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.

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.

Saint Martin in Euston
Saturday, 20 April 2019 21:01

Saint Martin in Euston

Published in Poetry

Saint Martin in Euston

by Fran Lock


miserere. monday is a man reduced to his bare

incident, a stain the pavement eats. a sharded

light is stalled between the concrete benches,

busses, cranes. drills compete, declare a complex

discord. everywhere the air is rutted, hurts.

and yet the earth turns still. the concourse fills

with factions, mobs, gym memberships, majorities,

miniskirts, miskiltered mouths. here are the men

who bury their piqued slang in mobile phones,

little kids who kick at pigeons; prêt a manger

sandwiches, the salaries and symptoms. miserere.

this circus of averted eyes and shifted weight.

we wait in line for black americano. cargo

of feeble guilts. appropriate frown, a face made

plasticine with pity. melt. and it is terrible. drink

up, get out, and go, cocking deaf in headphones,

march like regiments or inmates. off to work.

high-ho!

but then –

monday is a man, and when he speaks

the old home hails me; love becomes a wet

umbrella, sprung indoors. i felt – i saw –

i thought about saint martin, cutting his cloak

in two. miserere. it’s all too much, sometimes.

the grim unfolded fact of it. the shit. how lips

are franked by sanction, shrinking into slur

and stoop and scuff. undifferent dirt. these

grounded birds. these ragged nails and filthy

cuffs. i saw – i heard – and in my head saint

martin stands, as naked as a maypole. his halo

weak and radiant-hard. the struggling

fluorescence of a lightbulb in a bedsit.

backstreet, bus stop, tarmac yard, this his

kingdom. tears his shirt, his hair,

his skin to whispers. still, there’s not

enough of him. can’t cover such a vast

and shuffling need. miserere. love is this

machine for stretching. here we are in

incomes and indifference, rolling our eyes

like pellets of bread in order not to see.

but see!

saint martin through a megaphone, ranting

and antagonised. what’s wrong with you?

what’s wrong with you? and then you cut

your cloak in two.

 

Saint Martin of Torres is the patron saint of homeless people.

In praise of strangeness
Thursday, 21 February 2019 10:37

In praise of strangeness

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness, and includes a strange and rich poem taken from her forthcoming collection with Culture Matters, In Need of Saints.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives… As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. – from Poetry Is Not a Luxury, by Audre Lord.

Each time I read the above the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and my pulse sprints just that little bit quicker. Sister Outsider, the collection of essays and speeches in which I first encountered “Poetry is Not a Luxury” was published way back in 1984, and yet its radical message has resonance and relevance that still outstrips most of what is written in defence of poetry today. This is both a testament to Lorde’s legacy as an activist and a writer, and a slightly depressing comment on the state of poetry and poetry discourse in the twenty-first century.

Almost by accident, over the last couple of years I’ve found myself an increasingly vocal participant in this discourse. My own erratic contributions have centred around the myriad ways in which working-class participation in poetry is policed; the ways in which our exclusion is engineered, our voices and ideas homogenised, defanged and defused. I’ve written at length on the importance of recognising our right to poetry; that poetry is ours, its art emerging of necessity from the economic conditions in which we find ourselves, from this climate of precarity, apprehension and threat. Poetry’s mode of production is fitted for lives mired in unlovable labour, anxiety and deprivation. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it communicates in flashes and fragments, moments or phrases pulled from the true. It functions as both an expression of and an escape from all that besets us. It is radiant and necessary.

You’d be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, by the number of people who take issue with this definition of poetry. Can you eat a fucking poem? A friend of mine asked. Is poetry going to feed the meter or wash my clothes or pay my bus fare? No, of course not. A poem doesn’t belong to the same order of things as a jacket potato or a five pound note. It won’t satisfy your hunger, but it does provide a language in which to describe being hungry, in which to expose and to challenge the political and economic conditions that keep you hungry. Poetry is a resource for those without recourse. It is a space for those whose struggles and sufferings are exiled from quotidian language. It points to the deficiencies and failures of the systems that administer us. It’s the one place we get to define who and what we are, a place where we are visible, present, where our experiences enter and infiltrate English on our terms. Daily discourse doesn’t allow for this.

