Chris Edgoose reviews White/ Other by Fran Lock (the87press, 2022)
A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point – James Agee
The paradox of communication is that it presupposes a common medium, but one which works – as is seen in the limiting case in which, as often in poetry, the aim is to transmit emotions – only by eliciting and reviving singular, and therefore socially marked, experiences – Pierre Bourdieu
To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo – Valerie Solanas
There is always passion and challenge in Fran Lock’s work, along with a fair bit of discomfort for the middle-class reader, and this has never been more so than in her recent book White/ Other, described on the back cover as “a shapeshifting work of feral lyric riff combing poetry, polemic, and coruscating rant”.
It is certainly a difficult book to pin down. It is not poetry, although there is poetry in it; much of the prose poetry blurs into the actual prose and so “shapeshifting” is very apt. It’s not a book of essays either exactly, although it closely resembles one; the academic mode that Lock writes in creates the appearance of a collection of lectures or a monograph, but she is making use of this with a very specific purpose. And there is a sense that the reader is being lectured so “polemic” is also apt. “Riff” is a clever choice of words as it gets to the spontaneous, improvisational feeling that comes with her rage-filled flow of words. It is an eloquent stream of consciousness that charges onwards with unstoppable force – even the chapter breaks feel like mere pauses for breath. I’ll come back to the “feral”, but “coruscating rant” I think most succinctly captures Lock’s project here – to embrace “the rant as a native art form” as she says herself. She is here, as elsewhere, taking a word which has generally negative connotations – the rant as irritating, as irrational, as unthinking (and therefore dismissible) – and claiming it positively for her own purposes.
Lock is probably the most effective politically radical poet of her generation
Lock is probably the most effective politically radical poet of her generation, and also – I’ve spent a few months seeking out as much of her work as I can find and I can’t escape this conclusion – one of the best poets of her generation, period. I’m not sure she would thank me for the comparisons, but I have not read a poet through whom language more appears to flow as from some magical core of creative fury since Alan Ginsburg in Howl, or more sincere in their use of and need for the act of writing since James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Both dead, white, male writers; I’m acutely aware that the comparisons say as much about my reading as they do about Lock’s writing.
But compare this from the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game.
A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.
As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing. Only it will be very little. I’m not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.
with this from the opening pages of White/ Other:
how to tell them, i am only writing a book where book is to writing what scar is to wound. where book demands the scar but refuses the wound. where scar becomes the denial of the wound that produced it. how can you learn to say: i remember that i was in pain, i do not remember being in pain. and scar is the glittering skin of affect. where the scar is empty, smooth and clean. refigured, devoid. where the scar is pure. how should i write, when the pen pushes back at the hand that holds it? it is not the story that refuses to be told. it is the big idea of the book that refuses the story; it is literature itself that resists and evicts me. put it another way: there is no story, there is only the wound. the wound cannot be said to story, speaking the wound picks open the scab.
What is similar here is the desperate knowledge that their words as they exist in published form can never convey what they are attempting to convey; it is an acknowledgement that their projects are doomed to failure because the written word is not able to capture the livingness – perhaps the lividness – of the experience they are born from. For Agee this is someone else’s experience, someone else’s pain; for Lock it is her own. And this of course is the difference between these two writers (I mean other than the obvious): Agee was a visitor to and an observer, a relatively wealthy one from a middle-class background, of the poverty of dustbowl sharecroppers; whereas Lock is writing from within what she calls the trauma of poverty. To Lock, Agee and his writing would likely not be any part of a solution to the problem of poverty but part of the problem itself, and therefore the enemy.
If you are middle class, to Lock you are the enemy. There is no point equivocating about this because it is the central theme of her work, and any middle-class reader needs to deal with it
And let’s be quite clear. If you are middle class, to Lock you are the enemy. There is no point equivocating about this because it is the central theme of her work, and any middle-class reader needs to deal with it and calibrate to the fact that the writer they are engaging with despises them as a representative of a ruling / self-deluding / socio-economic-system-maintaining / arrogant elite. And many middle-class readers, on realising this, will either deny that they are part of the middle class at all (this is a common delusion of the liberal left wing of the middle class) or simply get irritated with Lock and turn off. But poetry, or perhaps I should say literature in general, provides an opportunity for reflection by both the writer and the reader; it does not require agreement between the two; and if the one has made up their mind and is “consol(ing them)self with the absolute license of unfettered fury”, that is no reason for the other to turn on ‘defence mode’ or switch off entirely.
