I’ve only recently become acquainted with Fran Lock’s work, mainly via a few poems on Alan Baker’s online magazine, Litter, and through her uncompromising and passionate review of Martin Hayes’ recent collection Ox. This substantial book is a mix of prose, poetry and prose poetry and questions almost everything about our preconceptions of ‘civilization’ from the viewpoint of an outsider expressed through the personas of Hyena, Jackal and Dog. As she says in her introduction:
Hyenas are, according to most classical sources: loathsome and savage, insatiable of appetite, offensive of smell; they are cowardly but vicious, morally and spiritually unclean.
Her works clearly has theoretical underpinnings, if in response to ‘academic authority’ and she references creative artists/writers such as Leonora Carrington whose – ‘I’m like a hyena, I get into the garbage cans. I have an insatiable curiosity.’ – could almost be a prescription for Lock’s own work. Her writing is challenging in terms of its blend of eloquent authority and its discussions around notions of ‘inarticulacy’ expressed so succinctly in the following sentence: ‘When words won’t do, we recruit gesture, the body, guttural non-verbal noises.’ If I’m looking for reference points in recent British poetry, then Sean Bonney’s poetry comes immediately to mind where issues of class and ‘politics’ are to the forefront. Lock’s work is clearly also concerned with gender and with notions of transgression though her poetry also has a strong lyrical association which reminds me a little of Barry MacSweeney where the mix of beauty and disgust holds together really well even as it shouldn’t.
From ‘Hyena Q&A’ (Hyena) we get the following:
Q: And what’s it like being a hyena?
A: It is withdrawal, trembling its traces all across the
splendid belly of the night. It is ecstatic and mechanical,
a kind of sanguinary prickling, to be made spectral with
adrenaline, to stream raw light through your fibre optic
veins. It is holding the ice of his name in my mouth until it
cools. Until, I mean, it thaws.
Q: How has being a hyena affected your employment
A: Imagine having a clubfoot. Except it isn’t your foot, it’s
your whole body. Imagine a woman’s face eaten away by
radiation. That’s how people look at you, a cheesy fifties
pinup, her thighs tempered with ugly ragged holes.
Q: But do you work?
A: I practice walking upright. I type with a hollow wand
between my teeth, a tango-dancer’s wilting rose.
There’s a mix of streetwise elegance with something very questioning and assertive about this writing which reminds me of Sarah Crewe’s poetry and both writers seem to be at the forefront of an emerging poetics/politics which responds to current situations with a steely intent.
I like the mixing of analytical prose works with a more-heady, often incantatory form of writing and the interrelation between the two suggests a combination of mind and body which is often missing in contemporary work. There’s a very visceral thrust amid the ‘out-loud’ thought processing which is very attractive, filled with energy and a distinct rawness which nevertheless has an intellectual impetus. This may be ‘outsider thinking’ but it has an authority and clarity based on experience and on reflection. Take this opening sequence from ‘On taking leave’ (‘Jackal!’):
london, my dirt baptism.
where sweat settles into jelly.
where I am a hollow chocolate
rabbit, a bond girl dipped in gold,
for you. london, your moneyed
immersions. your eyes like belly-
dancers’ jewels. disney supremacist.
a bloodied shovel, turning greedy
oncers into loam. you are a serial
killer’s scrapbook, a million
the suckling cabaret of sex
and junk. we cross the bridge,
and i sink back into your hurt
perfume. london, you stink
like a whore on expenses.
There’s no easy dichotomy between country and city either as expressed in this short extract from ‘To disappear into’ (‘Jackal’):
the forest does not care.
the forest is a keyhole. the forest
is a clenched jaw. is anything
tight against the world. the forest
has hollow bones, ice caves hostile
to hibernation. It does not soil itself
with tigers; is a cold kiln casting
animals in glass, and me among.
I’m simplifying of course in placing these two extracts side by side but it’s a way of giving a new reader a flavour of the material. Probably the best way to approach this work on an initial reading is to go with the flow, take it all in or as much as you are initially capable of doing, meshing the ‘essay aspects’ with the more ‘immediate’ poetry sections where you can enjoy the imagery and onrush before a slower and more thoughtful reading. It’s certainly a book that demands a re-read if you’re in tune enough and want to explore these creations. The piece entitled ‘Jagged little pilot’ provides more ‘resistance’ which may well be its intention, partly down to its footnotes, but its dark materials are well worth engaging with though it’s a harrowing read.
The final section, ‘Dog!’ includes a strong element of autobiography and reveals a personal philosophy based on instinct, reason and experience and a reworking of mythologies which provides a challenge to received ways of thinking:
Dogs, my own and others, feature heavily in my work, as
subjects and as speakers. But more than this, I connect vari-
ous modes or positions in writing to jackals and to dogs. The
jackal self is connected to the work of both judgement and
grieving, her landscapes are often shaped by war and depri-
vation; she reckons with heritage, she mourns her dead.
(from ‘Animal Affinities’)
This is a substantial book which requires a more in-depth review than I’m able to give it here, but I hope that I may have whetted a few appetites for the work of a poet, new to me, who is seriously at the heart of things, whose questioning of poetic discourse and of societal norms feels very appropriate at the present time.
Steve Spence 3rd February 2022