Fran Lock writes about coping with the coronavirus crisis; resisting the material world; reading poetry slowly; and grieving, then rebelling.
‘Christ did not say you shall not be perturbed’, writes 14th century anchorite, Julian of Norwich, ‘but he said you shall overcome’. Together with Saint Silouan’s stern injunction to keep my mind ‘in Hell and despair not’, this has become a daily mental mantra.
In a sense it always was. To grow up in poverty is to be intimately acquainted with the workings of deferred gratification. How often have I fixed my sights on some speculative never-never? A victory, always imminent, yet one that has, after all these years, failed, in any meaningful sense, to materialise. We understand what it is to be ‘perturbed’. We understand what it is to tell ourselves over and over again that things will be better, that we will get through; to make a fetish of our own resilience, to wear putting up and making do like medals of honour, and to place our faith in a future that will not and cannot arrive for us.
I was running when it hit me: this is not what Julian meant. This is not what Christ meant either. What if perturbation, disturbance and distress were not merely to be endured or evaded, but met with: acknowledged and accommodated, mourned through? What if to ‘overcome’ was not simply to survive? What if we were not vainly and passively pinning our hopes on tomorrow and tomorrow, but anticipating praxis?
Coronavirus and the concomitant lockdown engender such reflections. Asceticism’s stock is rising, as people look to the past for ways of negotiating an unparalleled present. Because of my interest in Christian mysticism I find I am having a lot of conversations with friends and colleagues about the practice of religious seclusion, and what it can ‘teach’ us about dealing with our own contemporary experience of self-isolation. These conversations are occasionally illuminating, often hilarious, but mostly frustrating, because they stem from a botched reading of anchorism and a blindness to its radical social potential.
To begin with, the anchorites were not ‘recluses’ in the modern understanding of that word. They may have been walled up in cramped cells, but they were walled up in cells whose one tiny window faced the bustling thoroughfares of community life. They spoke with petitioners, granted indulgences, sat at the centre of a subtle and complex web of obligations. Anchorism isn’t about retreat from the world. It is, rather, a disciplined and dialectical renunciation of that world.
It is to live with a constant reminder of life’s pleasures; its temptations, its distractions, its endlessly proliferating structures of sin, its cruelties and its beauties both. It is to rededicate yourself each day to the act of turning away from those things. It is not a docile acceptance of privation, but an active embrace of this mode of life as spiritually preferable to its more worldly alternatives. My running gag in these matters is that anchorism’s lessons are not about coronavirus, but about capitalism.
We are all connected
This crisis has magnified the choices we make, has made them seem more meaningful, more loaded with consequence. They always were, of course, but people are awake to this now in ways they never were before. When washing your hands could literally save a life, we are dealing with a whole new metric of responsibility, sensitised to the ways our daily decisions impact upon others, their quality of life and their chances of survival. The anchorite mindset stays with this thought, travels the length of it to its logical conclusion: we are all connected. How we shop matters, how we vote matters, the language we use matters, where we bestow our time and our money matters, how we make that money matters.
To live in poverty is to have been ‘perturbed’ for a long time, and now we are living at a moment when personal responsibility and systemic inequality are in daily and violent collision. While the media is encouraged to castigate individuals for leaving the house in order to exercise, our Tory government use the unprecedented nature of this crisis to shield themselves from criticism over their consistent and politically motivated underfunding of the NHS, the deportation of key workers, and a handling of benefits so monumentally shambolic it left many of the country’s most vulnerable without vital resources.
But we shall overcome, which is not idly waiting for a return to ‘normal’, not a ‘riding it out’, but a resurrection, an act of radical transformation, inward at first, but ultimately outward looking and collective. Our suffering must be reckoned with; those who perpetrate and profit from it must be named and known. We must not forget. We must acknowledge too our own complicity. We must admit that we are implicated. We must choose, can choose, to turn away, in solidarity with others.
Resist the material world
These thoughts have been much on my mind of late. It’s Easter that does it, but it must also owe something to my current choice of reading. While I work on editing my own manuscript, and revise yet again for my serially delayed viva, I flit between the Taymouth Hours and Sean Bonney’s final book, Our Death. Neither is easy to navigate. That aside, it might seem that the two texts cannot possibly have anything in common. Superficially, this is true: Bonney’s book, upon first encounter, is a wild carnival of disorder, its language is the language of a weaponised debasement turned against the sinister machinery of capital.
