded outfits. Seen from behind, with our matching mohawks and anorexic frames, we were often mistaken for each other. We were not the same. Our difference was the distance I had travelled in terms of articulacy, literacy, education, but a number of the things that had scarred him marked me too. We joked that we were, in fact, two halves of the same person, divided by some cosmic quick of fate. We joked that if we could smush ourselves back together, we might make a functioning human being.

Marty went missing and then he destroyed himself. Missingness and ambiguous loss run through my work because of Marty. Not merely because he “went” missing, but because missingness adhered to him like a positive quality throughout his life. Cruz writes at length about the melancholia that besets the working-class subject who leaves their community and yet finds no future to escape into. This feels intimately familiar to me, but there is also this other, related pain, what I have called an exile of spatial dysphoria: a feeling of being bound to a place, but of moving within it disregarded or misunderstood, objected from public cartographies; edged out or spoken over whenever the story of your native place is told.

As I have come to understand it, by the time he was old enough to meaningfully grieve the trauma of his childhood, the sites and settlements of that shared experience no longer existed. His past was not meaningfully registered upon public space, was written over by an iconography of grieving from which he felt excluded. His experience of loss was unaccommodated by Ireland’s nationalistic, religious, and sectarian scripts. If grief and the act of remembrance are experienced in and through physical spaces both public and private, then what should it mean for those of us with a vexed relationship to such spaces? Ireland devours her dead, folding them into her own mythology, inscribing their presence onto civic space. Unless they are not the “right kind” of dead, the dead who do not fit the narrow arc of Ireland's nationally determined story. Traveller dead. Queer dead. Brown dead. Junkie dead.

Cruz Picture11

Within settled communities the legacy of sectarian violence is explicit and readily legible, inscribed upon public space through acts of myriad vandalism and memorialisation; the demolition of buildings, the securitisation of streets. For sedentary communities buildings capture the continuity of collective experience, they stage and reemphasise a shared cultural heritage. In the North of Ireland in particular, public artwork interacts with personal histories; mediates and facilitates the uncanny experience of memory between individuals and their wider communities, between these communities and the wider world. Traveller or homeless communities, whose settlements are, by their very nature, transitory, leave no corresponding trace or wound on the physical landscape. If public space is a container for cultural heritage, then those with no stake in that space, their histories, and their memories, remain uninscribed, are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. To grieve is to grieve inwardly, invisibly. It is to find no place of recognition for your pain.

The hierarchies of grief

Towards the end of The Melancholia of Class, Cruz writes movingly about the ways in which gentrification erases both the past and the future for all poor and working-class communities. There are, as Jahan Ramazani notes, distinct 'hierarchies of grievability', kinds of grief, and grieved-for subjects it is not acceptable to speak of or to mourn. Gentrification is both a denial of persons and a refusal of their pain, and so we are blocked, at every turn, on every level, from releasing this pain: how and where are we to mourn our lost, whose lives are characterised by the provisional, the precarious, the marginal and impermanent? How do we grieve poor, queer, vulnerably housed and homeless subjects? And how do we reckon with the trauma of that grief, when trauma, by its very definition, renders problematic the possibility of representation? How is trauma to be told when, through contact with traumatic experience, individuals lose their ability to fully apprehend or integrate the memories of those experiences; when they are unable to give a coherent or consistent account of those experiences to others?

Cruz Picture19

How is grief to be rendered visible when the trauma of that grief is itself entangled in acts, official and unofficial, of forcible removal, denigration and erasure? Ultimately, where do we even go to grieve once our landscapes are concreted over, our sites broken up, our communities dispersed, our squats torn down, our bars closed down, our dancehalls gentrified, our districts socially cleansed? We can exist nowhere, in our native place nor our chosen home. From Ireland to a council flat in London, forced out of the flat when his mother died; squatting in Camden, moved on by security goons in black bomber jackets so that the area could be “renovated”, “renovated around”, subsisting, existing, becoming thinner and thinner, drinking harder, with skills he cannot use rotting in his hands because to work these days you must be documented, accounted for. In the end, only able to answer rejection with rejection, Marty ghosted, was gone.

Cruz Picture20

There was no place for him in this world. For a while we had punk and punk made a place, a way of life that acknowledged and valued the skills we had: our creativity, our savvy habits of scavenging, our skip-diving resourcefulness, our pressured invention, our shoe-string flair. We would wear our second-hand, customised clothes to death: our battle jackets and boots accumulated and stored lived experience, a tactile repository, an archive of our own. Something we could carry, who did not have the security of solid walls around us. Punk was dead, but that was half the point. As Cruz writes 'this insistence on the past drags it into the present, creating a glitch in the system', and this is also form of resistance: to a homogeneous and disposable culture, to what Rachael Blau DuPlessis describes as the 'malignant rapidity' of capitalism. We opened for ourselves and each other a parallel time-line. Punk's aims had never been realised, its demands never met, our lives had never improved for all of its thrashing and screaming. And so we rededicated ourselves. In Camden we made a last anachronistic redoubt, and briefly we were glorious and annoying.

       .4

In recent years the “retro look” has been frigging everywhere, a stylistic expression of the weaponised nostalgia mobilized by the Tories during Brexit and the last general election. Retro is not the same as the anachronistic borrowings made by the rockers and mods Cruz writes about, or the punks of my own misspent youth. Retro is neoliberal culture's way of reabsorbing and recolonising the past, of forcing our avenues of exploration and adventure back into an inescapable circuit with a rotten present. Retro narrows the past into a series of easily identifiable, consumer-friendly images; these images are then ripe for mass production. Retro is copy-paste and shop-bought. It removes any element of archaeology or investigation from the process of creating style. It replaces style with a shallow array of disembodied and impersonal “looks”. All surface, taken in at a glance. Retro shears the past of its textures, subtleties, and secrets. It does not use words like “second-hand”. If clothes are not new, they are “vintage”, that is endorsed by and welcomed into the new, with a price tag to match. In the world of retro there are no human beings. We don't have to think about the bodies that previously occupied these clothes; we don't have to acknowledge the working-class invention that created the style. In the world of retro there are no classes. Retro is for those who have the luxury of forgetting the past, their own past and that of the world. Retro is a past without accessing memory. The working-class subject is tied to their past. We drag it behind us like a withered limb.

Water pours in through the skylight

'It seems she was given an ultimatum', Cruz writes of Chan Marshall, whose sparse, blues-inflected music was co-opted over time into bland and heavily mastered pop, 'forsake your past and survive, or remain with your past and be destroyed. Given the option of two deaths – to die in the past or forsake your past, which is to say to forsake yourself, but survive – which death do you choose?' This is not an idle question. For any of us. The weather broke last night. The dog cowered in the corner, water poured in through a skylight I had neglected to close. It seems a marvel to me that I am able to type the sentence “water poured in through a skylight”, the skylight in my house, my house has a skylight, I have a house. It is a kind of miracle. But a hedged one. Jammed up, allowed to go no further, unable to inhabit this house as if I truly belong there, I rock on the bed in a baggy t-shirt, weighed down with depression and survivor's guilt. I am afraid of forgetting, and exhausted by the impossibility of forgetting. If I push the past down inside of me, it resurfaces time and again in symptomatic and performative traces, little “ghostsings” of syntax and structure; words and images, a sound, a smell.

