Alan Morrison on
Contains Mild Peril
I’m on catch up with the prolific work of Fran Lock, a poet whom I’ve come to hugely admire and respect on so many levels in recent years, and am going to have to take in stages my critical appreciation of her highly distinctive oeuvre which manages at once to be visceral and numinous, mysterious and confessional, intimate and political.
I begin this odyssey with two of Lock’s earlier collections (though not her earliest), both published by the excellent Outspoken-Press, two beautifully produced books with great attention to design detail, each with similarly geometric black and white cover designs, typeset in what appears to be 8pt or 9pt Baskerville, unfashionably small if not tiny print which symbiotically suits Lock’s intricately constructed, psychically meticulous, stream-of-consciousness style; it also, of course, helps to cram in as much material as possible within still relatively slim spines—and this is necessary as Lock is an unusually prolific poet, the words pour out from her in a Proustian sense.
Lock’s style is difficult to pin down as it is I think pretty unique in many ways, and it has mutated over the course of these two books alone from a Plathian free verse form to what is now her more recognisable and recognised tendency towards prose poetry (I mean here purely in terms of presentation on the page: Lock’s use of language is certainly not remotely prosaic, it is accutely poetic!) and what feels to be an almost anarchic renunciation of the capitalised line so that each new sentence starts with a lower case letter—I get the impression this is a symbolic and even political semiotic statement against literary and typographical convention; to the eye it gives a slightly spikey, punkish patina to the words on the page. I asked Lock about this and she elucidated further:
…it started as a way to encode intimacy and to signal immediacy; it's that compressed continuous overwhelm, everything coming at you at once, undifferentiated, that I'm trying to get down. Capitalisation can be about status, but it's also (I think) to do with creating these discrete parcels of objective time. It's a form of managing, mastery. The punctuation I mainly keep, because it isn't just a pause, but a glitch, an arrest. It's a hiccup in the smooth continuum of experience…
There is a definite pop or punk or post-punk sensibility at work in Lock’s poetry, which immediately makes one think of the more cthonic cult bands such as Joy Division (Ian Curtis is a spectre in Lock’s work, as are other cultic suicides such as Sylvia Plath and Tony Hancock), Siouxsie and the Banshees, and, in terms of dreamlike, neologismic poem titles (cue the first poem in Dogtooth: ‘Uplinked real-time nonversation’), gothic/ethereal ‘shoegazing’ groups such as Cocteau Twins, Lush and Stereo Lab.
The neologismic elements to Lock’s highly inventive ‘word salad’ chimes well with such contemporary projects as John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (suggested neologisms for myriad thoughts and feelings we don’t have words for; itself drawing on the lineage of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, 1967), while an ethereal, spectral quality to much of Lock’s imageries, symbolisms and leitmotifs seem to creep into a semiotic space only recently vacated by cultural theorist Mark Fisher (another tragic suicide) and his further development and critical application of postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of Hauntology (a portmanteau of haunting and ontology) as first expressed in his Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (1993)—I am at once conscious of the fact that I am myself here, in a way, deconstructing, a la Derrida, Lock’s work, which I suppose is partly my aim, as I am trying to understand it. A cascade of other adjectives accost me as I read Lock’s poetry: obsessive, vital, haunted, sepulchral, gothic, morbid, uncanny, ghostly, confessional, lacerating, disturbing.
Lock’s use of language is scrupulously poetic, there are no ‘flat’ or prosaic phrases anywhere, indeed, her poetic phrases, her figurative tropes, are almost impossibly constant and fluid to the point that her poems are in effect seams of aphorism; Lock is a poet who never allows herself the luxury of an occasional dull moment—her writing is as restless and constantly seeking as it is intense and torrid. Her images, descriptions, metaphors and turns of phrase seem in constant competition with one another for that ultimate Grail of originality in language that by definition is, for any poet, even one as gifted and original as Lock, ungraspable—since that very grasping after the ungraspable in language is the fundament of poetry in its attempt, and its attempt is everything, poetry is to attempt. Lock is a supreme attempter—just as Plath was, and Dickinson, and Sexton. The sheer warp and weft, curl and slap, fork and wind of Lock’s poetry gives it a tangibility on the page, a ripeness and sharpness and bittersweetness like a grapefruit stinging the tongue.
