Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock is a poet, illustrator, and political activist. She has written several collections of poetry, the most recent being 'Muses and Bruises', published by Culture Matters.

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

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

Published in Poetry

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

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

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

Jane Burn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB BeFunky collagesx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Most good art is queer': Fran Lock interviews Golnoosh Nour
Friday, 27 March 2020 15:17

'Most good art is queer': Fran Lock interviews Golnoosh Nour

Published in Fiction

Fran Lock interviews Dr Golnoosh Nour, who was born in Tehran, about her new book, The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. Her debut poetry collection Sorrows of the Sun was published in 2017, and she teaches at Birkbeck College and the University of Bedfordshire. 

FL: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer these few questions about your debut collection of short stories, The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. I really wanted to do this interview with you because reading the book has initiated in me such a profound period of reflection on notions of queer subjectivity, politics, and nationhood, themes that feel especially relevant and pressing in the current climate.

GN: Thank you for having me, Fran. I’m delighted you found the book so engaging!

It has always seemed bizarre and slightly suspect to me that wherever in the world British or US political interventions are at their most militaristic, swingeing and destructive, we develop a directly proportionate appetite for the literature of those nations. We’ve seen this in Palestine, Afghanistan, in Northern Ireland, and I don’t know if you agree, but I think we’re starting to see it now in Iran. My own feeling is that there is a tendency within publishing, and also within the wider culture, to simultaneously exoticise and assimilate the places and peoples it fixates on. The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is such a nuanced book, one that seems to revel in ambivalence and ambiguity. I wonder how conscious you are of writing back against literary culture’s tendency to homogenise and make a fetish of Iran or of some seemingly ‘typical’ Iranian Experience?

Yes, you’re absolutely right, but unfortunately, this is nothing new. Hamid Dabashi and several other Iranian scholars have discussed this issue in depth; since America’s ‘war on terror’, there has been a significant rise in the publication of literature by Iranian women in the West, sometimes to international recognition and praise. These books are often memoir/ nonfiction, and they often have a formula that comfortably confirms the western right-wing narrative of Iran, in which everything Iranian is dreadful and problematic unlike everything western that is ideal and liberating. Farzaneh Milani has coined a term to define this literary subgenre as ‘hostage narrative’. A narrative which offers ‘arrested representations’ that are ‘caged images of reality that is perpetually moving and shifting’. Hostage narrative generalises and simplifies by portraying Iranian women as victims thereby dismissing their contributions to Iranian culture. So yes, I was very aware of this. And the other thing I noticed is that all the characters in these books are heteronormative. So, my book, I hope, is also a reaction against the heteronormative and monolithic portrayals of Iran and its sexualities. 

1 Nabeela Vega

From the series Visiting Thabab, by Nabeela Vega

As a kind of inelegant follow-on to the previous question: one of the joys of this collection is that through the varied subjectivities of your speakers you present an image of Iran, and also of queer identity that is characterised by multiplicity, polyphony and contradiction. How important was the short story form to you as a vehicle for exploring this diversity of voice and experience? And do you perhaps see radical or subversive potential in the short story form as genre? Is there something about it that makes it ideally suited for the transmission of queer narratives in particular?

As you know, the short story is not my favourite literary form. But for this specific book, I felt that it was the most suitable form. Because this book is about representation and I wanted to show as many Iranian queers in depth as possible. And I had many stories to tell about queerness, so I believe these thirteen short stories do the job perfectly well. But also, the famous definition that Sedgwick offers of queerness that queerness is an ‘open mesh of possibilities’ and I have to admit I feel the same way about short story as a form. In this sense, short story as an artform provides a comfortable cradle for queerness. 

To stay with the idea of queerness, would you mind speaking briefly about what the notion of queerness means to you, and where you see yourself in terms of building and contouring a modern queer canon?

One of the most wholesome definitions of queerness has been provided by Sarah Ahmed in her seminal book, Queer Phenomenology. She says anything that disrupts is queer and anyone practicing nonnormative sexualities is queer as they disrupt heteronormative structures. I myself identify as queer. And all my protagonists in The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories are queer. They express a lot of same sex desires, but also other desires that can’t be tamed, labelled, and defined by the mainstream discourses of sexuality. In his essay, Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future, Jonathan Kemp says queer is about ‘not simply imitating the norm but exploring alternatives’. And I think this is a great place to start. 

I think the queer canon has always existed, in fact, I believe most good art is queer. As for the modern queer canon, there are so many thrilling queer voices, including Saleem Haddad, Alan Hollinghurst, Danez Smith, Joelle Taylor, Ocean Vuong, Jay Bernard, Eileen Myles, Sophie Robinson, Jonathan Kemp, Tomasz Jerdowski, Paul Mendez, Chloe Caldwell, Keith Jarrett, Julia Bell, Jericho Brown, Richard Scott, and of course yourself, and we are just some of the contemporary ones. I think Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Forough Farrokhzad, and Iris Murdoch still count as modern queer canon, right? And then a bit further back we have artists like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. So, the queer canon is a never-ending and ever-expanding canon, an open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and I am floating in it too if I’m lucky. 

2 Alpha Beta Burqua by Parisa Parnian titled It is Complicated

It's Complicated, by Parisa Parnian

At the heart of queerness there is a condition or a feeling of otherness, of being ‘other’. Reading your collection, particularly the stories ‘Soho’ and ‘Oshima’, I am reminded that this is also the feeling that attends exile, the feeling that accompanies being a migrant or a refugee, a stranger in a strange land. I know you’re familiar with the Edward Said quote about exile, that it is ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted’. Your stories intertwine queerness and migrancy in intricate and moving ways, but even when your protagonists are speaking from their native place they often seem divided and estranged. Is there something of the perpetual exile in all of us queers?

Wow, this is such an interesting connection! I love it so much. I think you’re absolutely right in that there is definitely a sense of exile in queerness, especially considering that queerness by its very definition does result in otherness, and being otherised by the society; but partly, it is self-exile too, which isn’t necessarily a sorrowful place. I think there can be joy and strength in exile, in staying away from societal norms, to mock them, to push them away, to question them, to escape them. And to be proactive about it, rather than passively exiled.  So, although I agree with Said, that there is sorrow in exile, I also think there is hope and joy in it, too. 

Staying with this thought, I do want to stress that this is also a playful collection, full of humour and joy. One of the things that struck me particularly was its attention to moments of solidarity; mutual expressions of friendship and care. Queerness also figures in your work as a scene, a vibrant and nonconforming fellowship, and I wondered how the notion of a queer community – or communities – has shaped your identity as a writer, and conversely, how you think that literature has helped to foster the idea of queer community?

I’m incredibly grateful for the queer communities both in Tehran and in London, not just as a writer but as a nonconformist individual who still needs to survive the heteronormative societies. So, I do think we need communities for our survival and nourishment, at the same time I believe it’s important to know that community is not the only thing we need and it is not enough. Bear in mind, that communities, especially big ones, tend to create their own hierarchies and power structures. So, I think as queers, we also need a lot of solitude, self-love, and individuation. As the great Audre Lorde argues, for queers, especially queers of colour, caring for oneself is a ‘political act of warfare’. 