The latter section of The Melancholia of Class is, in many ways, the most difficult to read. Cruz writes about Freud's notion of the death drive through the slow dissolution and ultimate destruction of various working-class creatives, from Jason Molina to Clarice Lispector. Here Cruz writes about 'The Undead', that is the doubled, the split, the hopelessly divided working-class subject, who tries desperately to become someone or something else, yet reaches, as she always must, an irreconcilable impasse. Cruz writes not just with empathy but with understanding about the addictions and debilities of others. I find myself vigorously underlining the following passage: 'when we have nothing, we have nothing to lose, and it makes sense to want to push through the bottom of the bottom, as if on the other side there might exist a clean slate and the chance to begin again.' Cruz is talking about Jason Molina. But she could just as well have been talking about Marty, or any of those boys from the bridge in the Camden.

Cruz Melancholia Durer 1513

Melancholia by Dürer, 1513

None of this is to say that The Melancholia of Class is a hopeless book, even necessarily a melancholy one. What it provides – for myself at least – is a space in which melancholia may be encountered and probed, a place to initiate and access memory. This is perhaps the strangest and most important aspect of Cruz' “manifesto”: that the collective action she proposes is a kind of mass memory work, the “undoing” of the coerced amnesia of neoliberal culture. Melancholia, writes Cruz, will not leave us: 'Our collective melancholia is a humming, it is constant. And it will not go away. And although it will not leave us, we can allow it to guide us.' We can – and must – also guide each other, and to accomplish this task we must first recognise ourselves and what besets us. The Melancholia of Class is a node of affective solidarity. It is a link in the chain and a light to see by.

This most bloody and divisive prime minister: Margaret Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle
Friday, 18 June 2021 08:37

This most bloody and divisive prime minister: Margaret Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about Thatcher and her legacy. Image above: Steev Burgess

Not quite a decade after her death, and already cultural depictions of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher are everywhere in evidence, most recently in the hit Netflix TV series The Crown, where she is played by Gillian Anderson. Anderson's portrayal is by no means flattering; it has, in fact, received a great deal of vitriolic backlash from the right-wing press. Good. Except the problem of representing this most bloody and divisive of prime ministers goes far beyond the degree of sympathy with which she is characterised. It has to do with what happens when we translate political figures from the muck and mess of immediate history into slickly produced packages of self-contained narrative. It has to do with what happens when the pain of living memory becomes popular entertainment.

Where Thatcher is concerned, there is so much pain, persistent pain. One significant discomfort I have with The Crown and with similar docudramas is that it relegates the events of Thatcher's tenure to a finite and clearly delineated past, when the horrors she inaugurated and presided over are not, in any meaningful measure, 'finished'. As an example, we might consider Orgreave and Hillsborough, and the long and difficult struggles for justice endured by those affected.

The violence that took place at Orgreave was not merely the worst example of police brutality ever witnessed in a modern industrial dispute; it was the culmination of a concerted campaign on behalf of Thatcher's government to diminish the strength of the trade unions. In the years before Orgreave the Conservatives had planned to face and to defeat a strike by the NUM, or by another of the mass-membership unions; to that end they had inextricably allied themselves with the police, awarding pay rises for officers, while workers in nationalised industries were forced to live at the sharp-end of redundancy and privatisation. In the wake of the violence, where mounted police charged protesters, attacking them without justifiable provocation, Thatcher's private secretary wrote to a Home Office official that 'The prime minister […] agrees that the chief constable of South Yorkshire should be given every support in his efforts to uphold the law.' A note by her policy advisor, David Pascall, expresses a similarly swift and absolute judgement, describing the miners as a 'mob' and as 'Scargill's shock-troops'.

Police brutality

The legitimation and bolstering of police brutality as policy could be said to lead inexorably to events at Hillsborough. In not holding the South Yorkshire police force to account for Orgreave, in frustrating inquiries into police violence, and in refusing to implement reforms, Thatcher's government saw Peter Wright, the chief constable who had overseen the operation at Orgreave, still in charge some four years later. Wright was responsible for appointing David Duckenfield to police the match at Hillsborough, and for heading the campaign to deny responsibility for the disaster, blaming and slandering the victims. The treatment of football supporters at Hillsborough was given official sanction by the brutal policing of the miners’ strike. It is all connected, and the search for justice and accountability is ongoing. The repercussions ripple out for years, across generations. The complexity, specificity, and interrelatedness of this pain is not easily accommodated within the docudrama format, which relies heavily on resolution within neatly determined narrative arcs.

An even greater level of unease exists for me around the issue of focus. The Crown and similar shows are top-down dramas: we see the subjective effect of the decisions Thatcher made upon herself and her immediate circle. We do not see the wider consequences of those decisions for the thousands of people who suffered them, or we see those consequences only in the broadest possible brush strokes, and not with the nuance and granular particularity of real experience. This creates a vague nostalgic haze around events such as the miners' strike or the invasion of the Falkland Islands. These are cultural milestones, they feel known, but they are little understood; they have become the depoliticised stuff of zeitgeist, emptied of content and of true human cost.

The screen transmits personality, it cannot credibly render the difficult and shadowy reasoning of ideology, which is where Thatcher's murderous toxicity truly lived. How can an actor hope to convey this through gesture and tone, within the limits of an accessible light-entertainment script?

They can't, and so viewers are either hoodwinked into a sympathetic identification with the Thatcher 'character', or they may come to relish Anderson's performance as a kind of cartoon Ice Queen, an exaggerated parody of awfulness. At a cultural moment where the line between politics and entertainment is already dangerously blurred, and where political careers rise and fall on the strength of 'personality', this should give us pause. Yes, politicians are people too, but it isn't who they are as human beings that is relevant to us, it is what they do. Learning to read politicians as characters, and political careers as stories of individual exceptionalism, of private triumph or failure, is a disturbing trend with grave implications for our future as voters and citizens.

The Ballymurphy Massacre

This has been much on my mind of late. The recent conclusion of the long-awaited inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre has had me thinking about hidden continuities of state violence. Mrs Justice Keegan delivered a savage indictment of both the British army's actions and the subsequent state-sanctioned efforts to depict the deceased as IRA members. The attack in 1971, is one in a long line of historical injustices that are only now, after decades, beginning to be addressed, including those that took place during Thatcher's tenure.

In particular, I have been thinking about the atrocities carried out by the notorious Glenanne gang, to which is attributed some 120 murders. The Glenanne gang were an informal alliance of ultra-loyalist groups, run with the collusion of the British government. It comprised roughly 40 men, including members of the British police (the RUC), British soldiers, and paramilitary groups such as the UDR and the UVF. When the inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre reported, the papers made their usual noises about how the findings could pave the way for prosecutions of armed forces veterans for historical abuses in the North of Ireland. Government and armed forces spokespersons were quick to shout down any such suggestions, highlighting once again the statute of limitations that covers both members of the occupying British forces and paramilitary groups. The argument being presented is that such a statute of limitations is fair to 'all sides'. It is not. There is an enormous difference between those actions carried out by local paramilitaries, and by those of an occupying nation state. And with regards to collusion with loyalist groups, the British government clearly has much to lose should the extent of that collusion become known.