Mixed into this are the pungent spices of a Catholic part-Irish part-traveller background—what Lock terms herself ‘IrishTraveller/ Pavee heritage’—along with all the stigmas and prejudices that entails (some related pejorative terms which Lock reclaims, such as pikey).
Given Lock’s eye and ear for startlingly original images, portmanteaus and gymnastic leaps of language, it’s not entirely surprising that one of her poetic inspirators is the Victorian poet (and Jesuit priest) Gerard Manley Hopkins, pioneer of ‘sprung rhythm’—certainly there are many instances of sprung rhythm in Lock’s own prosodic equipment, her propulsive suprasegmentals. There’s also a Hughesian and Plathian sensibility in Lock’s use of therianthropic leitmotifs—in Lock’s case these tend to be of the canine and canis varieties: dogs, jackals, wolves, hyenas (these have synthesized into her later/more recent Hyena-themed collections).
Couched in her proem is one phrase with which Lock crystallises the spirit of Dogtooth: ‘It’s about ghosts’. A large part of Lock’s linguistic genius (and I don’t use the latter word lightly) is in so seamlessly merging contemporary and popular-culture images, memes, slang, neologisms and textspeak with an historically literate, nostalgic, hauntological awareness. Take this beautifully wrought passage from the first poem ‘Uplinked real-time nonversation’ and also note its keen assonance (particularly the o-sounds) and alliteration:
Old Men getting glassy, wonked
on shots. Prominent rascals catching-up
on commie goss. And cousins bronzed in
Monodon daylight, pissed-up in Primark
on second-hand sofas. Goddaughters
glitching like microbes, cybertising Brides
of Christ, textperts savvying word blobs
with swasticky fingers.
This is a perfect example of Lock’s image-packed compact poetry—all the key features are here: striking images (‘glassy’) and symbols, buoyant assonance (‘Old’, ‘on shots’, ‘on commie goss’, ‘Monodon’), unobtrusive alliteration, portmanteau (‘swastiky’). There’s also a treat for Beatles officianados with the Lennonism ‘textperts’ from the sublime ‘I Am The Walrus’: ‘expert textpert choking smokers’—this might also be a hermeneutic micro-quip of Lock’s as the seeming nonsense lyric of Lennon’s ‘Walrus’ was intended to elicit myriad interpretations from fans who hung on his every word, just as he later recapitulated in ‘Glass Onion’. Here are some other excerpts from the same poem which particularly struck me: ‘Here comes the bride: billows brace/ in mainsail rococo; an adlibbed bulge/ that gathers the air under it’; ‘Dose of medicinal/ defib and you’re getting nasty: Marble-/ mouthed bitch’, and:
He's coming through, though, in patches
like rubbed brass. He’s coming through.
It hurts. This vivisected kinship. Not
being there, being there, and all
the capslocking slanguage in the world
won’t bring me home.
Note the double neologism of ‘capslocking slanguage’; while ‘vivisected kinship’ is distinctly Plathian. This passage from ‘The view from here’ is particularly effective in its use of sense impression: ‘Go outside: an odour/ of growth in green spaces, pungent suds of bittercress/ and wild chevril, a smell like mildewed body heat’. In ‘Saturday, South of the River’ Lock hits on a serendipitous homophonic complement: ‘Night is best, far/ from football’s ritual milieu; Millwall, wilting gloom of cafés, foodbank faces turned to pique.’ There’s a bravura burst of b-alliteration: ‘To city walls, sabretooth with scaffold; to/ brace against a storm of noise, vibrate in/ basements to vintage din’; and a striking image: ‘daylight drilled into council/ tenancies, migraine slicing our brains/ like limes.’