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Occupy Me: Topping from the Bottom, by Hushidar Mortezaie

Reading back through these questions it strikes me that they seem quite political in tone, and I find myself wanting to apologise for that because the luxury of not being political is something a number of your protagonists struggle with. I’m thinking particularly of ‘An Evening of Martyrdom’, and reading this story I had in mind something that the American poet Patricia Smith once said, that even if she were to write a poem about meadow flowers it would still be a political act by virtue of the fact that she is a working class black woman in an elite cultural space. Being queer in Iran – being queer in a lot of places – can have very real and very violent consequences, which I think makes it tempting for straight white western audiences to valorise being Iranian and queer as uniquely defiant or ‘brave’, which in itself is a form of violence, a form erasure, in that it ignores the daily negotiations individuals undertake – when to conceal, when to disclose – the oscillation between moments of defiance, and those of fear or of guilt for not being political enough. These tensions are something you handle admirably in your story, and that sense of yearning for a time and place where queer people will be granted the freedom to desire without being crudely politicised. I’d be interested to know if you believe this place and time exists – can ever exist, and how these tensions influence both your choices as a writer, and the way you feel your work is perceived out there in the world?

I agree with Jonathan Kemp that being queer is ‘inherently political’, so no unfortunately there is no escape from politics with capital P during these highly politicised times, where everything is inherently political and politicised, not just one’s sexual identity. There is still a lot of queerbashing in the world, and being queer is still one of the most political positions one can occupy. I’m a bit of an optimist, so I do think, if we keep fighting, there will be a time and place when people can honestly express their nonnormative sexual desires without being bashed or politicised. But at the moment, we have a long way to go. And that’s why, I believe, queer visibility is vital. And I hope I am creating a lot of queer visibility with my literary endeavours as well as by my very existence and day to day survival in an extremely conservative world. 

I want to move away from the explicitly queer aspects of your work now to focus on a theme I think is of equal weight and importance. Some of the most poignant and well realised moments in this collection are centred on familial relationships: cousins, brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, daughters and fathers. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about how your own sense of family has shaped your writing, both the short stories, and your poetry?

I am very close with my family, and I know very well how family dynamics can be beautiful but also intense and even destructive at times. I think I am lucky with my family, because I have a rather unconventional family. My late mother was a powerful philosophy professor from whom I learned how to be unapologetically strong and intellectually ambitious. And my father is an adoring and adorable person who is also a bit of an individualist who doesn’t care much for social conventions. He’s always enjoyed making jam and pickles, sewing, and maths. And I cherish my three siblings, and my amazing niece and nephew. My older brother is also a writer, so we have a nourishing writerly relationship as well as a loving siblinghood.

From an early age, I never really learned to take gender roles very seriously, even though I was born and raised in an extremely gendered country. I could see that my parents didn’t really abide by the usual gender norms and they were just fine and they didn’t try to suffocate my natural tendencies either. They never told me to ‘act like a girl’ or be a certain way because of my gender. For that alone, I shall always be grateful to them. And I think my lack of respect and sometimes acknowledgement of gender roles and gender norms come across quite strongly both in my personality and my writing. And this is just my blood-related family, my partner who is also a writer inspires me a lot, and we’ve fought a lot of homophobia and racism to be together. And as you know, these are also recurring themes in my work. 

I mention poetry because it is a constant presence in your stories, from Iranian modernist poets like Forough Farrokhzad to the decadent Romantics like Lord Byron. I feel like I know the answer to this question, but has poetry been a source of solidarity and nourishment for you as a writer? Has it been influential in fostering your own sense of queer identity?

You do know the answer indeed and it is, ‘yes!’. I cannot imagine my life without poetry. My own poetry and as well as other people’s poetry has definitely strengthened me both as a writer and an individual. Audre Lorde is right, for marginalised voices, poetry is a necessity. A method for reclaiming power, and for me it has also been cathartic and inspiring. Also, from a technical point of view, I believe, even prose writers need to learn poetry and read poetry even if they don’t have the desire or urge to write it. Poetry is where language can be at its most polished, its most beautiful, and its most revolutionary. I do not trust writers who say they have no interest in poetry. Poetry is an artform that needs to be understood and engaged with, even if not deployed, if one wants to be any good at literature. 

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bedoone onvan/untitled, by Kiyaan Abadan

Staying with poetry a bit, I’d like to finish – if you can possibly bear it – with a rather boring question about form.  Could you tell me about the role these different forms of writing perform for you, as both writer and reader? How does the process of creation differ across short stories and poetry? Are their things you can say in one, not easily accommodated by the other?

This is not a boring question at all! Quite the opposite. 

For me writing short stories and poetry are two very different modes of being. My poetry comes naturally, effortlessly, almost how Wordsworth defines it as a spontaneous overflow of emotion, except that for me there is no ‘tranquillity’ when I’m writing it. My poetry erupts, whereas that is not the case at all with my short stories. I meticulously plot my short stories before writing them. I have an idea, I know exactly what I want. I know the characters, the setting, the protagonist, even the dialogues. I have it all in my head first. Whereas with a poem, I have no idea where it’s taking me, a poem has its own force, direction, and destination, so I just go with it and I know it will take me somewhere cathartic, whereas with my short stories, I tell them exactly where to take me so I have a more active role with them. 

Thanks so much for talking to me! I hope that wasn’t too painful.

Thank you for your thought-provoking and intelligent questions. It was a pleasure to answer them. 

The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is published by Muswell Press and will be available to purchase here from the 2nd April.

Witches, Warriors and Workers: International Women's Day 2020
Saturday, 22 February 2020 19:43

Witches, Warriors and Workers: International Women's Day 2020

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces Witches, Warriors, Workers: An anthology of contemporary working women’s poetry, in the run-up to IWD on March 8th. The image above is by Fran's co-editor, Jane Burn; the images below are from creative commons and Steev Burgess. The book is being launched in Newcastle and London, see below for details.

A friend of mine asks about the title. And so I tell her: no act of naming is neutral. A name may confer status, or summon solidarity. It recruits a web of cultural and historical allusions which it draws upon to support and create meaning. A name is an intertextual fragment, gathering around itself a constellation of accretive associations. No act of naming is idle.

…In my street a family was kicked out of
their home for being Catholic, and every July a bonfire
would be built at the top of our street from wooden crates.
Everyone got drunk and the flames melted the windows…
- The Turning Point, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke (p. 22)

They call our survivalist pride, vanity…
- The Future is Queer, by Golnoosh Nour (p. 78)

Witches

When we say ‘Witch’ we invoke the spectres of Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards, hanged at Bideford in 1682, women who were elderly and indigent, a continuous and obtrusive presence in the streets or at the doors of local residents, begging for food, or for milk, or for alms. When we say ‘Witch’ we do so understanding that an accusation of witchcraft was a brutal mechanism of social cleansing throughout the 17th Century. And we express our sorority with our undesirable foresisters, condemned to die for being old and without resources or support.

IWD

When we say ‘Witch’ we acknowledge that ‘witch’ is a word that has been used to expunge the powerless, and to remove power from those who seem on the cusp of claiming it. Joan of Arc was tried as a witch. When we say ‘Witch’, we do not evoke some distant echo of white European history alone. Witchcraft is a present and pressing accusation, horribly alive in the so called witch-camps of Ghana; well documented in India, and in Saudi Arabia, where women have been convicted of witchcraft in the courts. In the last decade United Nations officials have reported a rise in women killed for witchcraft across the globe.

When we say ‘Witch’, we call to those for whom the word has become a rallying cry against the capitalist patriarchy, a secret source of power. We call out in imaginative transgression and material abjection. We know what is at stake when we say ‘Witch’.