What these reflections reveal, I think, is that history is still being made; that it is in a continuous process of painful negotiation and discovery. For that reason there would seem to be a greater duty of care attendant upon the treatment of recent history in art and culture. This kind of careful and pressured attention is something lacking in the mainstream media's recent depictions of Thatcher. Depictions in which her flawed humanity becomes the only necessary apology for the violent racism, classism, and homophobia of her politics, or in which she becomes a sort of grotesque scapegoat: the embodiment of the worst excesses of neoconservative ideology. Thatcher didn't happen out of air; the ideas she instituted did not disappear in a puff of smoke as soon as she was out of office. Look at Tony Blair and Keir Starmer. Her legacy is a living one, as viscerally present as it is vile. Look at the North of Ireland, and the blatant disregard for Irish life that Tory Brexit has exposed. Look at the victims of police brutality and their families, still waiting for justice after all these years.

The poems I want to present  address themes around Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle.  Unpacking a language for talking about the trauma of Thatcher and Thatcherism will take time and effort, but these poems, with their meticulous attention to sound and to the texture of particular, lived experience are a vivid and important beginning, a necessary counter-narrative.

The day she died

By Kevin Patrick McCann

There were fireworks,
Dancing in the street,
Ding-dong the witch is
Dead blasting out of stereos
But I stayed in our house,
Curtains closed
Remembering
That day they went back,
All brass bands and banners,
Lives in flinders,
Faces clenched like fists
Remembering
How she closed down the mines
And him sat in that chair
For weeks at a stretch
His thousand yard stare
At the end.
So no, I didn’t join in.
Just sat here alone.
Remembering.


they want all of our teeth to be theirs

By Martin Hayes

they want from us total commitment
they want from us our blood and our hunger
they want our flesh
inked with the company’s logo on our chest
they want our knuckles to our brains
and all the nerve-ends in between
switched off
they want our sinews and our muscles
sewn together with steal thread
so that we can only move
when they pull their levers
they want all of our teeth to be theirs
so that we can only chew when they chew
ache when they ache
they want us to show them where we keep our guts
so that they can sneak in under the radar
and pull them apart
angry thread by angry thread
until nothing is held
or stitched together anymore
they want us like robots
sat at our workstations every day
not wanting or able to think
of anything other than what their virus
has burrowed into us
and malfunctioned us to think
and what do we want?
we want to be able to walk through the park on a Saturday afternoon
without feeling anxious
we want to be able to lay out on the grass
drinking ice cold beer
while looking up into the sky
without worrying about office politics
we want to swim in the ocean once a year
and know how we are going to pay for it
we want a mouth full of teeth
that we know we can afford to get fixed
or capped
if ever they should go rotten
we want to be able to enjoy the laughter and song
that comes from having food in the fridge the electricity bill nearly paid
a car taxed and full of diesel
a medicine cabinet full of floss sticks and Sudocrem
paracetamol and hand cream
Bonjela hair bands
Diazepam and Ansol

we want to be able to live in our block
without the threat of being redistributed
hanging like thick drool dripping from a councilor’s panting mouth
because an entrepreneur took him for a £500 dinner
and promised him a place for his kid in the prep school
that will take our council flat’s place
alongside the £65-a-month gym business units
and 1.5 million-pound lofts
we want to feel
be able to say to ourselves
that we are human
and not have to give everything of that away
just so we are allowed to work
just so we are allowed
to exist


Milk Snatcher

By Julia Bell

Father thinks she’s great. He tells us so at tea.
He enjoys the nightly news where rabbles
of dirty miners have it handed to them.
These Marxists with their utopias, need to get real.
She is bringing back stability, certainty,
to a hairy country, old and badly clothed,
with naïve teeth and a childish sense of
pageantry. She is telling us
who we are again. And even those
most disinclined to listen to a woman,
love her matronly, no nonsense ways,
and the righteousness of her hair.
I do not like her, and I do not understand
why she is so popular round here.
Jesus said we should love the poor,
not tut at them on the news.
I will live long enough to know that
I am witnessing the slow death of South Wales.
The sick, sliding slag heaps becoming
deep valleys of generational despair.
I have started blushing every time I get upset
and at the tea table I wear a NUM badge sent to me
by the miners, my cheeks on fire. I wrote to them after the news.
Father thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poems for adults, and one for children, Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris), a book of ghost stories, It’s Gone Dark, (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder) co-written with the playwright Tom Green. He is also the author of Ov (Beul Aithris), a fantasy novel for children.

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. His latest collections are Ox, published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and Where We Get Magic From, published by Culture Matters

Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck where she is the Course Director of the MA Creative Writing. Her work includes poetry, essays and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. Her most recent book-length essay Radical Attention was published by Peninsula Press.

This article will also appear in the next issue of Communist Review.