‘Rise and Shine’ contains some strikingly original aural sense-impression: ‘The taps weep rust; the bins, unrepentant/ with mixed plastics’ and ‘We sit side/ by side with our relative rasping. We huff air/ through blue inhalers.’ This poem closes on a potent trope: ‘tangently mobile. Gentrified.’ ‘Postcode Lottery’ has a Joycean mythopoeic aspect: ‘Cheam is a rich white man behind a wheel, bobble-/ headed, like an incubated baby. Old. He looms and he/ spindles. Odysseus, utterly voyaged, spent in a camel coat, mocked by fate.’ At times I’m reminded of the aphorismic prose of Iain Sinclair, particularly in his Hackney, that Rose-red Empire (2009).
‘Border Country’ gives us a cascade of striking images, sense impressions and wonderful mostly o-assonantal play:
…Long before I saw I
smelled the mildew, ditches, burning rubber –
your own impoverished pheromone, love. I breathed
it in. I found a place to wash, watched over by old
men, slumped at their insolvent leisure. I watched
them, astute to dominoes, and full of bellyaching
acumen. They tot the score, and cheat with slurred
compunction. I breathe it in and go, out into the fly
tipped half-light; the rim of the world is glowing
like a muted television.
Particularly resonant are phrases such as ‘insolvent leisure’ which perfectly encapsulate the paradox of capitalist society where the spare time of millions is compromised by poverty, whether working poor or unemployed; and in the built-in obsolescence of consumer culture is there any better image for impotence, inertia and acedia than ‘muted television’? Lock is a poet incapable of a dull line, her every description is in some sense compelling, as in ‘Narrow streets, cottages encumbered by an unenticing quaintness’, or the startlingly alliterative ‘Women whisper like slow punctures, hiss with all the nosey pageantries of powerlessness’, and ‘He has terrible teeth, the snide panache of small town disgrace,/ a tattoo of Christ’s wounds with roses’.
‘On small towns’, possibly about Lock’s native Ireland, closes enigmatically: ‘Everything blue/ and a green that gives no comfort. I remember/ an argumentative beauty. A desert of fences:/ You don’t belong.’ ‘Bucolic’ gifts us some stunning tropes: ‘the glistening finite guile that vodka gives’, ‘the starveling and the culprit,/ spooning in the camera’s shallow lens’, and ‘The landlord come, with a fat arithmetic of fingers, gastric/ juggernaut bearing down.’ ‘The street where you live’ closes on the assonantally striking line: ‘We blow/ our hair about in exhaust from the weed strewn forecourt.’ These are pungent images of urban decay. ‘In the biopic of your life’ proffers the a-assonantal ‘the singling/ arithmetic of fists; sad ballads at/ a parched standstill in music halls’ and the wonderfully dark, Stevie Smith-esque ‘All the while/ the whatchamacallit mountain/ lowers its shadow like a coffin.’ Lock’s world is intense, seething, beautiful but hostile: ‘He breathes out, catches the morning on/ the back of his neck like a blade’ (‘In Louth’).
The Plathian ‘Carrickmines’ contains some astonishing images, alliteration and assonance, and also includes another Lockian neologism:
…Girl in the mongrel boast
of her body melts into morsel and melts
into remnant, is white, transmits as static,
the shoppingy hype of snow. White as
a rind of bacon, girl. Birdly girl migrates
a sigh. Whose ghosts are these?
This poem is at once Plathian and Smithian in its bewitching fairy tale images: ‘An aunt who/ carries her eyes in her apron. The man/ with one forensic inch of English.’ Then another striking passage employing highly effective o-assonance: ‘Here comes your/ lolloping, fogbound God who blows on/ his idiot slanders like glass’, and a little later, ‘Boys, barged in the glottal stop. Stop.’ Sometimes Lock’s poems read almost like spells or incantations. Not only are there resonances of Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith in Lock’s oeuvre, but also Anne Sexton, and Angela Carter (with whom Lock shares a therianthropic affinity—cue Carter’s Wolves and Lock’s Hyenas of later collections I’ll tackle in due course).
‘Beloved Monsters’ hurtles forth with a Rimbaudian cascade of imageries:
To the East End, our elbows out. The streets exhale
their phlegms and sulphurs; styrofoams and botulisms.