This is why poetry matters to me. As far as I’m concerned, this is the point of poetry. Since about 2016, as I began to refine this argument, to test its weight out there in the world, I have been lucky enough to meet with and share poetry across various cohorts of working-class writers. These experiences have been some of the most valuable and nourishing of my creative life. And yet, I find that even among my colleagues and comrades I’m continuously butting heads about what poetry is and what it's for.

The biggest bone of contention has been this notion of accessibility, specifically the notion of accessibility constructed as some kind of absolute and unassailable moral category, in violent opposition to a parallel tradition of academic elitism. I take issue with the idea that my work should strenuously enact this kind of accessibility, that it has an ethical obligation to communicate in “the language of the people”. Such an idea is disingenuous and patronising in the extreme. Poetry simply isn’t speech. Whether you’re talking about Attila the Stockbroker or J.H. Prynne, poetry is crafted, tailored and shaped; refined and heightened, larded or stripped. Poetry is deliberate, each line transmits tension, intention and meaning. To pretend otherwise is to deny the discipline in what we do, to be afraid to call ourselves artists, to effectively edit ourselves out of art. Besides which, who says that working-class people must find poetic complexity off-putting? Who says we should not be stimulated and provoked by difficulty? That our experiences and ideas do not demand and facilitate strange and complex registers of language?

To accept this is inherently impoverishing to poetry. I have come to believe that the onus should not be on working-class creators to limit their field of expression, but that access – that is full cultural participation – is better achieved by bringing pressure to bear on the institutions and funding bodies driving this perceived dichotomy to implement real, radical systemic change in the way resources are allocated, in the way that poetry is taught, and to the provision of not merely equal but fair opportunities for creative cultural contribution. Poetry isn’t accessible or inaccessible, but our current educational system operates a hidden curriculum that manipulates and limits working-class imagination, telling those from the margins what is and isn’t for them, what parts of poetry they have a right to partake of, practice and enjoy.

Staking radical political claims upon rendering individual creative projects accessible is seductive. It’s seductive because it’s easy, a kind of cop-out that avoids engaging the deep systemic and structural inequalities inherent in the publication and dissemination of poetry, and in language itself. To be poor, for example, and to be marginalised, is to find yourself everywhere described, relentlessly recorded and administered, spoken of, but never to, figuring not as persons but as problems within the apparatus, language, and collective imagination of the state. Daily discourse serves to elide or to invisibilise grim material reality; stock phrases reduce and dehumanise you; bland bureaucracy circumscribes your testimony, inhibits and restricts you. You are failed by language, by the sterile functionality of commonplace language encounters. We might be accustomed to thinking of words as tools for expression, but more often than not they mediate and mask, filter and constrain; they neutralise potential threat, they blunt language’s capacity for affective moral witness. So it is no longer enough to say I am cold, I am hungry. Those words have lost their meaning, their ability to shock people into awareness. To expose what ordinary language obscures requires strangeness and hybridity; new phrases, new ways of saying to retune attention toward human suffering.

The continual backlash against richness and complexity in poetry both frustrates and perplexes me. To be dexterous with language, to force it into strange conjunctions, is to feel a little less at its mercy; to accelerate at warp speed away from the diminishing institutional lingo of government departments, and the easy dismissive stereotyping of popular parlance. It is to escape the narrative demands placed on me by a world that has asked me every day for the last eighteen years to account for myself, my mental state and my experiences in a vocabulary unfit for the task; to dilute my perceptions, thoughts and feelings to a linear stream of commonplaces, commonplaces that have no room for creativity, inventiveness, ambiguity or élan. It makes no sense to me to use the words, phrases and formulations of the systems that harass and hound me to tackle those systems. It would bring me no joy, it would offer me no release, and most importantly of all, it wouldn’t do a thing to redress the stupid, stupefying force of those systems. We must recognise our right to poetry, to all poetry, as both writers and readers, but as working-class activists we must also pursue a radical imperative towards polyvocality, complexity and richness.