The night they blew life into me, I clung
bat-like to the womb-wall. A girl golem…
- Girl Golem, by Rachael Clyne (p. 124)

Warriors

When we say ‘Warrior’ we do so in the spirit of women as radically different as Boudicca and Harriett Tubman. We do so conscious of the fact that what makes a warrior is not the damage they inflict, but the sorrows they endure. When we say ‘Warrior’, we draw upon a lineage of survival, of women finding strength in grief. Boudicca led the sacking of Colchester, St Albans and London following the rape and torture of her daughters. Tubman escaped slavery to rescue over seventy other enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. She was an armed scout in the Union Army, and in later years a prominent and articulate activist for women’s suffrage. History is thick with the stories of women violently dispossessed, who went on to accomplish astonishing things.

Ruses Suffragettes

suffragettes, by Steev Burgess

When we say ‘Warrior’, we understand how that word has been twisted and debased, held up as proof of a woman’s unnaturalness. Joan of Arc was a warrior, so Joan of Arc was not a real or legitimate woman. She was something uncanny, something extra. So when we say ‘Warrior’ we point not to acts of individual exceptionalism alone, but the ordinary struggles of women to exist, to persist, and to resist in the face of immense opposition. We do not conjure ‘Warrior’ as some two-dimensional fetish of omnicompetent bad-assery. We use ‘Warrior’ for the suffragettes and for the veterans of the Gateways Club, we use ‘Warrior’ for the weavers of Peterloo, we use ‘Warrior’ for the women at Greenham Common, and for the mothers of Grenfell holding power to account. We say ‘Warrior’ to acknowledge our own battles, those we hold in common, and those we face internally, alone. We say ‘Warrior’ because we understand that to live as women often requires of us a continuous re-dedication of enormous effort: to be heard, to be seen, to feed our families, to love, to grieve, and to carry on.

When there is talk of warriors
rarely do they mention the keepers of secrets
or how whole cities have been moved
under the cloak of night
what tiresome work it is
to carry lineage…
- Packing Two Gold Necklaces, by Hibaq Osman (p. 117)

Workers

When we say ‘Worker’ we hold up both the work that women do, and the work of being women. That is to say that living as a woman under the multiple oppressions of late-stage capitalism demands and extracts something particular from us, quite apart from our daily labour. To be a woman is to live beneath the objectifying gaze of an omniscient and omnipotent Other, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

This objectification is porous and all-pervasive, it begins in legislation – as political decisions – and filters down through culture; it exerts a constant pressure to conform to prescribed values and embodied forms. It is not enough that we are nurturing mothers, or brilliant scholars, or skilled craftswomen, or life-saving first responders, we must be so while strenuously performing someone else’s idea of what an ‘acceptable’ woman looks like, how an ‘acceptable’ woman behaves.

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

unloveable labour, by Steev Burgess

To be a woman is to live in a world where your own body is routinely enlisted against you by the patriarchy, where your body becomes an argument for its own subjugation; where what you can and can’t do, from economic opportunity, to your chances of survival, are directly related to your body’s capacity to be victimised, to menstruate, to gestate, and to reproduce. Wherever we come from, as women we carry this in common. Gender inequality is an inherent and structural feature of capitalism, which both demands and creates an economic underclass to harness as a source of domestic, sexual, and reproductive labour. It uses social coercion and cultural norms to trap us in subaltern roles. We negotiate this, every single day. This is work, invisible and unacknowledged.

…i was never more than when i was nothing. i was never i never
did all shhhh and no. i was a pen from melting. objectivity
teething on gobstopper lust i couldn’t give away but i gave it…
- every girl knows, by Amy Acre (p. 86)

As I am writing this, the full impact of sweeping Tory cuts to legal aid is still only just beginning to be felt by women who now find themselves trapped in abusive domestic situations through economic dependency on violent partners. And it will get worse. This current government is operating with a value system so bizarrely warped it does not trouble to distinguish between ‘unskilled’ and ‘poorly paid’ labour; its current immigration reforms systematically undervalue and decimate jobs traditionally held by women. Many women are already prevented from accessing paid work by the sheer weight of unpaid work — child and elder care for example — that successive governments have relied upon them to do. Women are more likely to work in sectors like home and senior care that are poorly compensated even though the skill levels of such women are high. Care work is not ‘low’ or ‘unskilled’, it is undervalued because eighty-percent of its workforce is female. Imposing the salary requirement on migrants would mean discriminating against women who preform difficult and vital work in Great Britain; it would also mean piling pressure upon non-migrant women to take on yet more unpaid care; restricting our collective movement to the detriment of all.

Sometimes on a Friday I work late,
padding the corridor like a forgotten queen,
the classrooms ragged and empty,
my filthy kingdom laid to waste.
- You can’t have weeping in a poem, by Katherine Ayres (p. 104)

‘Work’ is a vexed issue, and it intersects in fiendish ways with gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, health and age. For this and many other reasons, we believe this anthology is timely; it focuses on themes which reflect the texture and preoccupations of working women in contemporary Britain. It explores women’s complex relationship to the environment, to our families, to our bodies, and to each other. It does so particularly through the lens of labour, through the many modes of work – waged and unwaged, material and emotional – in which we all must engage.

The anthology features contributions by sixty-five women of all ages, working across a variety of poetic and artistic traditions. We offer it not as a manifesto, as some Grand Unified Theory of Women Workers’ Art, but as a network, and a conversation, a site and occasion for celebration and for grieving, a space in which questions are asked and thinking occurs.

You and I will hang our thoughts, each in our own place. And we will meet.
- Low pressure, by Sarah Wedderburn (p. 135)

Putting together the anthology has provided a rare opportunity to think about ‘work’, and how the dynamics of literary production in particular intersect in often awkward ways with dailiness. As we began with our contributors the process of pulling the book into shape, we gave not only our work, but portions of our lives: interactions and encouragements, conversations about what it meant to be ‘working’ as opposed to strictly ‘working-class’, what we shared and where we differed. In this way the anthology became a very practical mechanism for fostering solidarity; a sense emerged from this work of collective struggle and mutual achievement. None of us ever rise alone, but for many of us this anthology has enacted in a hundred small ways the sorority it dares to imagine.

This is a big thing, mighty. To acknowledge and to relate to each other first as creators feels powerful and important. It allows us to take the imaginative leap across all that divides us, while striving to uncover the hidden affinities that exist across our different lives. It is an inclusive expression of sisterhood, offering a vision of feminism that is porous, egalitarian, and mutually responsible. It is also a vision that accounts for us as creative practitioners, first and foremost.

Forgive my knots and maladies,
the litany of bad days.
And praise the sheepdog mind
that twitches awake
at two a.m. to round up
stray words into a pen…
- Our Lady of Malaise, by Joanne Key (p. 139)

We all face at some point in our lives precarity, exclusion, or simply the fight to define ourselves on our own terms. This pressured attention to life and language shines through the poems in a variety of ways. There are moments of hard-won lyric beauty, and there are moments of stress and rupture at the level of structure and syntax.

oh England thy fruit in the fields in the trees rotting thy work and pensions
pressed on borrowed time wrong word stollen sugar and butter this year
foreign merry christmas surge in spending drone takedown pray for us…
- form ever follows function, by Kimberly Campanello (p. 20)

The sharp end of capitalism and climate change

What each of the poems demonstrate in common is that our embodied experiences contour and texture our imaginative lives. To be a woman is to live at the sharp end of capitalism, the sharp end of climate change, the most extreme edges of sorrow and desire. This sharpness shapes us, and the poems prove that it is not merely something to be surmounted, but is often intimately connected to our springs of inventiveness, our fraught yet dexterous relationship with words, our intensity of perception.