Another way of putting this is to suggest that the best reaction to Lock’s work is not to ask, “why is she so angry?” but to ask, “why am I not?” You have to engage on Lock’s terms, take the willing journey into her radicalism, or you will never get much further than resentment, irritation, and scepticism that she is really the various ‘othered’ things she claim to be. To me this is clearly a non-starter as an approach to her work.
My feeling is that, just as it is impossible to understand the many and mystifying conversations about what it does or doesn’t mean to be trans(phobic) without reading Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Jaques Lacan and many others probably going right back along the continental line to Kant, there is similarly no way to engage properly with the work of Fran Lock without spending time reading and thinking about the many and varied thinkers who have influenced her work, among them Butler again, Pierre Bourdieu, Cyththia Cruz, Valerie Solanas, and yes, probably back to Marx, then Hegel, then Kant.
Lock’s great and radical drive is to resist the power relations that the social, cultural and symbolic capital of our habiti make appear so natural and permanent
To take Bourdieu, who Lock clearly knows well and quotes approvingly, as an example. Bourdieu says that it’s easy to think that middle class and working class are just words, but in society everything is words, agreed and negotiated meanings which have different currency in different contexts and environments, and which are a form of what Bourdieu calls symbolic capital themselves and so if we use the words middle class and working class, they become real, the same way the value of a banknote is real, and not just as labels that help us conduct ‘objective’ analyses of society, but as part of the way we form our thoughts and define our ‘selves’. More than that, following Bourdieu, the social and economic class we belong to is our habitus, which means it not only forms but limits the way we are able to think and act. The wealth that has congealed in some areas of society under neoliberalism has created power structures that are as much within us as outside us – and within those economic and social structures, gender, sexuality, race, and other factors create complicating cross currents that make the power dynamics of our everyday lives both knotty and ever-changing. It is within these dynamics, Lock claims, that those without wealth, those who diverge from the norm, those from marginal communities, get lost, forgotten, dismissed and ultimately abused and even killed. Her work can be read as a refusal to let any of these things happen.
Lock’s great and radical drive is to resist the power relations that the social, cultural and symbolic capital of our habiti make appear so natural and permanent. She maintains the discourse of academia throughout White/ Other not to rub our noses in her intellect but in order to claim that very discourse for herself, which is to say to claim it for the working class, the female, the queer, the Irish traveller communities, whose capital in the academic field is lacking. Equally, by interminably, obsessively, expressing her anger at the middle class as a single, amorphous, externalised object, she is not merely venting (although I imagine venting is part of it) but deliberately putting any middle-class reader in the position of ‘other’, reversing the situation as she sees it outside her writing. She refuses to be treated the way she sees the middle class treat the working class (“they prefer you dead, those people. by which I mean all those “sensitive” white middle-class students, ipodding winehouse or joy division, making a fetish out of music’s doomed heroes … and being dead, these figures are freed from their difficult contexts”), and by continually referring to the they / them / theirs of the middle class in opposition to the we / us / ours of the various categories of Other that she lays claim to, Lock ensures that the middle class reader will need to make a mental manoeuvre analogous to the muscular adjustments in the eye required to see a stereogram properly; in other words they will have to look at the world differently, if only briefly. How does it feel to be excluded, she seems to be saying, not very nice is it?
How does it feel to be excluded, she seems to be saying, not very nice is it?
