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Wednesday, 21 November 2018 14:02

Ruses and Fuses

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in Poetry
Ruses and Fuses

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

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Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.