The fire finds its own voice...
- Swaling on Boscathow, by Katrina Naomi (p. 44)

These poems are not confessions then, but testimony, which is an act of radical witnessing, to each other, with each other, to the world. They enumerate that which besets us, that which we are at the mercy of, but, more than this, they show how words can provide a path through these experiences, and toward each other. They do so with acuteness and with humour, with honesty, both savage and searching.

The speaker in ‘The Last Time I Got Hysterical in The Middle of The Night’ by Rosmary McLeish offers a frank account of what it’s like to ‘bear the unbearable,/ unthink the unthinkable’, to feel the ‘fear and rage’ of accommodating your own mortality within the ordinary intimacy of a well-worn relationship. In ‘Move Along Now’ by Maya Horton the reader is immediately disarmed by the question ‘What was it like to grow up in a cult?’ These stark vignettes frame the extraordinary within the everyday, proving in fact that the everyday is extraordinary, that we, as women, are extraordinary, and that in our variety and difference we have great strength, and much to teach each other.

This is, we believe, a generous book. Generous in its extent, and in its scope and intensity. We believe it makes space for lives, for histories, heritages, and experiences not commonly accounted for by contemporary poetry. We hope it makes some space for our readers too.

…thank you for listening. lay a wreath where the two roads pleat.
photocopy my photograph. return to me once a year. tell them a story.
make me live.
- poetry reading, by Joelle Taylor (p. 61)

Launches

The book is being launched in Newcastle and London. The Newcastle launch is on 7th March, at 1pm on 4th floor, Commercial Union House, Pilgrim St. NE1 6QE. Jane Burn and other contributors will be reading, it's free, and everyone is welcome. The London launch is on 14th March, at 1pm at the Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX. Jane Burn, Fran Lock and others will be reading, it's free, and everyone is welcome.

The launches will feature readings from some of the contributors, who are Maya Alberta-Horton, Amy Acre, Deborah Alma, Catherine Ayres , Julia Bell, Becky Bone, Alison Brackenbury, Jane Burn, Carole Bromley, Kimberly Campanello, Geraldine Clarkson, Jo Clement, Rachael Clyne, Jane Commane, Michelle Diaz, Imtiaz Dharker, Sarah Doyle, Nadia Drews, Cathy Dreyer, Carrie Etter, Sally Flint, Rosie Garland, Raine Geoghegan, Jackie Hagan, Nicki Heinen, Julie Hogg, Helen Ivory, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Lisa Kelly, Joanne Key, Laura Lawson, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Pippa Little, Fran Lock, Hannah Lowe, Kirsten Luckins, Char March, Lisa Matthews, Beth McDonough, AJ McKenna, Rosemary McLeish, Jessica Mookherjee, Kim Moore, Katrina Naomi, Golnoosh Nour, Hibaq Osman, Abigail Parry, Kathy Pimlott, Wendy Pratt, Lesley Quayle, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Clare Saponia, Jacqueline Saphra, Pauline Sewards, Clare Shaw, Natalie Shaw, Hannah Shelmerdine, Joelle Taylor, Angela Topping, Denni Turp, Serafina Vick, Julia Webb, and Sarah Wedderburn. Artworks inside the book are by Jane Burn, Fran Lock, Natalie Sirett, and Mary Lou Springstead.

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black friday
Saturday, 14 December 2019 09:27

black friday

Published in Poetry

black friday

by Fran Lock, with unlovable labour by Steev Burgess

 hours awake, the news begins
its lisping instrumental. incidental
music for a hunger strike. the tv's
bland incitements. johnson's mouth,
a gimmicked sleeve. dandelion
and atomised, we barely breathe.
hours awake. cities: slagheaps
of a mass extinction. burning
dirty crack-rock earth. we are
ready. for the end times, for
the paranoid mental event,
renouncing our passports.
the rich are padding out
their hollow boasts with glum
extravagance. phoney and vibrating
sky. women walk circuitous
lusts through the subtle legal dusk
in heels. shard. rain. cold hard cash.
no love so deep and pure as brand
loyalty. johnson, a funerary cuckoo,
a soundbite in a fright wig. we are
ready. the bodies of the poor are
batons of pulp. are strenuous meat.
the narcotised light that flows
upward over glass. high-tension
carnivores, bearing down. hours
awake, through the crypts of this
city like pestilence, like hazard
and insomnia, the shivery
international green of money.
to want the fat clam of the dark,
the faces of the addicts, toothless
and intent as mediaeval glass
blowers. to want the water.
johnson, falling like a stone,
through our conscience
and our wallet.

Joker: living without class-consciousness and solidarity
Monday, 28 October 2019 08:48

Joker: living without class-consciousness and solidarity

Published in Films

Fran Lock reviews Joker's treatment of violence, poverty, class, gender and race, and the way it subverts 'one of capitalism's most pernicious fictions'

If you want to get ahead in life, just go for it on your own. Facing obstacles? There’s nothing you can’t overcome and put right. You just need to put your mind to it and work harder.

This self-transcending narrative has to be one of Western capitalism’s most pernicious fictions. It’s everywhere. It permeates our literature, and saturates our film and television. It’s in every beloved underdog story, anywhere a protagonist achieves their dreams by dint of hard work, dedication and individual exceptionalism. In the realm of the self-transcending narrative the social forces that create and perpetuate financial and social disparity are obscured; “adversity” is only meaningful as it applies to a character’s personal struggle, as something to atomistically triumph over. Poverty, for example, is routinely depicted as a depoliticised force of nature, an obstacle the individual in poverty is responsible for overcoming. This elides the brutal truth: that poverty is a deliberately engineered system of economic exploitation, the overthrow of which demands radical, collective action.

Capitalism has no interest in acknowledging this fact. Instead, it uses cultural platforms to peddle the message that we can only transcend our circumstances through extraordinary individual effort. The results of this poisonous philosophy are three-fold.

First, that people in poverty are encouraged to view each other as competitors, a position which is toxic to all forms of affective solidarity, and which prevents us from coming together to organise against that which besets us. Second, the focus on individual accomplishment as the only viable route out of poverty recasts societal failures as personal ones, and this encourages the fatally misguided idea that those born into poverty persist in poverty because they are weak, lazy, or otherwise morally deficient. Finally, a worldview that enshrines individual transcendence at the expense of the collective valorises capitalism’s every selfish, acquisitive gambit, placing undue value on the signifiers of material wealth, indifferent to how, and at whose expense, that wealth was created.

In short, at the heart of the seemingly benign underdog genre lurks the insidious propaganda of late-stage capitalism. It’s a form of propaganda, I’m grateful to say, that Todd Phillips’ recent film, Joker, has zero tolerance for.

I’ve been to see Joker twice now, and I may very well go again. The film has a kind of feral poetry to it, and Phoenix’s performance as the titular character achieves, at moments, a species of gaunt, contorted eloquence that is both pathetic and viscerally frightening. These aspects of the film, however, are extensively covered in other reviews, so I would like, instead, to focus on some critically underexplored aspects of its politics and ethics. Specifically, I would like to address the film’s engagement with the self-transcending narrative, and what it has to say about our relationship, as both audience and as citizens, to the underdog genre in mainstream cinema.

Underdog stories......