Lock is not a sociologist, and her work is not an analysis or even necessarily a critique – in the traditional sense – of society; it is an exploration of what many might see as the ‘internal’. She provides insights through her work, as much of the best poetry does, of a complex and troubled mind (she refers both here and in other works to therapy – “they sent me to see a woman with an office behind her eyes”). But to pathologise Lock’s work would be to fall into one of the many traps she lays for the unwary middle-class reader. The malady, as she says clearly, is in the way we blindly submit to the demands of the obviously unfair and rapacious monster that is late-stage capitalism (“the pathological conformity of neoliberalism”); the way we allow ourselves to be seduced by it and divided from each other. As Emily Dickinson wrote: “Much madness is divinest Sense – / To a discerning Eye – / Much Sense – the starkest Madness”. It is only the extent to which you assent or dissent from the majority that decides the extent of your sanity and how dangerous you are to society. By this measure, Lock is raging within a condition forced on her by a sick world. And she refuses to be cured, as to be cured is to be forced into a cage, or worse – think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
i say to the therapist: what if I don’t want to be consoled? sleek and clean, step back into the world. What they call the world, the oblong box they put me in. and you fuckers, you can only understand language as a way back, as a yellow brick road and a pair of slippers. worse, part retreat and part deliverance. mine is the “feral” menomic of collective fury. i want my words to burn the book that buries them; rage to exceed the scream that carries it.
Language is not for consoling; for Lock it is both her battlefield and her weapon, and it occurs to me that a particular battle metaphor might be another useful way to approach Lock’s work: her rage as the linguistic equivalent of Cu Chulainn’s ríastrad or battle warp spasm, during which the legendary Irish warrior mutated into an unstoppable force that did not distinguish between enemy and friend as it hacked its way through the hordes.
This is a wild, unpredictable and untameable force, and it is the force evoked in the motif of the feral shape-shifter (from tame conformist human; to free deviant beast) that has been there since the start in some of Lock’s imagery and illustrations from her Gentle Reader epistolary PhD work and has continued through the many references to her dog Manny – whose very name seems a radical reversal of ‘doggy’ and a nod towards a therianthropic shift – and through poems such as ‘The Dangerous Dogs Act’ in The Mystic and the Pig Thief (2014) (“Feral beldam, / I sit cross-legged in baskets. I speak / in a rough dog voice”) and more recent ones like ‘The last wolf killed in Ireland’ from Forever Alive (“indulging my jugular thoughts alone”) and her Hyena poems.
Language is not for consoling, for Lock it is both her battlefield and her weapon
Lock has said, “I am not sure it’s poetry’s job to translate the pain of raw experience into some ideal of emotional expressiveness, to mould our traumas into neat little codes of plain statements. Catharsis is too much like absolution, it lets us off the hook.” But if there is consolation for the poet in these poems, it is in the feral, in the creation of a language that does not compromise in any way with the mainstream, the middle class or the moderate. She is to an extent working through a process of what she has called “queer mourning” – for herself, for her friends, those she calls her ‘tribe’ – but when she imagines herself into a hyena or a wolf, she is not creating a happy ending for herself or any of those she sees as oppressed and marginalised. There is more initiation than resolution going on here. Paradoxically, because she claims, “my hyena is an elite of one”, her feral mutations are in one sense a cry to instigate group action, a howl for the solidarity of oppressed and marginalised women: “what if feral weren’t your get thee hence? what if feral stayed, will stay, and is? what i meant to say: oh queer ones, motherless daughters, the wolf-wombed, the womb-wounded. oh all my hyenas, we’re coming, we’re here.”
Insomnia is another frequent theme in Lock, and that silent, dead-of-night, exhausted wakefulness almost begins to feel like a cave that she is carving out for herself, perhaps creating that “space (we deserve) in which to be angry” (from ‘Notes on Rag Town Girls’, Muses and Bruises, 2017) where she is separate from everyone else and so in some sense able to escape “the bogeyman (that) is capitalism”. But it is not so simple. Insomnia becomes a place where she can lament her lost friend, as in ‘On Insomnia’ in Contains Mild Peril (2019)
[...] Grief is a longing in the body, your
body, the machine-tooled aesthetics of starvation. It’s
so uncool, a super-terrestrial emptiness; the acetone eroded
teeth of your disorder. He will not come again. Sleep will
not come, and make an amnesty of bandages […]
and in ‘Cohort’ from Dogtooth (2017), a long poem which amounts to a statement of intent for Lock’s whole oeuvre, in which she states, “There will be no poetry […] This is the music of my witness” and goes on to recall Martyn and his death before asking
And who would torture poems out of this? Poem as
a trichophobic eyelash tweezered from the red rim
of wakefulness. There is no poetry, only the dream,
pulled from sleep’s stuttering pre-history; the dream,
polluting the pillow like hotel lavender, the reek
of week old sweat.