Boutiques are union bunting, collective dread, pink
cubes of meat. A market crush, a cargo cult: a wooden
Christ, a scrimshawed skull, an orange bowl
abandoning its broken marbles one by one. The flat
damp day breaks into sherds, our fragments crack –
to the crock pot or the clay pipe, the brooch without
a back. The Thames and her tidal detritus. Lean boys
eating curried treyf; the girl we both half want to kiss
on her red, too red, and lacqueredly lips.
A ‘sherd’ is a ceramic fragment found in the earth (anyone who has seen John Griffith Bowen’s disturbing folk horror Play for Today, Robin Redbreast (1970), will shudder at the archaic term as uttered by Bernard Hepton’s intrusive Mr. Fisher). A reference to I Corinthians 15: 54-57 via John Donne’s ‘Sonnet 10’ is followed by a rejoinder worthy of Stevie Smith: ‘I think of Death, where is thy sting?/ And it’s spitty tea with a chaser of grease.’ ‘Superpowers’ similarly impresses with its painterly images:
a street we are always approaching through rain
where girls with the bright, flat look of tattoos go
by. The scurvy brickwork weeps, and if you walk
through the Jewellery Quarter you might meet
a man: miraculously hunched, with a loupe in
his eye. He is bent double; he is going about
the truculent astronomy of diamonds.
I’m assuming ‘scurvy brickwork’ is an allusion to ‘sailor course’ where bricks are laid vertically with the wide edge facing outward. Lock’s poetry is rich in all manner of cultural allusions, ancient, historical and contemporary, religious and mythological: ‘We are much as we were: pecked/ at by the Neighbourhood Eumenides, burnt in/ effigy, day-jobbed to death’ (‘Welcome home’)—again there’s Lock’s mythopoeic approach to poetry and the contemporary. There is also often a spiritualistic seam running through Lock’s work, as in ‘Ghost Fancier’s Ball’:
Our minds on silent vibrate,
we drink to what it is ghosts know: atomic
weight of tenderness, and how to stand
the working week, its insults to the soul.
Here is the sense, as in much of Lock’s poems, of earthly existence as essentially Purgatory. Ghosts and memories haunt this imperfect and anguished present which Lock expresses with sublime lyiricism:
Home to faded photographs,
the faces white and smooth as blisters
now. Home to neck the dark and hungry
hour when panic comes alone.
In ‘Poem in which there’s a ghost in the snow’ there’s the beautifully eerie line: ‘The house is all closed up. She has hung in/ its tary detachment for days’. ‘Panpipes’ is a slightly narrower-lined poem which contains some startling imageries: ‘the wailing, scallop-/ faces of the poor’, and:
wafts greased steam, paper bags of
bleachy sweets, and the trundling
manoeuvres of community support,
nodding like sodding daffodils.
Candles cough a scented breath and wag
their black tongues like starlings.
like a wound being bathed; like a child
forcing a carsick sob on its birthday.
Once more Lock’s mostly o-assonantal and b-consonantal phrases lend a buoyant sing-song quality to the sound of the lines, not to say some internal rhymes (‘nodding’, ‘sodding’)—the phrase ‘sodding daffodils’, with its striking o-assonance and alliterative ds, manages to sound poetic even if at the same time its slanginess recalls the gruff East Midlands Poet Board inspector who’s come to ‘read’ the Wordsworth in the understairs cupboard in the Monty Python sketch ‘A Poet in Every Home’:
Inspector Morning, madam, I’ve come to read your poet.
She Oh yes, he’s in the cupboard under the stairs.
Inspector What is it, a Swinburne? Shelley?
She No, it’s a Wordsworth.
Inspector Oh, bloody daffodils.
There is more imagery and imaginative description in one single Lock poem than in most other poets’ entire collections—‘Achieving zero’ is awash with images:
Today your case worker comes to
count the calcites you’re deficient in; she’s a bitch,
an incremental killjoy. Your skin has the give
of a drawstring velvet purse, the pills they give
you weigh like coin. You’ll spit them up, you’ll
walk another mile; bristle with a pink, unfriendly
music. You are a conch, a rack on which the sea
is stretched to hollow screaming. Today the sun
in its saffron trumpery, blinding; registered nurse
with her acid-casualty smile. …Your spine is
a coloured twist of glass inside a marble; your
limbs locked into unlucky alignments, bent
under a maverick gravity. …Your pelvic
floor is a paper moon; you walk these corridors
like a nineteen-forties movie star. Screw them!