In underdog stories the central plot is typically resolved in one of the following ways. Firstly, the central protagonist achieves self-actualisation through romantic intimacy. In this version of the narrative, the character may still be living in straitened circumstances, but thanks to a deep, personal connection with another human being is able to transform their own outlook, embracing and valuing what they have, and accepting the world around them. This plot is the staple of romantic comedies and so called chick flicks.

Secondly, through dedication and hard-work and after years of struggle, the central protagonist succeeds in their area of endeavour, finally having earned the validation and respect of their peers. This is the stuff of myriad sports genre films, often “based on a true story” however selectively, such as Ron Howard’s 2005 Cinderella Man, or Bennett Miller’s 20011 Moneyball, but it also appears with frequency in spurious rags to riches biopics of various celebrities.

Thirdly, through the recognition or surprise intervention of an individual who embodies all the characteristics the central protagonist aspires to, the character is given the chance to prove themselves and shine in their chosen field. My Fair Lady is probably the most famous cinematic example of this model, but we’re probably most familiar with it from reality television shows such as the ever-nauseating X Factor, Pop Idol, or The Voice, where hopeful amateurs compete before a panel of washed up pop singers who presumable embody the kind of fame and success the competitors are striving for.

Fourthly, a miracle occurs, the unlikely or surprising “big break” that catapults the character from obscurity and into the well-deserved limelight. This particular form of resolution is often referred to as a Deus Ex Machina; the audience are meant to understand this miraculous good fortune not as a stroke of luck, but as somehow fated or pre-ordained, a further proof of the character’s inherent exceptionalism. Danny Boyle’s well-intentioned though ultimately problematic 2008 Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the most well-known example of this form of resolution.

Each of these plots encourage a form of easy identification in their audience, a palliative to the hardships of their own lives; a vague dream that things could be different if only: if only I could find “the one”, if only I worked harder, if only I got my “big break”, if only my talent were recognised, etc. None of these plots significantly challenge the social status quo, or offer any serious analysis of the conditions that create inequality and social stagnation. The romantic intimacy resolution places the responsibility for change squarely in the domestic and personal realm, leaving the political sphere untouched.

The resolution through continuous effort enshrines the capitalist work ethic without acknowledging the unequal demands of the labour market on the poorest amongst us, or the chronic lack of opportunity and access for talented people in poverty.

The resolution through intervention ignores in the first place, the bald unlikelihood of such an intervention, and places the burden of transformation on individual acts of patronage, not radical political reorganisation. This model also puts the central protagonist in a subordinate position to their patron, constantly competing and performing in order to “earn” their condescension.

Finally, the miracle model is a beguiling fiction that removes change from the arena of human intervention altogether, offering instead an ill-defined dream of transcendence.

.....are another site of rejection

Joker takes a sledgehammer to all of these promised resolutions in turn, transforming each scene of self-actualisation into a site of further disillusionment, rejection and debasement. As Arthur Fleck, the character must acknowledge that the one connection he was able to forge with another person existed only in his mind, that his hard work and effort earned him nothing but mass derision, that the person who best exemplifies the healthy functioning of the self-transcending narrative (Thomas Wayne) not only fails to recognise his worth, but also his basic humanity; that this person is, in fact, repulsed by him. Finally, Arthur’s big break, his Deus Ex Machina moment, is revealed to be nothing but a cynical manipulative exercise, as a TV talk show host courts controversy and chases ratings.

joker 4

There is no resolution, the film seems to tell us, there is no rising above, there is no way out. This sense of the inescapable pervades the film. It’s in everything from the narrow, litter-strewn streets, the shabby, over-crowded apartment building in which Arthur ekes out his days. It’s in the grim municipality of official buildings. It’s even in the repressed and awkward way that Arthur holds a pen, the laborious motions he makes as he writes and moves, the pent-up, nervous tension with which he inhabits his own skin. Strenuous effort is inscribed across every available surface of this film. The physical exertions and exhaustions the characters are put through –climbing steep, slippery staircases, running in clumsy, ill-fitting clown shoes –  mirrors the daily psychological struggle to exist in extreme poverty, to fight against your own erasure and annihilation.

Claustrophobic poverty

Indeed, there is something familiarly claustrophobic about the Gotham of Joker. Everything is cramped, circumscribed and precarious: landscapes, internal and external, movements, pleasures, interactions. It’s troublingly resonant to anyone who has negotiated poverty and the systems that administer you in that poverty.

Two vignettes in particular stand out as being particularly well-realised in this regard. The first is Arthur’s court-mandated conversations with his social worker: the office in which these meetings takes place are small and crowded, bringing the pair uncomfortably close without ever engendering any sense of human intimacy. The whole room is hedged in and crowded out with the apparatus of bureaucracy, even the chairs look purposefully uncomfortable. Arthur’s social worker is palpably exhausted, weary and wary in equal measure. You have the sense from Sharon Washington’s tense yet understated performance of a once-caring person burnt out and overwhelmed by the scale of the problems facing her. Everything she says and does is hemmed in, tightly controlled by official rhetorics to the point of impotence.

At one point she asks him if it helps, having meetings with her, having someone to talk to, and the pathos is gut-wrenching: as if anything taking place in that grimy, underfunded box could be described as genuine conversation. Later, when Arthur tells her she has never listened to him she counters with “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they don’t give a shit about people like me either.” And in that line is reflected an entire dismal history of mental illness and low-income violence; the way in which it rebounds so often on those with whom the perpetrators should feel the stirrings of solidarity.

Washington’s character, in that moment, realises something that Phoenix’s does not, that the power elites that govern both their lives regard neither one of them as fully human. She looks beaten and sad as she says it. A black woman trapped in a city that wants to crush her, that is indifferent to her on a fatal scale every single day. It is one of the film’s most haunting moments.

joker sharon

The second memorable vignette takes place between Arthur and his boss. Arthur is being disciplined for “skipping out” on work, only he didn’t skip out, he was mugged and beaten by a group of teenagers. Arthur protests his innocence, yet his boss elects not to believe him. Why would teenagers steal a “going out of business” sign? He claims it isn’t credible and demands Arthur replace the sign immediately, or else the money will be deducted from his already scant wages. Why would I steal a sign? asks Arthur, desperately. I don’t know, replies his boss, why does anybody do anything? The logic at play is Kafkaesque: Arthur’s boss is perfectly happy to ascribe arbitrary, nonsensical motives to Arthur, yet won’t countenance the same from a group of random teenagers. Phoenix stands there shaking in dependent, impotent frustration. Any member of the modern precariat can identify with this scene, and the endlessly rolling sock of casual cruelties and minor injustices it represents.

Yet Arthur is hardly a figure of easy identification. Seeing the world through Arthur’s eyes is an uncomfortable experience. His daily interactions are abjectly grinding, serving to shave out any last scrap of good in him. This is worthy of pity, yet Arthur’s responses to the world around him are also underscored by a disturbing narcissism. “I have felt invisible my whole life” he tells his social worker, a black woman who must contend with a million different registers and levels of invisibility daily.

In another scene, Arthur is pulling faces at a child on a bus. The child is laughing and Arthur clearly meant no harm, but the child’s mother snatches her son away, reprimanding Arthur for bothering her child. Because we, the audience, see through Arthur’s eyes, this interaction seems harsh and unfair, but in Gotham city, or its real-world equivalents, might not the ambient threat with which that mother and child live their daily lives have caused her to react, not out of unkindness, but genuine fear? During the era the film is set the Atlanta child murders were also taking place, and black families were confronting each day the terrible truth that their children were basically expendable in the eyes of the law.