So, the space where her grief is expressible allows only a poetics that disgusts. This is perhaps part of her concept of queer mourning, queer for her being “an identity or mode of being that is imperfectly held within language”. Again, there is little room for consolation here; she is locked into a cyclical condition of capitalism’s making (“it isn’t just that capitalism breaks your knees and then sells you crutches […] but that it continually recreates the conditions for insomnia, then attempts to put your inability to sleep to work.”) and so she needs continually reassess what it means to be in the grip of insomnia, which brings her back to the wound image that she used to stand for White/ Other as a whole:
okay. let’s try this again. suppose insomnia was not the absence of sleep, but its scar, a remaindered state, a remnant, remnants, fragments, debris. suppose lack were the wrong word. think instead in terms of wound or deformity. a messy psychic excess. a kind of mutilation … capitalism is surrender to rapidity … oppression is enacted so fast, and our waking hours are so distracted and compressed, that we are never able to entertain another’s suffering, to enter their space, to apprehend the slinky little operations of a machine that grinds us all to mince. Insomnia makes that space, is a stepping out, is a moral motor too.
There is escape, then, in insomnia, and even space for a morality that sits outside The System; but there is no consolation, and no respite.
There is escape, then, in insomnia, and even space for a morality that sits outside The System; but there is no consolation, and no respite
To return, finally, to the subject of Lock’s well-documented rage, it is worth pointing out that much of this anger is cast in a slightly different light when you read her view on Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who became famous for her attempted murder of Andy Warhol:
I needed Valerie, with her swift-witted, savvy, feral burlesque of queer anger. The S.C.U.M. Manifesto somehow embodies the too-muchness the world hates in women, in queers, in poor people. It’s hyperbolic, excessive, polarising, and hilarious. It is incendiary and prescient, and what still impresses me is that such a profound clarion could come from a person so marginalised and so vulnerable. There’s no meekness or shame in Solanas’ writing; her work constitutes an absolute refusal of shame, and this from an abused and destitute woman. The writing’s power and Solanas’ own powerlessness exist in irreconcilable tension; this tension is what gives this work its explosive quality, a quality I have always aspired to within my own best writing.
In Solanas, Lock clearly found more than a role model in the conventional sense: she used her as a template from which to create her own literary self. Those adjectives are exactly ones we could apply to Lock and her own work: swift-witted, savvy, queer, feral, hyperbolic, excessive, polarising, hilarious, incendiary, prescient, marginalised, vulnerable, abused, destitute, explosive. The “irreconcilable tension” between an individual’s powerlessness in society and the power of their writing, is a reframing of anger which turns it not only into an artform, but also a reply to those who criticise her work for being angry for angry’s sake:
the most common and immediate response to such poetry is: the fuck was that? people understand rage. targeted rage. tied to an overt performance of identity. but this, i am told, is ‘oblique’, ‘diffuse’, ‘directionless’. why are you so angry? what are you angry about? it isn’t enough to say everything, everyone. they do not wish to be included.
Solanas has allowed Lock to own her rage, to fill it with all those adjectives she applies to ‘Saint Valerie’, as she calls her in a section of short prose poems in White/ Other (‘MEDITATIONS ON THE LIFE AND EXAMPLE OF SAINT VALERIE’: “better dykily psychotic, than a soother, a breeder, an ego booster […] we asked valerie for guidance: her head was a lantern in a lion’s mouth, inspecting error.”) So, as with all things, Lock’s anger becomes hers alone and can really only be understood on her terms.
Of the adjectives listed above, hilarious may be the word that stands out to some as untrue both for Solanas and Lock, but they are both humorous writers on occasion. “(T)he fuck was that?” is an example of her wit and close linguistic observation. Another is in her section title ‘LISTEN, FUCKER’, and in “by which I mean, shut up, who’s telling this thing anyway” at the end of ‘HORSE FLESH’; and in “what is rage without a body? rhetoric. an acousmatic fart in a jar” from ‘FORMS OF ENCHANTMENT’; another comes from Dogtooth: “Adding insult to Ian Drury. What?”; another from The Mystic and the Pig Thief: “My grief / is a fascist and it vaants to be alone.” Not to speak of the title of the final poem in Muses and Bruises: ‘Rag Town Girls Don’t Want to be in your Shitty Fucking Magazine / Anthology / Stable of Wanky, Middle-class Poets Anyhow’. Such funny / not funny morsels are sprinkled throughout her work, showing both a self-awareness and a sense of irony that is not allowed to develop, I suspect because Lock carefully controls and restrains her wit so that it doesn’t dilute the anger of which it is part.