kentish hymn / keremet
Sunday, 25 April 2021 11:25

kentish hymn / keremet

Published in Poetry

kentish hymn / keremet

by Fran Lock

wuton wuldrian weorada dryhten hálgan hlióðorcwidum... god is native to a numb tongue, heard as cleave or queerdom, we are crossing in fog where the chalk path forks. hips and haws. to the barrow, to the drear bower over the berm, to etching hill, to cherry hill, to tumulus and stūpa. stupor. where the laden ditch gives up its ragstone dead. and the dog has a tumour. and the wind folds form back on itself with a coarse consistent music. and i think of the cláirseach, the curve of a cutting tool, clear and sage. and i misheard this as a levelling harp. where god is an architect, harping his level. and an englishman asks us: what’s in a name? they had hanged up their harps, said the scholar. by which harps were they hanged? by a psaltery’s straightened guts. by kithara, by lyre. all my sultry kith are liars. born to it, our harps are archers’ bows, our arched backs strung for anxious pleasure, elbows out. simensa, a man with a metal detector tells me i believe in magic. i’ve walked my boots to repertoires of ruined sued. do i cast the lots? do i read the tea? or tell him how his hand has heirs; it is a siring palm? seared flesh. he wants a smooth fate sealed with a sterling heat where i touched him. the pentagram, the witch’s mark. oh, i will not live by coffee’s caustic horoscope, the partial eclipse of a proffered coin. we are not these small town childhoods, sum of all our noons. tell him what? i do not believe in magic anymore than i believe in northern ireland. tell him the denial of reality is the refusal of work, motherfucker. if not, what is your magic for? and fuck the police be my werewolf prayer. and pikey the brand, be the bane, be the blessing. wuton wuldrian, but what’s all this we business? god and i are playing hare and tortoise. contessa and chauffeur. i face the icons every morning, the prevailing vacuum of his stare. he mentally undresses me, the dog, unzips the middle-distance with his teeth. i never called myself a christian, as such. they used to say that we were tree-worshippers, stump-fuckers, hedge-humpers, head-shrinkers, devil-antennae. when we receive a sign, we signal back. in the old time we fled the knout and gallows, illiterate and literal. we feared their lechery, their frenzy, khlysty-christ-cum-whipping-boy who drives out sin with sin with spinning. we fled to the tundra, to the thicket, to the steppe. call us magyar or márya, mari, tsarmis, cheremisa. call us people of the volga, vulgar people. and the volga is the jul. our tongue a vulgar jewel. i have covered my hair and are we not harpies? hounds and ministers, to thunder and to spite. once, we were surpassing swoop and lovely. they made our hands a labour of talons, haggard with grasping. the man said black, altogether disgusting. they tore off our wings and dressed us in the sinking of ships. we were sparrows with the faces of women until we were women with the tails of fish. and my bruised thighs fused: a gauntlet sized in silver, a single sexual mitten. are we not sirens? vulgate jackals, a pique of heathen owls? lufian liofwendum lifes agend... fiendish and aloof. a leaf again, an agony. there was the common prayer, the solemn prayer, and we pick out the path on the shit-shingled hills with the border patrol boat moving below. ah, if we were harpies. ah, if we were sirens. the sea is not cruel. cruelty requires a chromosome. little kiss, little why? and how the skinhead on the beach turns an irrigated smile toward dover, is herald of a swilling doom. and i have remembered the mermaid wrong. not a mermaid at all, but a slack-breasted sitter-of-vigils. like me. robust but worn. the way she shoves a pared bronze face toward the sea, as if to ward off danger. how a woman is an amulet: medallion, a figurine, a tooth, a claw. and all the crowned falcons of the upper kingdom will never make me whole again, she says. these blue glass beads have an eye, an intention to power. menat: horus hanging counterpoise. these similars, these stelai. ankh and udjat. pillar, scarab, sa. a child with a stick, a sun with three rays. that's an aspect of ra. that's aten. to illuminate and wound. how the light of the world in a pained vowel stretched between curving horns, is a note you blow. there was something to do with a jackal: you who are in the everlasting air. and the jackal has a double that she carries on her back like a parachute. there's a compass on the hill. a cippus. it marks the limit and the distance and the way. they called us counterfeit egyptians. our grain was our coin. his mulo at my shoulder. i have bread in my pocket for appeasement or reward. he will follow me, always. hang horseshoes for my epuletts. hang horseshoes from my earlobes. hang a horse like a harp. how a woman is an amulet. worn with sweat. your leaking acids eat her. here, there are icons and charms. here, there are hoards and corpora, the hoary taxa of textbooks, tell us something we already knew. gumena gehwilcum goodes willan... good will, god willing, welcome, good welcome. i could crouch here, wear summer to sickness in a high lace collar. i could pluck the finches from the gorse like fat brown berries. sing to me, this chalk chanteuse is a toothsome whore. there'll be bluebirds all right, and a great white vulture. the bluebirds are over. where england is the cabaret's jaundiced maw. what i already knew: invoke your enemies, summon them with stew. and language is the theophoric knot you can't undo. cursed for kicking the cooking pot. cursed for refusing alms. cursed for securing funding, for the straightness of your spine when i walk through the world like a bagging hook. keremet, from out the unbidden and enlarging dark, local spirits of the violent dead: shades, bogeys, henchmen, wideboys. i am foul-mouthed, a mouth folded on foulness, grann brigitte, spitting peppers and obscenities beneath the clootie tree. keremet, half ghost, half household god. i am pressing a gold token to a flat snout for protection. their curse is a binding spell and it goes: where are you from?englan' you're a drug stepped on so many times you are a ladder and a bridge and a dancer's mark. i have oaths. i have hymns, a morbid grace ingrained like dirt. and i see london, i see france, and all my dreams and all my limbs and all the sea were filled with swimming.

 

but if you are happy, what will you write about?
Saturday, 03 April 2021 16:47

but if you are happy, what will you write about?

Published in Poetry

but if you are happy, what will you write about?

by Fran Lock

the surfeit-stink of mornings, doubly sullied
and pungent in my memory. the intercession
of a sword, christ's body, luminous and reeking.
i will write concealment's season, the lauded
thorn, a calcite myth of kings, the swaggering
rapacity of guards at arms. are you men of kent
and slender means? are you kentish men, who
scent the air, and bear your valley strategems
before you? bread is the cant of a common
mouth. betwixt the chapel and the channel is
a long, hard slog. i will write a cold day,
whittled into brilliance; the chalk tongue
staking its slurred alarm to the hills: where
are you going? where are you from? these,
the poison maxims of a barracks-prattle.
prats, prating, of appetite and tyranny; our
serial griefs supplied in bulk. where we
are struck until we spark. i'll write the law-
and-order leaflet in my letterbox, the cold
esteem in a stone heart. a maggot,
precision-drilling the eye of a dead gull
on the tow-path. i will write this levelling
remedy. into fly-tip and trivia: the whey-
faced plaints of bigotry. i will write
the lumpenly done-by, insipid with liturgy,
picking the sin from the treads in their
trainers; who train their wanting
wits at the weekend, who wander lonely
singing how they'll never walk alone,
in the hair shirts of their season tickets.
to be numbered here, among the clucking,
where the suburb erupts into race-hate
and birds. i will write of men reduced
to jobs, their jobs reduced to firms,
manors, corps and crews. men, idle
and violent, in the lisping vernal argot
of the spring, loafers and serfs.
and how, finally, we are not what
the barbed wire wills of us. girl,
like a slip of paper in a psalter, pressed.
and a rare pasqueflower, a rivet
joining the world to the world.
meandering medway, weal to the sea.
your legends and consensus. pasture,
passing over. i will write the canine
haste of run. from here the view
has houses. campaign medals, studding
a luddite corpse.

Dr. Fran Lock has finally escaped out of London to live in Folkestone. We wish her happiness.

today of all days
Wednesday, 17 March 2021 19:55

today of all days

Published in Poetry

today of all days

by Fran Lock

even now there are names we will not stoop to say.
between the famine and the feast. the prostrate part
of silence. what the dog digs up, what the well draws
forth: cromm crúaich. cromwell. conquest. all limbs
and skins through the heat of siege. even now, to turn
our sleep toward the west and a dream of being near.
or free. beloved, there's a rent in the roof of want
where the world gets in. beloved, your dirty nail
is a dark scythe, shelling an egg; your broad arm
is an argonaut's oar, your mouth a disconsolate cellar
of gold. it is grey outside, a thunderhead behind
the new-build houses. my mind, a solemn plough,
succumbs to turning earth. to sift our dead. obols,
idols. alms and bones. a celtic stater, struck or cast.
even now, there are bent heads and empty hands.
brine and fire. your neck, the rhythm in the rope.
a white gull, a cipher for thirst. our fear of the sea
and everything in it. our dread of the plain, a plain
dread. diplomacies and protocols. control, above
all, beloved. to carve our dull adjustments into
stone. the grievous speech of cutting blades. even
now, a name i cannot say. your name. this day of all
days. leaking through this lockjaw. like water. no.
like wine.

Choose to Challenge: International (Working) Women's Day 2021
Sunday, 07 March 2021 19:15

Choose to Challenge: International (Working) Women's Day 2021

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces some poems for International (Working) Women's Day 2021. Images above and in text: Jane Burn

IWWD – or IWD as we're now supposed to call it – has had some pretty ropey “themes” in the past. But this year, I feel more positively inclined: 'Choose to Challenge' evokes the mutual and fiercely responsible feminism of Audre Lorde when she writes in 'The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism': “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Capitalism wants us to believe that feminism is all about personal empowerment, but that's an insidious neo-liberal lie, one that prioritises the pleasures and the privileges of individual women over the systemic oppression of their less powerful sisters. This version of feminism is fundamentally shallow and representational, preferring to focus on individual “success” stories rather than articulating a meaningful challenge to the structural dynamics of inequality.