Living without class-consciousness or solidarity

Towards the climax of the film it is heavily implied that Arthur’s response to the realisation his one human connection was a hallucinatory figment is to murder the object of his fantasy, and possibly her child (ably played by Zazie Beets and Rocco Luna respectively). Phillips doesn’t show these deaths, or the death of Arthur’s psychiatrist in the penultimate scene, choosing instead to signal this murder with a trail of bloody footprints as Arthur/Joker dances down the hospital corridor to That’s Life by Frank Sinatra.

Joker hospital

This is disturbing in a number of ways. It’s disturbing because the climax of the film we are all waiting for, the transformation from Arthur into Joker that we were willing to take place, is born off the backs of these murdered women. Their deaths sit uneasily beside the shooting of the classist Wall Street chauvinists on the train, the point blank rage with which de Niro’s shallow ‘Murray’ is dispatched, or the Wayne family paying for Thomas Wayne’s fatal hubris with their lives. These deaths have cathartic power; they are extreme and exaggerated examples of Gotham’s twisted justice. They are public deaths, reacted to with shock both within the context of the film and within the confines of the theatre alike. The deaths of the film’s black women aren’t even shown; these characters figure as both real (in terms of the narrative) and cinematic collateral. This should make us feel deeply uneasy.

None of which is to say that Joker is a “bad” or lesser film for provoking this unease. Whether Phillips specifically intended his film to raise questions about the intersections of violence, poverty, gender and race is almost beside the point; these questions are a timely and significant aspect of the film, part of its text and texture, and ours: we view it in a racially divided world, through a racially sensitised lens. It’s unavoidable, and actually, it’s salutary. The film isn’t explicitly about race, it’s about class, but any serious meditation on this axis of oppression will inevitably intersect with others. Joker shows, I think how these forms of oppression collide and skew with tragic results.

I came away from my second watching of this film thinking that its central tragedy is the sheer embeddedness of the self-transcending narrative in society; how this hideous creed, wedded in America to a fiercely nationalistic script, inoculates against empathy. Arthur is isolated, ostracised and alone because Gotham, on a systemic level, doesn’t care about him. He is shunned and abused, his labour exploited, by a seemingly endless parade of individuals who have bought, wholesale, into vampire capitalism’s social Darwinist crap.

Yet Arthur is also isolated by his own lack of empathy, by his inability to recognise the deliberate and structural nature of the inequalities that beset him, to see himself as part of a whole.  During his live TV interview with De Niro's ‘Murray’ Joker states more than once that he isn’t political, and this is the perhaps the saddest thing of all. His actions, in shooting the wealthy dickheads on the subway, appear to have started a movement, summoned and mobilised a powerful, dissenting ‘we’, yet most of the crowd, and Joker himself, are not engaged in any kind of collective resistance, but a directionless howl of rage and pain, emanating from shattered subjectivities and innumerable private hells.

By the end of the film, Arthur has become the Joker. He has been transformed into Gotham’s best beloved villain, the villain he was always destined to be. And that’s what self-transcendence looks like for Arthur, the steady metamorphosis of a sad unstable man into a psychotically homicidal clown. In this way Phillips’ vision of Gotham takes to cartoonish extremes the very real consequences of living without care, without hope, without class-consciousness or solidarity.

Canticle of the Sun: for the Feast of St. Francis
Friday, 04 October 2019 14:21

Canticle of the Sun: for the Feast of St. Francis

Published in Poetry

Canticle of the Sun

for the feast of St. Francis, 4 October

by Fran Lock

And what if we should feel like singing? Lift
our undefended faces to the light, and catch
a discredited tongue, gold and fleet in upper air.

Hey, you up there! To you a reeling blessing;
love’s honeyed physic, faith and laud. You’re
not a name as such: two stones struck to speech
in fire, white bird wheeling in a dance against
gravity; trampled cranesbill pushing back
in public parks.

We see you. Brother Sun, who wakes the city
window boxes all unkempt. Small green spaces,
roused and then beguiled by turns, the hedges
fitfully splendored, and dogs! in the gilded
tousle of their morning run, are bright with you.

We see you. Sister Moon, the night-streets,
formidable with phantoms, suddenly silvered.
The moody precariat stilled, turning to each other
like careful strangers, spellbound, spilling softened
breath.

We see you. Brother storm, in cattails, contrails,
any thin thing whipped to life. Resuscitate with
weightlessness our wastrel spaces, fly-tipped margins.
A carrier bag caught in grasping branches ciphers
an eloquent ghost.

Hey, you up there, I feel you move against
the awful formal violence of the world
and its experiments. I feel you move against
its agonies of evidence, convictions, symptoms,
lairy fates. I cup the ruthless cold: water from
the bathroom tap, and know we’re not abandoned;

I watch the cooker flexing its fire,
a petiole swell to incandescence,
and I know we are not abandoned.

Hey, you up there! When that soft-boiled grotesque
in a salesman’s tie tells us anything lucrative is holy,
I feel you move. Not some tremulous silken ethic, but
sturdy and avenging.

Hey, for the root, the bulb, the branch.
For anything we turn or tend, or tread
to raging thirst. Today we feel like singing:
a hymn, the Internationale, a tuneless
spirited croaking as I scrub black mould
from the walls.

Hey, for the wakefulness that keeps us
extending a hand, filling a thermos, arming
ourselves against the dark dividing.

Singing. Our dead are turning two pages
at once, racing away. And yet, today they
are with us. Suffering, rejoicing, they flower
and flow.

Hey, you up there! It’s not the comfort we take,
but the comfort we bestow. This song you have
taught us. Now we step outside to make it grow.

National Poetry Day: Homobonus in Primark
Wednesday, 02 October 2019 10:41

National Poetry Day: Homobonus in Primark

Published in Poetry

Homobonus in Primark

by Fran Lock

where will it end? the long-sleeve t-shirts
sleep, all folded over themselves like bats.
black lycra’s pirate sinew stretched to slack.
and tubes of ruined wool relax and lose
their shape. sleeves wear the gape of empty
snakes. disfigured fabrics frayed in heaps.
a woman shaking out the prissy ghosts
of a summer blouses, snagged on a hanger’s
embittered caress. for two pound ten! each
pleat a gauntlet of skirmished thread, rough to
the touch. it costs so little! the woman said.
impossible pasture of rags, dear god! it costs
so very much. where will it end? i stroke
the mesh, the weft, the weave, from cheviot to
chiffon-cling. grope a glut of sturdy twills.
my hands surge out across an odyssey
of cotton, serge. and batiste gowns are
grown in rows like off-white heads of
lettuce. crisp and sleek. and underfoot,
the scattered wits of covered buttons. look!
it’s in the sale! adrenaline and penny pinch.
cash canters horselessly between the heels.
hemlines. oh, i have loved the crushes
and the calicos, the way a seam will meet
like steadfast hands in payer. i have loved
the self-important bombazines and obsolete
brocades, stood in satin-transfix running
a bolt of blue charmeuse through my hands
like a live fish. but no, not like this. not
this way. the woman who sewed this dress,
her lungs are dressed in dust, disease.
her shoulders cramped askew. not like this,
a child in a stocking of sweat with eyes
as dull and flat as coins, his name a smudge
on a hot-wash label. the day that factory
became a dirt red funnel for human
grief. it’s just so cheap, dirt cheap!
your cambrics, buckrams heresies.
and what’s it worth, a life?
assiduous stitches, tucked and running.
in lame. gold is interwoven – secret
vein through common cloth. as pain
pursues its jagged course, in every
shirt you smooth and touch. i’ll tear
these strips. they cost so much.