Those doctors, their limp shtick, their cult
of wounds. At night you tilt the long skulls
of ex-lovers to your lips, like a woman drinking
champagne from a shoe.
The simile of that last line is particularly surprising and striking—what we might call a Lockian simile. The av- and ev- assonance/alliteration of ‘maverick gravity’ and ‘pelvic’ revs up the verse. The image of the ‘spine’ as ‘a coloured twist of glass inside marble’ is particularly striking. ‘On being still so young at heart’ seems to be a eulogy to a friend or perhaps ex-lover who died through drug overdose:
A grief we cannot measure, merely record.
And there you are, and M, and M, and boys
I barely remember. Their small-town rural
graves immense with nettles. Don Juannabes
with signet rings. Tadgh, his mangled laugh,
and long arms a pristine acre of needles. No
real difference between clean and empty.
I particularly like the image of the ‘graves immense with nettles’, and a-assonances and g-alliterations of ‘Tadgh, his mangled laugh, and long arms’. We also get another Lockian neologism in ‘Don Juannabes’. This is a relatively short poem and yet is still jam-packed with arresting images and turns of phrase: ‘And God, the girls you left behind, the bloom/ and funk of us, abstemious and legion.’
The next poem taps in to a contemporary tech-anxiety for many of us: ‘My social media presence’. There’s some stunning o-assonance and g-consonance in the line: ‘I like the hellbent/ hiccupping flight of pigeons, the rag/ and bone genetics of mongrel dogs.’ There’s a wonderfully haunting passage which plays uncannily on the perpetual present-ness of social media:
I live between archive and chronical,
with old men decaying in greatcoats;
with unpopular children whose sense
of shame is a skipping rhyme.
Lock emphasizes how she is always with the poor, who are, of course, ‘always with us’ (Matthew 26:11):
…I am with you,
whose week is a free school meal
and a kick to your coveting guts.
I am with hobbledeboys, dressed
for shit, their pinkish graffiti on
underwhelmed shutters. And the bear
trap braces of the National Health.
And puberty’s unsigned plaster casts.
The first line of ‘The ghost in you’ is simply beautiful in its phraseology: ‘Half asleep my spilling fancy drifts, and thoughts/ of you are clothed in primrose smoke.’ This poem also proffers the striking line: ‘…the numbing decorum of hospitals,/ bovine with fever, the slow bromide of psychosis.’ The title poem of this collection is one of the narrower-lined variety. Here we gain some insights into Lock’s feelings for her Irish Catholic background delivered as ever in lyrically breath-taking turns of phrase:
…I need you now
for how we both possessed the tousled
guilt of children. High Mass as
pyromaniacal bliss, the whooping
awe of boys. The church and its long,
recriminating torch song. I need you
now, sad as the crop-failed folk ballads
of our youth…
Once again Lock produces some wonderful o-assonance and b-consonance:
…You live a warm besotting
of the blood, by blood’s own softly
growling banjax. You are singing,
smudging a lullaby. Slight bliss.
And again in the superlative imagery of the following line: ‘your chipped tooth whistling/ like bottles on allotments, your body/ making music out of emptiness –/ as the wind does.’ In ‘Your presence, dear’ Lock’s descriptive powers reach a peak:
Hawley, the squat, the dense and trafficking
air, ripe grease, the whiff of doorways.
Camden has its palsies and its trench foot still,
its drunk and hobbled rhetoric. But it goes on.
The sentiment is painfully beautiful: ‘I love you. I love/ the rent shape your absence makes in air.’ ‘Cohort’ is the longest and densest of the poems in Dogtooth—unsurprisingly, then, it is packed with sublime images and phrases:
There will be no poetry. I will not rise in light the colour
of medical waste, with blood’s black cartridge low on ink,
to sing the aggrotastic wassail of working-class catchment;
to sing the asymmetric faces of all those truant youth who
dined on fire. There will be no poetry, or only for those
petrol-headed prodigies of somnolence, boys on gaunt
corners, solanine and gobshite, gasping in alleyways, their
hands sweating currency at three a.m. when blue light
bathes the deviated streets like Tiger Balm.