Lock has always enjoyed wordplay, and especially soundplay that uses her exquisite poetic ear and imagination to turn language in on itself. She frequently plays words off against each other to unlock meanings and expose new angles on them
Lock has always enjoyed wordplay, and especially soundplay that uses her exquisite poetic ear and imagination to turn language in on itself. She frequently plays words off against each other to unlock meanings and expose new angles on them, often bringing in the Irish that she is teaching herself, making the most of their phonetics and etymologies (“broken tongue / broken english”; “more than the kyrie, than the caoin”; “halting site / halting state”; “alternate faces / identical fates”; and most effectively when she is in the incantatory mode of ‘the witch’: black calabash, black bowl, black drum. Black bow, black hole, black gold. We know what we owe, the slaughtered ewe, the warm embraceable you”).
This constant play with and analysis of words is partly because, again following Bourdieu and others, Lock is acutely aware of the interconnectedness of language and being – she is trapped in English as much as she is trapped in society’s structures. And she finds that all the writing that she does, both poetry and prose (and there is a lot of both when you start looking online) cannot express what she needs to express for the simple reason that it is English. She says she feels “the lack” of Irish in her, that “i am not sure english can be forced to hold these feelings”, and she claims, in what I find to be the most memorable comment in White/ Other, that she needs to speak Irish “for my mouth to be more than a basket of knives”. This is the only hint in the book that Lock wants to escape, at least sometimes, from her rage – she acknowledges elsewhere how “pretty wearing” it is to “inhabit a cultural world that simultaneously provokes response and silences reply”.
Shortly after this, we read a full page that repeats and repeats the italicised word money. Lock highlights the one word that many wealthy people prefer to make disappear from view, and underlines how being trapped in a language is part of being trapped within an economic / social system, ending with a comment both as politically profound as her comment about knives was personally profound:
the poor make money visible, we expose the underpinnings of the system in which we operate. we puncture the illusion that art and culture are magically exempt from money, that the position and status of elites are the result of exceptional merit. they fucking hate that.
The reader will make their own mind up as to whether they agree with Lock on this, but to me it feels deeply insightful.
There are hundreds of poets up and down the country entering or judging competitions, running or attending workshops, sending or receiving poetry submissions, but very few who write like they are pulling out their heart and slapping it down on a table before a shocked family. Fran Lock is one of them. I’ve never encountered a poet who pulls me in and pushes me away to such an equal extent. It may be (following all the arguments that Lock herself makes) that it is as impossible for a middle-class person to feel the rage she feels as it is for her not to feel it. And it is important for anyone who identifies as middle class to recognise that when Lock comments at the end of White/ Other:
when i say FUCK CAPITALISM i am telling you i love you
she is not speaking to you, but to “the workers”, “the poor” and to her “undocumented tribe”. Her radicalism is such that you are not and can never be included. That is the point of her work; and her radical genius is her ability to use language to forge a space for herself in which she can – perhaps hopelessly, but certainly uncompromisingly – other all those whom she sees as othering her and those who share her material position in society. She turns alienation entirely on its head.
Her radical genius is her ability to use language to forge a space for herself in which she can – perhaps hopelessly, but certainly uncompromisingly – other all those whom she sees as othering her and those who share her material position in society
When the reader leaves the poetic / literary space, where understanding and reflection are prioritised over agreement, and moves back to the political one where choices need to be made, they will need to decide what to do with the experience of engaging with this uniquely relentless and demanding artist. As Lock knows well, the most likely response for the vast majority of people will be to continue moderately with their lives just as before. But maybe, just maybe, not all.
Chris Edgoose is a poet and blogger at Wood Bee Poet. He lives near Cambridge in the UK, and has had work published in several magazines in print and online.