The image is by Steev Burgess, who has made brilliant collages to go with Fran's poems in Raptures and Captures, available here

National Poetry Day: Raptures and Captures
Wednesday, 02 October 2019 09:03

National Poetry Day: Raptures and Captures

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces Raptures and Captures, her latest book of poetry, which follows on from Muses and Bruises and Ruses and Fuses

‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not.’ It’s a stern injunction. It is also a radical one. Saint Silouan, we’re told, struggled against demons. Specifically, he struggled against the demon of despair, against a feeling of abandonment, an absence of God’s grace. And so God spoke to Saint Silouan, gave him this electrifying ascetical credo, this moral imperative toward humility and hope.

Just think about that for a minute. Not the genesis of the idea, but the idea itself. It’s also Gramsci’s exhortation, to hold always to the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ and the ‘optimism of the will.’ It’s asking us to live in the world as it is, not as we would have it; to sustain a mood of vulnerable and sceptical questioning, even when the truth is bruising. It means a stalwart refusal to abdicate responsibility; to acknowledge our own implicatedness in all that besets us. It means not isolating ourselves in the self-protective echo-chambers of social media. It means seeing the worst and believing in better.

As I said, a stern injunction. It’s an injunction I wrestle with every day. Mental illness is a fucker. It doesn’t offer much by way of escape or sustenance. There are days I feel abandoned too, an abject absence of hope or love. Under such conditions it’s hard to preserve faith, political or personal. I look at the world sometimes, and I find it almost impossible to accept it or be reconciled with it. People are cruel, complacent, bigoted; the planet is perishing, culture is eroding.

I withdraw into myself, afloat in the black amniotic of depression. I forget who I am, my responsibilities, my affinities, to the people and things I believe in and love. And I can’t do one single sodding thing about those feelings. It’s the way I’m wired, the vexed result of everything that makes a life. I can’t change how I feel, but I don’t have to accept those feelings as absolute reality. I can remind myself that I am not my worst day. I can know, even if I can’t perceive it, that goodness exists. That there are things worth fighting for, moments of perseverance, triumph, joy.

I cannot do that alone. Nobody can. And that’s the thought this book emerged from. This isn’t a religious book. It’s not properly a Christian book, or even a Christian-Communist one, although that’s the soil its roots are firmly planted in. It’s about the need within all of us for communities, stories, solidarities – for something greater than ourselves. This book isn’t asking you to believe in the saints as figures with magical properties and powers, that’s not what’s being presented here. The figures in these poems are all struggling, in one way or another, with demons. They need a portion of transformative magic in order to survive.

Some of these poems are exhortations and prayers; others subject the lives of saints to the distorting stresses of modernity. In many of the pieces the speaker embodies both the legend of the saint, and the desperate, urgent needs of those who fall under their patronage. This is deliberate. The saints are compelling precisely because they are people, human beings with the same frailties and failings as any of us. And yet they are people whose radical example, whose deeds and teachings, rise above those failings to accomplish marvels. Tory Britain in the last decade has been a terrible place and time to be poor. More than ever we’ve needed those examples, those marvels. And more than ever we have needed to remember we are capable of being them.

‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not’. The speakers in these poems rise from or confront their several Hells, which are also ours. They do so, I hope, with an equal mixture of anger and compassion, sensitised, always, to the human cost of our morally compromised pleasures, our conveniences, our progress.

Saint Homobonus is openly weeping in Primark, tearing fabric into strips with his bare hands, less in protest than in sheer incredulity at the degree of moral disconnect required to accept a world in which a factory worker’s life is considered a fair swap for a shitty two quid t-shirt.

Saint Sebastian follows with sadness and infinite sympathy a teenage rent-boy in Soho, a figure whose swaggering sense of agency has masked the exploitation he is subject to. The saints appear at all our scenes of selective deafness, willed inertia, ethical amnesia: anywhere that people choose the path of least resistance. They appear to retune our attention toward the suffering of others, and they appear so that we who suffer know that we do not do so alone.

There’s a good ol’ lefty commonplace about prayer: that it’s a way of absolving yourself of responsibility without actually having to do anything. It’s an argument, I guess. But the prayers these poems incarnate are not prayers as daydreams or vague best-wishes, they’re prayers as places of testimony, they’re prayers as angry witnessing to pain, prayers as rallying calls and clarion cries. They are sites and occasions for protest. In prayer we coalesce around the common struggle. We listen and are listened to. We remember each other.

More than anything else, I see the speakers in these poems not merely as speakers, but as listeners. They understand that people deserve and are capable of better; that there is great courage, love and kindness in the most unlikely of us. The poems want to offer this space of solidarity. A communion. A communism.

Raptures and Captures is available here.

 

 

Unloveable labour
Thursday, 26 September 2019 20:55

National Poetry Day: Glomar

Published in Poetry

Glomar

by Fran Lock

i

the city comes in waves. poor worker bee, it’s clinical now, an ideal doom, the sleepy grief of airports. tried to stay in motion. walk around, not-shopping. coffee. millimetric sips. is slow embalming, boils the tongue, both fidgety and numb. carousels and carousels and paperbacks. our structures of exchange and riot. rid the mind of unclean mischief, repertoire of ecstasies. not happy-happy, groomed and sated. airport. peoples temple. church and heaven. perfume counter girls, the folded arms of coptic icons. shoppers' paradise. here, baristas breathe their icy birthright, bitchin’ it. to be here. wintering. in a neo-conservative tedium. on purpose and forever. infringement or infraction. to be profiled and filed, trafficked in and captured. movements mapped. the vector and the spread. infection has a human face. no languages, but currencies. coffee. paid for with plastic. visa. flag of my failed state. declined. do brexit at each other. arid commercial succour sold by the kilo. airport. initial rays of morning make great beauty. petrol sky, a gilded endangerment. ozone, enriched on the ruin of itself. and by the plate glass, a singular unsettling. not happy-happy. wired. this counterfeit community. commodity and contract. smiling. like a turd emoji. the shit that eats its shit. hide the newspapers, in an act of obscure mercy. the city comes in waves of blank contagion. the savage urban neutral. garbled demotic of crusade and porn. see a child’s eye, all glint and pique. her suckling severity. strategically bored. lovers. in the scare-quotes of a dead embrace. this tactical enfoldment. is foreplay for purchase. city comes. is scanned and graphed. into white, symmetrical territories. fountains. kiosks. plaza, vacant and fabulous. an ad hoc model of itself. stand in line. refracted, figured, figured out, prefigured, faked, a snake of faces. terraforming long-haul mouths to o. contend the bobbing dark behind your eyes. walk. squealing protein. the pompous loins of women with functioning wombs. seek consolation, scrolling. screens. this teleprompted blonde talks epoch into tundra. purring and viable, preens her sanitary plumage. rolls phonetic mess from the dirty atlas of our loss. walk disgusted round. coy chiffons. pelts and hides. cath kidson. bitter women paid in scent. expensive predilections. hired to service some frictionless lust in kitten heels. security. he wears his menace like a rented tux, obedient yet cynical. some people are below contempt. look up. the day’s events spread thin across a convex lens. stiff. a very dignified fear. the wretchedness we crane to catch. open-mouthed. to eat. an omasum, this eye. big fellah talking horseshit. dead poliss. the terror. these architects of tumult. shoot to kill, your target demographic. data-mined with a sniper’s touch. capital, this vapour is the stain of her singing. airport. they said, all you hip young things. they said. to shop instead of grieving. they said, we’ll tell you a story. raising a rash political beauty.