More women joining the armed forces is not, for example, a triumph for women. Women and girls suffer disproportionately during and after war: existing inequalities are magnified as social institutions break down, rendering them more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation. Women and girls are better served by a radical dismantling of the military-industrial complex. More women in top banking jobs is not a triumph for women and girls. Women and girls suffer disproportionately under capitalism: we are daily harnessed as sources of domestic, sexual, and reproductive labour. The roles typically held by women are persistently miscategorised as “unskilled”; they offer us scant pay and little job security. When we do occupy top positions we are still paid less than our male colleagues.

Poverty and unemployment are intimately tied to the likelihood of our sexual exploitation and our victimisation at the hands of both partners inside the home and predators outside of it. For women, the trappings of wealth, and the signifiers of race and class, such as accent and grammar, are intimately linked in capitalist culture to perceptions of femininity, sexual availability and moral worth. We live, inside of capitalism, an irreconcilable double-bind. Our status as women is the very argument for our exploitation, but our identities as women – as women that capitalism sees as worthy of recognition and protection – are often erased by the work we perform. Do your shitty, exhausting, demeaning job, but do it with a smile, in flawless make-up and a body-shaping dress. Stay young and healthy, and positive at all times. Be a smiling facilitator to other people's needs.

Within neoliberal feminism, feminist goals are best achieved by each individual woman striving and competing to reach a position of power within capitalism. This is bullshit. Capitalism is inherently sexist and racist. It naturalises women's unpaid labour and deploys both sexism and racism as tools to divide and oppress workers, discouraging efforts to unionise, or to advocate for better pay. Why should an accommodation within that system be seen as a success?

Palming off unlovable paid labour

'Choose to challenge' might just serve as a recognition of these realities. We can choose to challenge not only individual instances of sexist aggression, but the ambient social conditions that give rise to them, and the political systems that produce those conditions. We can remember that while individual middle-class white women may be “empowered” by their top jobs, their success depends on palming off unlovable unpaid labour onto poorly-paid women lower down the socio-economic spectrum. We can remember that the ability to choose, the ability to challenge is in itself a function of privilege.

There are still women who do not have the ability to advocate for themselves, they are not safe and they are not secure, and the conditions of their oppression make it impossible for their voices to be heard. There are also women who cannot help but challenge: whose very bodies are considered an offence to capitalist culture and its relentless demands to reproduce certain narrowly prescriptive values and embodied forms. Where these women's black bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies, fat bodies and poor bodies come into collision with capitalism, they are rendered dangerously vulnerable.

'Choose to challenge' is also about making space for each other; it is about celebrating each other in the face of a capitalist cultural narrative that turns us into competitors for attention and space. Yes, we are all different, but we are not special interest groups. We can extend our solidarity, a war-pact against all that besets us.

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Ode to Self

By Golnoosh Nour

We survived and survival breeds desire for more self. – Audre Lorde

I am that
the fatigued knight wading through the morning light
like Moses gaping the Nile

I am that
the black rose in winter, dead
butterflies dripping from my bruised petals.

I am it
The ‘it factor’, the cool factor minus, the cold factor plus, the hot
mess, the browned flesh, the queer crushed
by Authority, forever refusing to agree with anything
other than my own elegant violence, my
autumnal tendencies that I catch in the river of my mirror – the only truth teller

for I am that,
the breathing painting in the attic
the ‘darling’ collector
the cold sore in summer
the sore throat in spring
the allergy screeching at the skin.

I am it
the blue silk with a scarlet kernel,
wrapped in my gold cape, embroidered by thorns, I pounce
over the fence into the abyss to caress
my horns, and to plant myself in fertile soil, roots hard in the ground;
shaking off tornados from my trembling naked branches, I grow tall,
old, short, skyward, enamoured,
pure.

Dr Golnoosh Nour is a poet and writer, whose acclaimed debut collection of short stories The Ministry of Guidance was recently published by Muswell Press, and whose forthcoming collection of poetry, the mighty Rocksong, will be published by the 87 Press next year. Golnoosh has been widely published and platformed both in the UK and internationally, including on the BBC and Granta. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Bedfordshire and designs and hosts a monthly radio show called Queer Lit on Soho Radio Culture. For more info, visit her website: https://golnooshwriter.weebly.com/

 On fire

By Sarah Wedderburn

I am a house,
face painted
geisha white,
mouth a strip
of polished black.
How still I pose,
dark eyes steady.

I am a house &
do not stir
as wisps of
dove grey chiffon
gather at my throat
to charge a tiny orange circlet
round my head.

I am a house
with smouldering eyes
& when the feathers
rising on my coronet
preen into an orange spiral
rushing up the air,
I do not blink.

I am a house.
Observe as lightly
from my eyes
I free a flock of
orange birds
that dart & hover everywhere.
I feed them all—

I am a house.
How quick the flaming
feathers of my birds
flare up & fan into
the great plumed
orange headdress
of an Aztec queen.

Rushing gold
rolls over me.
The blue above writhes
with nests of orange snakes.
I am a house
& meet the roar of sirens,
calm.

My gown collapses
in a firefly storm.
Am I stately
in my gauzy
slip,
my corset
boned & black?

I stand and smoke,
mascara
running down my face,
my secrets buried
in a foot of ash.
I am a house, strong enough
for love & hate.

Sarah Wedderburn’s publishing credits include Magma, MsLexia, Oxford Poetry, PAIN, PN Review, Poems in Which and The New European. She studied English at Oxford, holds a Poetry School MA and works as an arts writer. In 2020 her work was included in Culture Matters’ Witches, Warriors, Workers, and in Yvonne Reddick's Poetry, Grief and Healing.

JB image 2

When beggars choose

By Clare Saponia

There were no more dolls for me
after that. Just the three I’d doodled
on in indelible ink to spice up their
foolproof lives, since Santa failed
to bear frills. You know the kind:
the most basic theme-free sort
of Sindy that no kid ever asks for
with karmic Barbie at large. I gave
them bras and brains and specs
as big as potted mince. They got
lippie and piercings, freckles and
fringes they never knew existed
in their microbastic cosmos –

though they never grew back. Just
got shorter and shittier in the dull
Sunday lull, where not even the
hair wax helped. There was no
Paul or Ken either to come, my
folks fearful of what I’d draft
on a shaved, sexless crotch, the
far-too-deft cosmetic surgeries
I’d undertake, callous as they get:
Hannibal Lecter meets organ
collector, I think they might have said.
So, I kept them for the dog, played
find and fetch (not that she fetched) –

and just pastels for me from then on.

Clare Saponia is a Berlin-based writer, poet, artist and linguist. She has written two published poetry collections:The Oranges of Revolution and Copyrighting War and other Business Sins, and is working on her fourth. Clare’s poetry has featured in various anthologies, including Witches, Warriors, Workers, Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State, and soon The Brown Envelope Book.