I do not mean by this that poetry has room only for baroque multi-clausal psycho-dramas, but that our definition of what working-class poetry is and can encompass be expanded to include ways of using language that deviate from the expected and accessible; that we do not decry as “inauthentic” or manoeuvre out of our communities and publishing cohorts working-class voices that approach poetry in difficult or unconventional ways. It seems to me to be untenable – and yes even “elitist” – to insist working-class creators conform to and perform one monolithic vision of working-class identity, cutting ourselves off in self-policing enclaves away from wider cultural conversations about the practice of our art. Elitist, and monstrously self-defeating. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and professing some kind of political bias against the beautiful, intricate or challenging is erecting a massive wall between yourself and much that is nourishing, interesting and inspiring. 

If we begin by taking issue with the ways in which working-class voices are allowed to express themselves through poetry, we end by adjudicating on what are authentic and acceptable subjects for working-class poems. It is true that a great deal of what finds its way into print says nothing to us about our lives, but is that really to say that a working-class poetics is a poetics that consciously and continuously engages with one very specific material and economic reality? Is there no room in our conception of working-class poetics for poems about mountains, stars, the sea, quirks of nature, kinks in history, penguins, flowers, Carmelite lace? In denying ourselves and our poetries those things, don’t we allow their imaginative colonisation by intellectual and economic power elites, their ways of seeing and knowing the world? I don’t want to rid poetry of the view from a steep and windswept hill. I just wish that view wasn’t monopolised by people whose vision is tinted by a security and a certainty me and mine will never possess. We have so much to say about beauty, our sense of it is urgent and acute, bound about as it is by the pressures and privations of our daily lives. Say what you like about what I do, but when Fran Lock looks at a sunset you fucking know about it.

More than all of this, though, I write in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness because I believe the subjects of my poems warrant and deserve that level of attention and intensity. I’ve fought hard to bring these landscapes into print, and to defend my vision of these places and these people as beautiful and good. Most don’t look at squats and doss houses and rusty caravans and council estates and flyovers and petrol station forecourts and muddy rec grounds as sites of and occasions for beauty. They’re wrong. These were my places, my people, and they’ve just as much right to intelligent, nuanced and textured language as anything or anyone else. By this practice they are lifted and cherished. Richness is an act of remembrance, preservation, grieving, a radical act of love.

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 empty
snakes. disfigured fabrics frayed in heaps.
a woman shaking out the prissy shapes
of a summer blouses. 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 cambrics
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. no,
not this way. the woman who sewed
this blouse, this dress, her lungs are diseased
heirlooms huffing dust; 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 label. the day
that factory became a dirt red funnel
for human grief. it’s just so cheap, dirt
cheap! yes, dirt. your cambrics, buckrams
heresies. and what’s it worth, a mewling
life? how many assiduous stitches, tucked
and running? in lamé gold is interwoven -
sweet secret vein through common cloth.
as pain pursues its jagged course, in every
shirt you smooth and touch.

Note: Being the Patron Saint of tailors and businessmen, Homobonus provides an ethical exemplar for commercial life: scrupulously honest, and using his fortune to help those in need. Primark use sweatshop labour. In 2013 one of their factories in Dhaka collapsed killing and trapping hundreds of workers. At a subsequent demonstration in Dhaka by factory workers in 2015, police opened fire on grieving protestors. Primark avoided paying over 9 billion in corporation tax this year. They are still open for business. This is not okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our comrade saints, whose unmade faces are empty airports: two poems by Fran Lock
Friday, 21 December 2018 10:46

Our comrade saints, whose unmade faces are empty airports: two poems by Fran Lock