ii

 stepped outside and felt the austerities quicken. gridlocked and staring with fixity. all our futures: flammable, avenging. i didn’t know what to say. buy coldbrew, condense an irrational sweat in taxies. bliss is a beige paste sucked through a straw. welcome home, her tollbooths and drawbridges are down. i didn’t know. saw the banners first. and every bed sheet summons an echo of the flag. and your father’s face. how they folded out the light along its creases. became a parcel of tight want. everywhere, the orgiastic soundbite. hope and glory fumbled through a tannoy. the trial. the process. injunctions to vigilance. allegation, prohibition. and someone said beggars operate in this area. brains. mortgaged and foreshortened, nodding sagely into iphone, macchiato, a cup held out for change. and i didn’t understand. london. because the airport repeats, first as farce, then as tragedy. how everything, everything, is one long march to departure. britain bristles with blue passports. classified and tallied. looked at us like scum of the earth, laughing in humourless syncope with witchfinder eyes. in the shithole hotel, exhausted and glomarized, unworthy of the news. from clickbait into lynchmob, you said. a picture paints a thousand words, and buried in its texture is a scream. wait. stayed up all night, paring a nerve like a nail. touching the numbers through gloves of numb affect. furtive, coefficient. horror, til’ the mouth becomes a pious zero. see, there are these extremes of commerce and/or music. marketcrash. our homicidal luck. a thermal mercy, disarray, the day turned perfect twitterstorm. dust, as the phone goes dark. no signal. thumbing a dead-end text and openly weeping. what did they do? i googled your disasters. and my own. always there’s a woman swaying centre wears the ruin of her city loosely like a grass skirt. how this mouth was your mother’s mouth. a devotional oh. a rosy hole in the balance of probability. you, who had never known violence a day in your life, suddenly rigid, in a hard-backed plastic chair. your face immobile as a virgin queen. what would they do? summoned, verified, subjected to militant protocols. grief is not evidence, somebody said. inventor of the sobs that shook you.

iii

we thought it couldn’t be any worse. when april carried effigies uphill, was a good-bad catholic. maggie, stuffed madonna, stiff as sawdust pickerel. pinhole squint. no eyes, only lenses. nanny-cam and crosshair. pimped her paper corpse in puppet to the square. a bent form mounted on a wall of septic flame. women in pyrrhic t-shirts, chanting. coach-loads. women from the kingdoms of baser elements. brass and coal. and acetone. oxidising, promissory night. daughters and reapers. a wrecked heredity. daddus, how their archives prized him. and thin boys, lain on lamb’s wool, leaking like smashed thermometers, silver and glass and fractured daylights. home as black concretionary mass. rage, grievous and specialised, a calendar threat. gathered to piss her witch’s ash to stain. there were slogans, mottoes. but the sinister rich – april, smeared in heat – are always with us. regan and thatcher. all trickledown immaculate, those keepers of concentric hells: the circus, the brothel, the jail. they filmed us, distended and contorted, crawling. we are fools. we burn what we hate to get free. they don’t aspire to freedom. lock us down, forever owned. they infiltrate, fringe the lover’s mouths with lies. their sentries, watchmen, recording angels. when they greiv, they keep the world away. some dolorous kleptocrat, muted and mouthing an ave maria. their funerals. gilded and snivelling, synchronised vanity. improbable honey, crudest oil. we were tearing our hair, swooning in tar. no longer bodies. a chorus, a spectacle. tourists took our pictures too. later, see our reinvented meat on instagram. for all our dead. a flaccid, caucasian genocide that no one mourns. footage. lips we peel from teeth to spit. slow-mo. oh, such wickedness. nailed us to a headline. kept but not remembered.

iv

idioms, hyperboles. we have e-commerce, instagram, duress and blockade. detained, curtailed, adjudicated, hacked. all of the above. a summary corrective. close your eyes, you young offenders, look away. it was all bread and no circus. it was all circus and no bread. it was all speed and no motion. malignant rapidity. not endeavour or surrender. ludicrous, equivocal, dressed in lycra, running in place. in a confusion of coin-metal, terraces raining gold. hooligan doubloons. talking heads open their expertise like angel wings. a white coat knows what’s wrong. its gangs, games, the breakdown of the family. swipecard and retinal scan. this rented torso, worn in penance. surveilled is not the same as seen. tick-box-suspicious. slow blink banality captures them, grainy. repurposed x-rays, suddenly live for the briefest debasement. they are forging laws to lock you to your image. their content hangs its haunting from the long faces of facebook users, beavering at feeds. meanwhile, america’s fusing goon shows into squadrons, walking in step, impressionable and convinced. friend, they are rebranding our heritage. yours is a wet rubber bag steaming in the sun. donald trump talking subtitlese. your thoughts are for sale. the succulent untrue.

helpston
Wednesday, 08 May 2019 09:48

helpston

Published in Poetry

helpston

by Fran Lock

the brazen head has spoken: heat. and now, the summer
lifts its loaded pitchforks to the light. the pewit in the dog-
whistle of its wings. gardens teem, lecherous and stifled.
here, the sly, fermented smiles of youth on bikes. they do
not know. this heat, a tight green crouch that cannot spring.
mother preens the sentimental hedges, while father wags
a hammer at a nail; little darlings flicker in the surly glow
of screens, and not yet ripe inside their hoods, are white
and snug as unpicked beans. they do not know. of typhus,
or of blight. of shroud, or yoke; of picket or of flail. old
times of ague, ergot-glut. those hungry times. a race of
scarecrow-scavengers who stoop their pale route through
the dust. crops fail, and bodies burn, with every scotched
intention. nature, not resurgent but insidious. the sap of
sickness glistens on a lip; an eye becomes an ulcer. yet
an oddling grace abides, abounds in burdock, sovereign
bowers of meadowmat and columbine. the ramsons in
a limestone wood; scent of resin, garlic, pine. fieldfare,
haunters of the chalk, foraging for song. i followed john.
the hottest day, and god, god was a big, bronze dynamo
that drove the world. and god, god was a gavel knocked
against the sweating temple, night on night. to swim
the sky's dark boiling soak; to suck the oily rag of grief.
i followed john, i saw the world, i squared its squalor
with my eye: little village, prettied in an anise air
that clouds and parts like ouzo. houses there are patient
and forgetful, full of pride. footpaths deny their
multitudes, and churches pose for photos. boys on
bikes are sugar rush and selfies, fumble-tongued
misogynies. pubs revile a mastiff dog, the plastery
hands of working men. i woke and followed john.
summer, gathers in its arrowheads: starlings, jutting
up from fallow fields like flints. the honey buzzard's
conqueror's call; the lichens on the drystone wall,
a flaking papal gilding. no, they do not know. who
swallow sermons down like swords; who drink
the chicory english real. this land is equal ore
and gorge. and john, if john is walking, eating grass
or tearing at his hair, slides his shadow into ditches,
where, tucked among the muddy reeds, his dreams
are weeds, a knotty freedom spreading.

John Clare died on May 20, 1864.

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