Whereas the Taymouth Hours is a beautifully illuminated manuscript, a precious devotional object intended for use by a single elite reader. But then, I see the leering gremlin faces in the borders of that sacred text, and I realise there is in fact a profound kinship between these two works. The myriad grotesqueries that pepper the margins of medieval religious manuscripts are profane to a purpose: their presence poses a moral dilemma, they dramatise the encroachments and temptations of the material world, and require of their reader a determined choice, a conscious and deliberate reinvestment of attention in matters spiritual.
Bonney’s work similarly recruits the paraphernalia and jargons of capitalism. Everywhere they inundate and overwhelm, puncturing and pressing in upon human relations, insidious and implicating, stupefying and seducing. How to exist, yet alone resist, under such a sustained onslaught? This is one of the central questions Bonney’s work poses. The poems ask it of both their readers and their speakers alike.
These texts demand a level of nontrivial effort, require of their readers a singular commitment, an active resistance to the material world in its grossest aspects; its degradations, privations and soul-numbing assaults. But neither text ignores this world, they don’t gloss it or elide it; they don’t offer smug monolithic insights on how to accommodate its many barbarisms, its empty near-fatal banalities. There is no comfort here, and no catharsis, save for that which is derived from the act of resistance itself, from the act of saying ‘no’, from the development of a rigorous spiritual – for which we might also say political – autonomy.
Feel the pain
Reading Bonney’s work in particular reminds me that the anchorite’s injunction is also the artist’s: to be in the world, but to live within its rhythms at a tangent; we too are connected, we too offer prayers on behalf of our communities, whether they want us to or not.
One of the anchorite’s most important roles was to intercede for the deceased in Purgatory. This thought settled in my brain, not as I was reading Julian of Norwich, nor indeed Sean Bonney, but a short passage from radical feminist Andrea Dworkin.. ‘In her heart she is a mourner for those who have not survived.’ Dworkin writes. ‘In her soul she is a warrior for those who are now as she was then. In her life she is both celebrant and proof of women’s capacity and will to survive, to become, to act, to change self and society.’
Something about this quote still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. In common with many working-class women poets, I have often felt this act of ‘mourning’ to be integral to my practice. This ‘mourning’ is my intercession, this ‘mourning’ is my form of prayer. Only, perhaps I would not call it ‘mourning’. Perhaps I would say ‘grieving’, a making space for all that is recalcitrant and irreconcilable in loss; for a pain that will be not parlayed into consolation, that will not be assimilated, beautified, or eased.
I am not a great believer in a frictionless catharsis, in art or in life, and the notion of easy identification makes me, well, uneasy. I am not sure it’s poetry’s job to translate the pain of raw experience into some ideal of emotional expressiveness, to mould our abject losses into a readily accessible code of plain statement. I don’t select my themes to elicit an empathetic sigh from my audience. Catharsis is too much like absolution. It provides a release, it lets us off the hook. It doesn’t stay with pain, it doesn’t hold it to the light or force a confrontation. It won’t negotiate between the rage and hurt felt by an individual, and the radical collective engagement such an individual demands. It says a vague feeling of ‘empathy’ is enough. It cannot overcome.
These thoughts are with me often of late. Since the crisis began I have felt increasingly ostracised from poetry, and from the endlessly touted ‘bridge-building’ narrative espoused by creators and commentators alike: art should be about ‘connecting’ people, about ‘bringing people together’; it should ‘offer consolation’, provide a place of safety, invite a means of escape. I’ve been hearing ‘should’ a lot lately, and it shuts me out. It shuts out too all those whose art is incapable of comfort, who speak from a lived experience of grim disparity, from a place of anger, at odds with the world.
The pressure to churn out an endlessly uplifting torrent of content is enormous right now, and it instrumentalises creators in the worst possible way. Easy affirmation serves the aims of government because it folds the inequality and unfairness that are the substance of our lives into a textureless meld with the lives of others. It contributes to the illusion that we are ‘all in this together’, that corona – that capitalism – affects us all equally, which they manifestly do not.
Grieve first, then rebel
The virus has and will continue to exacerbate inequality. If the worst you are facing is boredom, you are lucky. If you have a garden, you are lucky. If you have more than one room with one window for you and your family, you are lucky. If you do not have to go outside and risk your health to work, you are lucky. If you can order your shopping online, you are lucky. If you are not confined with a violent partner, or an abusive parent, you are lucky. If you can access benefits, you are lucky. If you have no pre-existing mental-health conditions, you are lucky. If you are physically capable of taking a walk, you are lucky. If you have the tools to communicate digitally, you are lucky. If you live in an area where you are fortunate enough to have essential services within easy reach, you are enormously lucky. And if you have access to private healthcare, well.