Published in Poetry

In need of saints

by Fran Lock

no one else to share my slanted fate. god was
routine unrelenting splendour; too fine and far
a thing to help. nervous and compelled between
the corridor, the alleyway, or any place a slack
luck failed. pain like tearing paper; pain
like biting through a glass. spasm, cramp. on
days that paled to finite shine in ugly towns
of bleak taboo beside the sea. terrible things.
this secret snow inside the globe of me. learnt
to defer to a four-letter word, to the force
majeure of shame. girls conform to the lock-
jaw logic of tetanus – dread for days. afraid
to say, afraid to name, afraid of speech. girls
untongue their stunting curse with silence,
cannot pray. god was an unbodied brilliance
loose in the room, too bright and wide a thing
to help. and christ as pure as a blank page,
the standard hush of libraries. no one else to
share recession’s stink, insomnia, this bare
and complex dark without design. unsteadied
and expendable, where flesh is ghettoed, got,
in bruising schools or trapped in airless rooms
on truant afternoons. a twisted mess of pleats
and seams our stammered lot. and god is
good, but god’s too good, and god aghast
is, faberge and satellite – beaming his gold
nonplus in tempered waves. on days you need
a human hand, a human heart. and what is
prayer? in the ear or in the air? in between
each doubt and grounded wish. the intelligent
shape of noise. what is prayer? a hope you hold
becalmed in the bowl of your own hearing?
insensible shell, the ear that makes an ache
of all my straining for sound. to be received,
just once. it was rita and mary magdalene,
lucia, agnes and Theresa who pulled me up
from joyless aural dystrophy: lost in abject
static – the directionless spite of words
unheard, halfheard, unsaid. to be received.
somewhere, by women like myself, but strong.
saints, our better engines, our comrades,
our sorority. they were my own sleek coping –
there in my mildewed bedroom, coming
and going, a tiered light in their hair, as fast
as doves or monkeys, as tangible as cats.

fig12

Rita of the White Bees

by Fran Lock

To Saint Rita of Cascia, Patron Saint of Impossible Causes, and of abused women.

pray for us, for the girls like green splinters, their pierced
reveal unfolding in small towns running on skeleton crews;
for the pageant-hearted girls who burst like bright ideas into
backseats, bikinis, the blessable dream of being human; for
the too skinny stay-awake girls, living on rice wine and red
light, whose home is the typical elsewhere of exiles; for the
lip-glossed gonzo girls, those high femme fatalists, all cried
out; for the lost girls, giddy and groped on, coked to their
stoic ponytails, shiny and slick and swinging like whips; for
the headlong girls, barefoot and bracing themselves in a bus
lane, smiles like Saint Laurent scarves on fire, manic
and vampire; for the girls who went waning in wraparound
glasses to clinics and vigils; for the pub-crawled girls in
packs, in parks and lanes, alive with the loitering joy
of foxes; for the girls who fuck like stray cats come to
sad anatomical terms in the spongy summer nights of cities;
for the girls in ravenous warp speed, spinning, spun, till tears
collect in their cartwheeled eyes like sparks; pray for us, for
wasted girls with workshy serotonin, whose trestle cheekbones
grind on air; for the peep-toed girls with broken heels
and fake eyelashes, trafficking tears at a photo shoot; for
the lookbook, look back angry girls, whose bad day is
a black dress that goes with everything; for the bitch fight
girls, their raw collided atmospheres on fire, all cellulite,
venom, and celebrity perfume; for the girls whose hairdos
are stairways to heaven, whose pigments shiver in vintage
frocks, whose song is a storm in a borderline thought, who
tend their fetishes like flowers; for the girls, most of all,
who are their own witching hour, their jaundiced drama
dragging them down in the bump and grind of a tightening
gyre; for the girls whose vertigo is not the fear of falling, but
the fear of jumping; who are so entirely sick of this mingy,
yelping ethic men call love; for the girls who are no longer
young, whose unmade faces are empty airports; whose
bodies are the quarrels they are having with themselves;
for these girls, their madness lasting them out like a sensible
pair of leather boots. Patroness of Impossible Causes,
pray for us, that we might flip a decade’s deadweight
like a mattress; gather our Godspeed, walk away from
ourselves.

Rag Town See God

 Rag Town Girls See God, by Steev Burgess

Ruses and Fuses
Wednesday, 21 November 2018 14:02

Ruses and Fuses

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces Ruses and Fuses, her new follow-up collection to Muses and Bruises.