I was a woman today

By Jane Burn

and I was not afraid of weather/not of glittered hoar
scalding bloom from early cowslips/not of brisking air/
I shucked pillows from their catchpenny shams/tawdry-bright/
pegged them baggy with vaults of biting wind/rise your bellies/
bloat with painted flowers/fly, my chintz-beloved ghosts

and I was not afraid of dust/walked upon a Galilee
of lint like a saviour of filth /not of the stove’s ash/
I ridded it with flags of soapy cloth/here are the kitchen
miracles/the hob roars with valiant soup/welcome
to my church of scraped potatoes/spoon and eat

and I was not afraid of swans/lucky against my tired docility/
they filled their throats with elevated light/an epiphany of air/
I heard the peal of monumental wings/watched their passing over
of my tethered home/saw them earn the clemency of blue sky/
O send thy softly breasts to bright rivers/amen, amen

and I was not afraid of time/not of the dials divided eye/
saw myself through years of perished skin/through slackening/
I grew a child/despair of clothes around my drooping womb/the years
blot my face with wearied moths/grope around my smile/
take my pity of hands and salve their crackled plight

and I was not afraid of what I write/though paper shrieks
beneath my raging pen/though I must empty my head of flames/
a long story of blood/my own uneasy/slipshod tell of truth/
I offer all my burdens to a book/and scribble rivers/
I love you/here are the umpteen many words I have for pain

Jane Burn is a multi-award winning poet who lives an eco-friendly lifestyle in a wooden cottage in Northumberland. Her poems are all about her adoration of language and how it connects her to the many passions and parts of her life. She is working class, a wife, a mother, bisexual, a poet, an artist and maker. She has written lots of poetry books and is also a late-diagnosed autistic which has helped everything finally make sense. Her poems are published in many magazines and anthologies. She co-edited the Culture Matters Witches, Warriors, Workers women's poetry anthology with her bosom friend Fran Lock. She is currently doing an MA in Writing Poetry at Newcastle University. Her next collection, Be Feared, is due out in November from Nine Arches Press.

the world is so big

By Fran Lock

a whiskey light where you might melt to know me. it is never coming.
a city night, all dangerous and fragrant. it is never coming. culottes in
spring are never coming: pale calf consumed by their shy mulberry
swish. the january sales will not be coming. the gelatin resentments
of a friend in tennis shoes, who's tearing up and hates you. first-bliss,
the nice perhaps of a hand. no, no, no. they are not coming. the sacred
wood. it is not coming. the clerk who holds my mourner's gaze, replete
with passing. she is not coming. the great and glistening tropes of old
dead men will not be coming, underlined or otherwise. my vivid adult
self, as she frequents the red and white striped awnings. now she will
not come. there will be no mornings. i will not dress my doting gloom
in coffee: poet, savant of hysterical sympathy. i will sing neither my
plights nor my fauverie desires. at nineteen, i am sotto in a sauntering
kingdom. my berlin-bowie cheekbones are turned up to eleven. i am
quiet gone. the world is so big. i'm a bug on the windscreen of its wide
horizon. it is dying's slick art that drips from me. how a footballer's
wife drips diamonds. how a brown dog's mouth drips wet grass. i will
not get lost, in the catacombs of loose amusement, wandering. bleating
in a fitted sheet, where shame is the interval and the circuit. it won't
bother me. women, shining in the strict garments of their monday
hustle. glamour as a lump of shit shimmering with flies, as a prophet
of your choice in a beard of bees. i won't have to care. windows
that open onto nothing, my eyes. not a latte or a beach or the boozy
ridiculm of living. the world is big, but the dead are without edges.
the absolute obscenity of emptiness. to be cupped by nothing. air.

Charcoal Lover

By Julia Bell

If not you, then who? Is what you said,
when I asked you why you loved me,
as if I were a foregone conclusion.
Then who?

I thought about this for a long time,
and all your possible suitors.
What do I have that they do not?
How did I win this accidental competition?

And then when we were getting ready for bed, I realised,
that it is not my strange good looks, or my air of experience,
but my charcoal toothpaste that won you over.
Something that the gummy locals and their brilliant teeth
have known about for centuries.
A new way to repackage you to me,
not as an immigrant then, but a source of native wisdom.

When we brush our teeth with soot, we look insane, homeless.
Like the shopkeepers with their mouths stained from khat or betel juice,
or yellowed from all the tobacco.
We look like urchins, ready to run off into deserted, dusty houses,
like lovers; like what we are: burned residue of the stars.

Julia Bell is a Writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She has published three novels with Macmillan in the UK (Simon & Schuster in the US) and new book Radical Attention is now with Peninsula Press.

Jb image 3


Jejunum

By Pauline Sewards

Amy’s life – a closed orbit from Boston to Boston.
Born in Massachusetts, died in Lincolnshire.
The surgeon fixed her with his knife,
she suffered from ulcers and gastric pain

Born in Massachusetts, died in Lincolnshire.
Jejune means hollow; the intestine empty at death,
she suffered from ulcers and gastric pain,
after the operation her guts became infected.

Jejune means hollow; the intestine empty at death.
Was surgery her choice? Was she given options?
After the operation her guts became infected.
Common causes of ulcer: hunger, ethanol, stress.

Was surgery her choice? Was she given options?
The surgeon fixed her with his knife.
Common causes of ulcer: hunger, ethanol and stress
Amy’s life – a closed orbit from Boston to Boston.

Pauline Sewards is a Bristol-based poet and founder of the regular event in Easton called 'Satellite of Love'. Her first collection This is the Band was published by Burning Eye in 2018. Her latest collection, Spirograph was published by Burning Eye earlier this year.

On Priti Patel, Practical Solidarity, Poetry and Preservation
Saturday, 20 February 2021 15:20

On Priti Patel, Practical Solidarity, Poetry and Preservation

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock attacks the Government's policies towards asylum-seekers, Travellers, and Black Lives Matter protesters, and shows how poetry can be a site of solidarity, community, and challenge. Image above: Pigeon Proletariat, by Steev Burgess

I no longer hate Priti Patel. Wait, I'll unpack that statement: hate has an edge and an energy to it; you can do something with it, it's a fire you feed. I dread Priti Patel. I dread her like the weather, like a cyclone or a storm. I dread her like an earthquake, like a flood, as something inevitable and utterly exhausting; something that can neither be evaded or withstood. Each time Priti Patel appears on my screen, every time she opens her mouth a little more poison seeps into the world, and a little more light is leached out of it.

For instance, when she bragged last September about removing asylum seekers while targetting the legal teams who offered them support: 'Today we removed people who came here via small boats,' she tweeted:

They had previously claimed asylum elsewhere and had no legal right to be in the UK. Removals continue to be frustrated by activist lawyers, but I will not let up until this route is unviable.

As refugee charities were swift to point out in a letter to the Home Secretary:

Government rhetoric falsely suggests that asylum seekers’ travel routes can invalidate their claims for protection, and denounces lawyers for doing what the law requires of them.

Indeed. There are two things worth hammering home here: seeking asylum is not illegal. Anyone seeking protection is entitled to stay in the UK while awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. It makes no difference how they entered the country. The right to claim asylum is enshrined in international law. The second thing we should hold onto is that in the aftermath of Patel's inflammatory tweet solicitors at Duncan Lewis, a London law firm offering legal support for asylum seekers, were attacked by a knife-wielding racist.