The idea that coronavirus is some kind of ‘great leveller’ is, as others have recently pointed out, arrant nonsense. Both the virus and the government measures put in place to contain it are impacting, and will impact the poorest amongst us first and hardest. While overcrowding and poor housing raise the risk of infection, the rules regarding lockdown and the arbitrary way those rules are enforced, further the Tory project of containment and control. As recent – pre-coronavirus – legislation has shown, this is a project directed first against refugees and immigrants, then against Travellers, and then against all proletarian bodies attempting to occupy and traverse public space.
We exist in a political climate now, where NHS workers are being coerced into silence, or gagged, banned from speaking publicly about the dangerous conditions of their job: their overwork, their underfunding, their lack of access to vital PPE. Yet at the same time the general public are encouraged to ‘come together’, to stand on their doorsteps and applaud those same NHS workers, in organised, state-sanctioned displays of gratitude. We live in a cultural climate now, where social media has become a Panopticon of performative moral correctness: didn’t you clap? Why aren’t you clapping? Did you go outside more than once today? Aren’t you wearing a mask? You inhuman monster.
Under such circumstances, I don’t want to make peaceable art. I don’t want to ‘build bridges’ or ‘connect’ with people in ways that elide our differences, or pretend they don’t matter. Inequality isn’t a force of nature, it is an inherent and structural feature of capitalism. It is perpetrated by elites, and it privileges the few at the expense of the many. I am not writing for the few. I do not wish to ease their discomfort, or my own. Through obstacle, through difficulty, through something in the text that must be borne with and surmounted, I am trying to retune attention to suffering and injustice. I am resisting, saying ‘no’. More, I am lamenting, I am grieving. And this grief is the troublant but necessary precursor to praxis, to the revolutionary moment we are yearning for and need.
I am finding lockdown difficult. It isn’t the isolation, which under any circumstance I cherish as the rare and valuable root of my own creativity, it is the claustrophobia, and more than that, the feeling that I have nothing to offer or contribute. In lockdown my daily dilating sense of anxiety about the world, about my friends and family, sits awkwardly on top of a recent bereavement, the irreparable breakdown of a collaborative artistic partnership, and a series of crushing disillusionments with the academy and my place – as a working-class person – within it. This against the background any of us live with, the ambient static of precarity and threat that is the texture of working-class existence in Britain. I cannot make ‘positive’ art from this. My work is perturbed, distressed and distressing. But it is not abject. It is not without hope. That it takes place in the teeth of these feelings, these places, these times, is the hope. It both imagines and manifests a model of resistance. I keep Julian of Norwich and all of my anchorite foremothers in mind as I write.
Poetry is really the anchorite’s art: the reading of poetry both demands and facilitates the kind of slow, close investment of attention with which we should be approaching each other and the world; which we need in order to transform the experience of listening from a passive act of art imbibing into one of active and affective solidarity. Poetry says ‘stay with’. It doesn’t promise us comfort, but it rewards effort with insight.
We badly need this skill, to understand what besets us, and to parse the continual flow of suspect political discourse flooding across a variety of social media attack surfaces every damn day. Poetry is attentive to difference. It says ‘look’ and ‘look’ and ‘look again’. That’s what I want to read right now, work that makes a commitment to the muck of immediate history. That’s what I want to write, right now.
Expressing care for one another is important, healing is important. But healing isn’t agreeing to ignore pain. We can’t book-club our way out of crisis. We can’t cosy our way back to normal, especially not when normal, for so many of us, simply wasn’t good enough. And that’s not to say there is no room for positivity or beauty, of course there is: those Arcadias of the mind open up a utopian imaginary, a way of being otherwise, and they are so important. But we need testimony too, we need savage acts of rebarbative witnessing, we need to be made to feel uncomfortable.
And ‘community’, true ‘community’ isn’t only about mutual consolation, but is also about radical action. It is about asking what can I do, what can we do. I’m interested in how the literary communities coronavirus fosters move us from emotional support networks toward meaningful action, or at the very least, to applying critical pressure to power. There is endless hope in this vision also. This is what Christ might have meant. I think so anyway.
Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.