There’s something Arlette Farge says, about history being a collision of competing logics, that is applicable here. By which I mean, this is not, in any literal or linear sense, the story of English radicalism. It is not the story of English radicalism for two reasons: firstly, because a coherent and cohesive “story” of English radicalism does not exist, and secondly because to spin as a straightforward line of descent something we can only ever experience as distorted, entangled, and fragmentary, is to elide the many acts of systemic intellectual violence done to our radical histories; is to ignore the many ways in which our access to the past is impeded, its facetted truth dulled, diluted and obscured.

Rag Town Girls do Unemployment

Rag Town Girls do Unemployment, by Steev Burgess: from Muses and Bruises

About a year ago, shortly after Muses and Bruises was released and the idea for this collection was still being kicked around, I was asked by a friend why I wasn’t writing a sequence based on the Irish radical traditions that inform so much of my own political thinking and occupy such large tracts of my emotional and imaginative space. In order to answer that question I needed to go back to childhood, and to an English state school system where history came to us potted and piecemeal, portioned out into discreet periods named for their reigning autocrats; autocrats, it seemed, of largely irrelevant and undifferentiated character. In state school history the role of the poor was to suffer, a motiveless mass at the mercy of larger happenings: privations, plagues, famines, fires, religious persecutions and insane moral panics. The effect was disjointed to say the least, and could only ever afford us the merest fleeting glimpse of the lively dissenting communities that have underpinned and undercut English society on every level at every historical turn.

This is not so in Ireland. Ireland has its own fraught and freighted relationship to cultural memory and the historical past, but institutional – and institutionalised – amnesia about working-class dissent is not one of its problems. History, in Ireland, may be experienced as a nightmare, a prison, an acute psychic pain, but it is a history, nonetheless, in which people – the people – are prominent movers and shapers of their own divided destiny.

Ruses John Lilburne

John Lilburne, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

This collection, then, is an act of imaginative archaeology, an exploration of and excavation into the lore and the legends of diverse radical histories. I am using the plural deliberately. There is no monolithic entity we can easily identify as Radical History. Movements diverge and intersect, interests collide and coalesce, logics compete for supremacy, contesting the cultural space. The poems in this collection are correspondingly crazed, bewildered and bewildering at times, composed from the sherds and shrapnel of a past, or pasts, both buried and scattered. I don’t want to tell you about John Lilburne or Gerard Winstanley, I want to show you how I had to uncover them, warts and all, from the slimy sediment of state education in which they’d been immured. This is a book about the ways in which we, as radicals, as working-class people, access our collective troubled histories, and the echoes and incursions those histories make into the present.

This collection is about my own tentative, pre-internet inroads into those histories, uncovering my ancestors and unlikely allies, sometimes with beetle-browed bookish diligence, but more frequently through moments of serendipity: a song lyric here, a snippet of footage there, an adult conversation overheard, a urine-tinted clipping from a local paper, curling at both ends. Working-class identity can be like this, I think. Our historical sense of ourselves, our movements, communities, voices, and myths is hedged with ambivalence, ignorance and uncertainty. We have not, traditionally, been the authors or the archivists of our own experiences, our own stories. Not because we have nothing meaningful to contribute, but the exercise of history, as a subject and a discipline, requires literate leisure, a space for reflection not typically afforded to working-class people.

Ruses Suffragettes

Suffragettes, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

Our stories have been kept from us, erased and eroded, but surviving in unlikely ways, in slang and songs, in long, unconscious cultural memory. This fragmentation of our pasts, and our inability to apprehend our histories whole is deliberate, systemic, systematic and strategic. If we did not shape our society then we have no stake in it. We are outside; at the mercy of historical and economic forces we can neither resist nor control nor fully understand. This is a gilt-edged crock of shit. We are not rootless, not powerless, not alone. Working-class people have acted with agency, autonomy, creativity and resilience. We have suffered, but we have also survived, and each act of survival is a blueprint and a banner for the next act, and the next. The more we work to understand our own legacies and legends, the stronger our armour against the grand narratives our elites would feed us engravage, where the dead body of a working-class soldier, for example, sent to die in an illegal war, is worth more than a living working-class citizen engaged in unlovable labour, or, worse still, unemployed.