During her tenure as Home Secretary Patel has been responsible for closing some of the last remaining safe and legal routes for asylum seekers into the country, and has refused to open new ones. She has also brought back banned refugee child detention by stealth. Last year the Government's own watchdog conducted unannounced inspections at a number of detention centres, where they found children locked up. In August last year the Home Office wrote to councils, incentivising them to carry out rushed age assessments on refugee children, offering money for legal challenges to individual age assessments. We have already seen the consequences of such actions, with children being sent to adult detention centres at catastrophic risk to their mental and physical well-being.  Again, the Government's own watchdog found conditions in these detention centres unsafe, and 'unfit' for human habitation.

the immigrant mother raises her sons for industry maxo vanko

The immigrant mother raises her sons for industry, by Maxo Vanko

COVID-19 is a boon for the likes of Patel: the virus acts as an invisible and invading enemy. It plays into English cultural narratives of stalwart isolationism; an island redoubt against hostile outsiders. The threat of contagion allows the Government to reposition human beings as disease vectors; to herd, detain, control, and deport them in the name of public health. The Tories are adept at recruiting the language and iconography of wartime Britain in order to present Coronavirus as a purely national crisis, one that can be withstood by means of exemplary British virtues such as fortitude, endurance, stoicism and sacrifice. By continually yoking those qualities to a nebulous notion of small-island nationhood the Government ensures that those persons not comfortably accommodated within their narrow conception of Britishness are excluded from the precincts of human consideration, are alien and suspect by default.

It's this attitude that led the Home Secretary, in August last year, to so much as fleetingly consider the idiotic, inhumane, and unworkable suggestion that asylum seekers be sent en masse to one of the South Atlantic islands. It is this attitude that led Patel to appoint a former Royal Marine to the role of 'clandestine Channel threat commander' and to call upon the Royal Navy to 'tackle' the growing number of small boats crossing into the UK. It is this attitude that has led, inexorably, to an increased military involvement in the detention and 'processing' of asylum seekers; that has led to the ongoing horror that is Napier Barracks in Folkestone.

napierbarracks2

Napier Barracks

The former barracks is the UK's first modern-day refugee camp. It differs from other detention centres because newly arrived asylum seekers are being sent there in large numbers before any determination on their status has been made. Conditions are abject, and during a global pandemic the health implications are dire. Meals are served communally, and, according to a recent Guardian article, up to twenty-eight people 'share a single sleeping area and two bathrooms, making social distancing impossible.'

A little more poison, a little less light. Patel and her twisted tribe cynically exploit the virus and the fear-of-the-other that it brings to justify their hard-line immigration and asylum policies, while ensuring the very persons and communities they blame for the pandemic are those left most vulnerable and at risk. Raising the Immigration Health Surcharge from £400 to £624, while simultaneously restricting access to most hospital services for migrants without visas or those whose claims for asylum have been denied, has created, in effect, a healthcare underclass. The Government's own equality impact assessment warned that the NHS charging programme could lead to discrimination against BAME people. But the risk was deemed 'acceptable'.

Other Lives Don’t Matter

There are those whose lives are deemed worthy of preservation and care by the current Tory Government. And there are those whose lives are not. Refugee lives do not matter. The majority of BAME lives do not matter. The lives of Travellers do not matter.

We know this because the Home Office consultation on criminalising trespass and increasing police powers against unauthorised encampments comes hard on the heels of a report exposing the enormous unmet need for pitches on public Traveller sites in England. According to the report, released by the leading national charity Friends, Families and Travellers, over 1696 households are currently on waiting lists for pitches on public sites. There are a meagre 59 permanent pitches and 42 transit pitches or halting sites available nationwide. The new laws mean that families living on unauthorised encampments could face fines, prison sentences, and removal from their homes, simply for having nowhere else to go.

The number of caravans deemed to constitute an unauthorised encampment has been reduced in number from six to two. Two. Police will direct these caravans from any site on which they have no permission to stay, even when there are no alternative stopping places. The right of British Ethnic Nomads to live in a caravan home is recognised by the European Court of Human Rights and protected in the UK courts under the Human Rights Act 1998. Yet the Tories do not care. Patel does not care. Her now infamous comments during an online meeting with Jewish leaders last September, branding Traveller families as inherently 'criminal and violent', are now well documented.

During the Tory clampdown in the early 1990s two thirds of traditional, informal halting sites for Travellers were sealed off. In 1994 the Criminal Justice Act repealed the duty of local authorities to provide official sites for Travellers. An obvious solution to unauthorised encampments would seem to be to return this statutory duty to provide sites. If nothing else it would seem to be the cheaper solution, demanding less enforcement and provoking fewer legal challenges. It would seem to make damage to public land less likely too: much of this happens due to deliberate obstacles being placed in the way of access points, and to a lack of public amenities at these unauthorised sites. Most importantly, it would protect one of our most vulnerable social groups, and allow Travellers and their families to access vital public services. But Patel doesn't care about that. Traveller people are yet another convenient Tory scapegoat. As the threat of eviction undermines the ability of Traveller communities to comply with Coronavirus regulations, many are asking themselves how long before the pandemic is utilised as an irresistible argument for forced assimilation, and the dispersal of communities?

Gypsy Kids

Traveller children. Image courtesy of Knickerbocker TV

Existing sites, whether privately run or managed by local authorities, are likely to be located close to motorways, major roads, refuse tips, industrial estates or sewage works: undesirable locations all, and damaging in unique ways to the health of the Travellers who live there. Ethnic Nomads in Britain die on average between seven and twenty years earlier than the rest of the population, and their health outcomes are significantly worse. A 2016 report sponsored by the National Inclusion Health Board noted that 66% of Gypsy, Roma Travellers had bad, very bad, or poor health; poor air quality, proximity to industrial sites, asthma and repeated chest infections in children and older people were noted in nearly half of all interviews. Health access has always been complicated and fraught for people living in Traveller communities. This has led to a lack of early diagnosis, resulting in poorly managed chronic conditions. COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory disease. This renders Travellers especially vulnerable.

A little less light, a little more poison. This evening Patel described the Black Lives Matter protests as 'dreadful'. Interrupted, and asked to clarify she claims that of course she's not against people's right to protest, just this specific protest, and the way in which it was conducted. This is a typical Tory manoeuvre: agree to fundamental human rights in principle, while stripping them away from us in practice. And of course the Home Secretary is bent out of shape about the toppling of statues: memorial emplacement isn't just about honouring the memory and legacy of individuals, it's about inscribing continuities of power onto public space. It is also about normalising those continuities of power, so that racism becomes an invisible and ambient feature of our cities, part of their cartography. We live with its traces every day, it's so pervasive and embedded we don't question it, we don't even notice. That's true power. It is your stamp on the architecture of the everyday: buildings, statues, street names. The Black Lives Matter protests in the UK rendered those power structures legible, and the black lives impacted by those power structures visible. The Tories, very obviously, don't want that.