This collection means to honour memory, the act of remembering, and to interrogate with honesty the often unpretty processes by which histories are uncovered as we develop, collectively and individually, like a Polaroid photo, a sense of ourselves.

Ruses and Fuses is available here.

Ruses Travesties poemwatch

Travesties, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

National Poetry Day: you ask us why we fight
Thursday, 04 October 2018 09:46

National Poetry Day: you ask us why we fight

Published in Poetry

you ask us why we fight

by Fran Lock

you can make an inkblot of your nosebleed if you want to. talk and tsk and suck
your teeth. conspiracy and crucible, and last of all is cliché: fighting irish. Tell me
how my fist offends propriety, then name me one good thing on earth was ever
given freely. i’m a joke to you, but i have known a place where mothers make
a theme song of their grieving. i’ve seen men kneel, not pious but defeated; seen
them keen, with doffed caps and tied tongues, and tugged forelocks, far too long.
girls in gingham tabards, thin fingers rag-picked to an angry spasm; our young
bucks buckled like broken ploughs after hard graft and heavy lifting. you don’t
want to know. so i swing, at gin-sickness, pittance and piecework; flick-knives
and switchblades, imperfect contrition. i swing at the pitchy stink of the barges,
at the pinch-penny portions of leprous bread; at itchy armpits, scarlet fevers, at
scavenging, navvying, flimsies and chits. because this is your world: bald men
dragging their knuckles across the middle distance. men with tattooed dewlaps,
goosebumped in bermuda shorts, flying their stomachs and half-mast, screaming
a sieg heil! into my face. there is nothing to eat, offal and porridge and free
school meals. there’s nothing to do, so brothers go obnoxious, unwashed,
prodigal. or get themselves dead behind heritage. bygone pogrom, bad-debt,
self-doubt and ethnic cleansing. they took it to heart when you said you was better
than them. you took it too far when you said they belong to this doldrum squalor
and tenement dread, amphetamine pestilence, out of their heads, forever amen.
so i swing, i swing at the diesel and grease of an air we dare not breathe.
i swing at the mean-featured foremen, cussing and cursing and nursing their
two ton grudges; at all the self-made men, who expect us to pull ourselves up
by our punchlines, a racist slur with cowshit on our boots. i swing because
i’m sick of paedo priests and hanging judges; acid casualties, psycho-killers,
crouching like gargoyles in unlit stairwells, all straight razors and skinny
wrists. no one believes we are better than this. aspirant suicides, ceasefire
babies. brave new world, pimping its pockmarked acres of flesh in the shit-
witted gridlock of closing time, where patriots haggle for snatch in an alley,
and mullet-cutted absolutists traffic in retaliation, tracksuits and black-market
meat. deadbeat dads, slack-jawed and confecting endless fear against
the sloping dark. oh, brave new world, of custodial no-hopers flogging stolen
stereos in multi-storey car parks. jerusalem. i swing, for little girls slurring
their homework. you called them sluts, you said they weren’t worth

the sweat off satan’s back, and now they believe. and now, those scallies
sharpen their hand- me-down swagger to a cutting edge. they’ll cash your
cheque then spit in your shadow, leave you for dead. and you act surprised,
ask yourself why, while colicky longing fills the pigeon-chests of children.
while widows with twisted faces amplify bereavement with burlesque. a black
dress contriving tactical malady. i swing, for the gaunt blunt-force of a pain
that breaks your back, for our remedial belief, the queasy bloated grief we march
in step with through the rankled light, the racing rain. born by summer’s histamine
psychosis; bearing our fierce, inflexible shame. i swing, with my seldom succoured
brothers, sucker-punched, and always stuck somewhere between our conscience
and our cunning. jerusalem, of dirges and of lurgies, sluggish nightmare, fumbling
drudgework, men like you. justice, is a thin soup supped with a long spoon. small
wonder we fight, it’s all we can do.

 

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