For secure and sedentary communities history is written large across public space. Buildings capture the continuity of collective experience; they stage a shared cultural heritage. But for those without settlement, whose lives are transitory and provisional and leave no corresponding trace on the physical landscape, history, memory and suffering are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. Traveller histories, lost to dispersal and coerced assimilation. Refugee histories, fenced in behind barbed wire, billeted in grim buildings at the edge of public attention. Working-class histories priced out of presence. The same applies to queer histories, homeless histories, and BAME histories.

Coronavirus throws these reflections into sharper relief. Isolated from each other, we lose our sense of ourselves and our communities as visible and connected. As our worlds shrink, so our sense of solidarity and effective agency suffer. In the wake of COVID-19 comes austerity, and beyond austerity, gentrification. The global pandemic both exposes and exacerbates inequality, magnifying the already glaring disparities between those with enough and those barely scraping by. And 'when all this is over' where will we even go to grieve, to create, and to organise, when our communities are concreted over, our sites broken up, our squats torn down, our social housing sold off, our bars and dancehalls gentrified, our vital services pushed further to the margins, our districts socially cleansed. Where communities are decimated by Coronavirus, developers will move in. It is opportunistic, but it is also deliberate: a willed amnesia, an act of violence. BAME communities are disproportionally affected by Coronavirus. Working-class communities are disproportionately affected. How can those communities come together to resist and sustain when there is nowhere left for real communities to form? When we are isolated and scattered and kept apart, from each other, and from others.

Solidarity through poetry

In the face of this, the page can offer us a vital site of practical solidarity. What poetry can, and must be for us, is a place of counter-preservation. It is also a place where the choppy, difficult textures of our lives are registered in community with others. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: poetry at its best is not merely memorial but relational. It demands and bestows that deep sustained attention seldom afforded to us as citizens or subjects. It is the one territory still open to many of us.

The poems I want to share today confront the inequality that besets us head on. They lead us through cities and towns made hostile to our existence, and they wrestle with a language that is heavily implicated in our containment and erasure. These poems are about language, the way we're spoken to and talked about, and what happens to us, what capitalism does to us at the level of language: the jargon, cliché and tabloid slang we're obliged to think in and through; the way we come to think and talk about ourselves as a result. Here is the strike-through or the scoring out. Here is rupture and compression of syntax and of grammar: textual bodies crushed and maimed, as the living bodies of working people are also crushed and maimed, reduced to a punchline, to muttered and incoherent 'prole-whispers'.

In these pieces poetry wants both to signal and resist its incorporation inside of the system, inside of capitalism. The rhythms of working-class life are viscerally present in the text: against the relentless routinized scheduling of unloveable labour there is ever conceivable kind of disruption or incursion. This affects what is written, what is thought. The default for working-class life is not silence and space, and this translates onto the page in a variety of 'difficult' or innovative ways.

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

Unloveable labour, by Steev Burgess

We might say these are challenging poems. But 'challenging' is the entire point. These are not scenes of vague catharsis, but work sites: in a world not made for working-class people, not made for the marginal or the vulnerable, poetry provides a place to appropriate and repurpose language, to make it our own, to dismantle and subvert it. It is this reclaiming of language and renaming of experience that makes poetry a political act, an integral part and precursor to the real-world radical actions that are bound to follow.

Parliament House or Dung Heap                                               

By Cole Denyer

Like Today’s Story of the Shirt
a plateful of sundry wretches
in such a way that they could
only have endured it, but ask
on about villages?
                                                      Middlesex and Epping forest
                                        happy people like pilchards in bottom
                                               cask under cook the dome of sky,
                                              nothing is wasted nothing is spoilt
                                            bar frizz salver piss in a pot look on
                                                       or hang off spit and ill-blood
                                                       even if you have no property
                                                             by the nightshirt liniment
                                                                   yr enjoying the anon?
No actual mention of sausages, however.
Squabbling on a livelihood
I don't much care for beautiful
buildings run over with flowers,
Bastion builds flashing on and off
as ward-mote leads to Garden BridgeTM
bibbing in sun before looting scaffold goes up.
Dear Adrian Glasspool,
Last resident we cannot maintain ‘26 acres of land for one person’.
blood hooked
stack commuter sprawl in w/ broken            
statist one by one for flogging on out
down the metropolitan line
mortarboard tradition staggers
to a croupier fireside chewing
nothing much but embers
of prole-whispers

                                                              ROMEO Y JULIETA

                                                    Gives us bad chests solidarity

comrades signing off for lack
of cap touch to the very cleanest
of beautiful souls earldom starves the fiend
in modest deliberation;
a charred linnet buff burning for burnings sake
tend sideways for attrition of One Market
denominator pierrot on
true-hearted News Corp drawbridge it               simply is 
what shape our bananas have got to be,
and all that kind of thing or
a high-leviathan foisted arbitrage
like my gaffer's yonder;
I whiffle and pleat expert experts forming permalinks
In my head of Continentalist stanchions
to and fro in worry one handbook to another, belayed

On Argot

By Dom Hale

It is good to be inferior and appalling.
The countryside stinks of ancient money.
Petrol sings in the night. O reiver, what are you searching for
With that silver toothpick in your hand?
I look over my shoulder and the city sort of breaks.
The reader is usually an informant. Bewildering Pacific
Plagues attrition’s skies, the updraughts, a drunk broadening
In the infinite musical regression of these times.
Thus one of you must up the ante or become a pillarist.
Risky, true, and not in aid of an idiom cribbed for
Tepid summits or committees and the scenery’s group hug.
A nauseating civil servant, a devout tech worker,
Those bureaucratic cults hassling whatever ground
You suppose you might have left to trudge on. Embarrassing.

I’m retraining as a poet. As for the elect, the leaders
In their field, they only make the whole endeavour sound
Kind of like a Universal Credit meeting. So fucking strenuous.
The vilification of the lazy who, just think, might have
Something pivotal yet to communicate with them. Yes,
To be half-cut and full of spite is a delirium
We may afford ourselves, at least for the slipshod moment
When everything is recorded and means more, determinedly.
Are you decent yet? Further oracular warnings from SAGE.
The only wage is a dying wage. And I almost considered
Myself a balladeer. Imagine that. Eternal earache.

Well, thanks anyway for having us. At last
The opportunities are equal. Now what?
They were always aware this situ was icecap unbearable.
Still it seems a trust fund beneficiary actually counts as a person.
Budding aeronautics of the prolific jobless. Bruised
Coccyx and a will-o’-the-wisp glinting at the crossroads.
And music squats in me this weekend. Sum up:
Big deal. Crashing torrents. Signing in at once
I present my scarlet guitar to the administrative staff
With nothing else to declare, beleaguered on arrival,
Bustling inanely, fumbling about mortality. The point
Is to pick up the crayon and fill out the form. Don’t
Talk to me about constructive criticism.
Convert the life in fucking tatters. I’ve never been less torn.

Notes

Cole Denyer (1994) is an artist and writer based in the gut of class treachery and watching over his shoulder for every budding cop.

Dom Hale wrote Firewall (Distance No Object) and Scammer (the87press). Before the pandemic he helped to organise the Edinburgh reading series JUST NOT, and is currently co-editing the magazine LUDD GANG at poetshardshipfunduk.com. Civilian Lyrics is out from Veer in 2021.

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