Note again the prominence of a- and o-assonances here; and the portmanteau ‘aggrotastic’. I love the sporadic repetition of the phrase ‘There will be no poetry’ throughout this poem. There are so many striking imageries: ‘shop-lifted nerve trembles with a desperate jetlag’ and ‘folding in their locust limbs in doorways’. Again I really do feel a strong Rimbaudian quality to Lock’s piercingly poetic prose, especially when it takes on a declamatory tone:
Friends I have lost to the maledicted mufti of unemployment
blackspots. Boys, whose stooped regalia gave them away,
dressed in poverty’s erring fashion: ashy face and earring;
friends, whose desolated smiles disgorge a hardboiled fist
of stars, an anti-English spit embracing broken teeth. These
are the boys with numb lips bending local cant like spoons,
swept up in grief’s swooning pheromone, horny and crooning,
a little in love with violence, fizzing with an aggravated
lambency, forsaking clinics for Brixton, the lairy aquarium
light of bars, of clubs. Boys, whose sooty humour groomed
itself in station toilets
That last alliterative line is pungently evocative. The assonantal echoing in ‘lairy aquarium’ is magical. The lines ‘swooning pheromone, horny and crooning’ and ‘sooty humour groomed’ are beautiful examples of o-assonance. To my mind, or rather, to my eye and ear, this is supreme poetry, whose almost prose-shape on the page is almost an impudent irony given the exceptionally heightened language—I’m also reminded very much of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl. ‘Cohort’ is I think the most highly accomplished poem of Dogtooth—and that says something given the high quality of every poem in this collection; this polemical poem is an Aladdin’s Cave of highly memorable and astonishing poetic flourishes:
…His arms are ink and inhibited
uptake. The suits recoil from pasty slang, the bravado
of hard time pulled like teeth from a busted mouth
that slurs its larcenous melancholy; his lips wear white
blisters, baccy burns like seed pearls, semi-preciously
encrusted, a treasury of eczemas. This is his song, who
makes vocation of his cravings, climbing panic like
a ladder to Benzedrine epiphany…
in an opiated Arcady; swirling a drunk shadow
like a matador; a listless Icarus whose thin
wings rustle into fire between nicotine fingers. What
clocks will stop for him? For any of these refugees,
our symptomatic heartland banging gavels in our sleep.
There’s some acidic sibilance in the line: ‘his wrists in the philistine slings of self-/ harm, sickly and grimacing.’ The imagery in this poem is of suffering and pain in privation:
… Martyn, in a disowned
ambiance of damp plaster, scutty linen, excuses worn
with sheets and soles, and scaling peaks of spiking
fever while his kidneys cease to function.
This is seemingly another eulogy for a deceased friend, possibly a suicide:
…Depression curls us in on ourselves
like trigger fingers; balled on the floor like dead wasps,
like – like nothing I can throw a motor-mouthed metaphor
at. Instead I hollow out a place to fold your name in
orange flowers and paper. Martyn, yes. And all the rest.
The Rimbaudian declaiming begins to ring more despairingly, the perennial frustration at the ultimate limitations of words to express so many nuances of feeling and thought:
… I do
not sing, I cannot, for those who gave up life to boneless
vertigo, fritzing in the pristine light of hospitals, retching
black emetic against memory…
Haggard, clamant, knowing only what we
ran from: priests, phone-tapping bogeys, the God-
bothered prerogatives of home. Which is only broken.
Dogtooth is a masterwork of urban lyricism—if Lock wrote nothing else she’d have already, in this one slim book alone, contributed enough to British poetry to secure her reputation. But it’s clear from the sheer expressive power, imaginative vision and linguistic propulsion of this collection that this is a poet with much, much more to say…
So along comes the wonderfully titled Contains Mild Peril, two years later… The collection kicks off with ‘Last exit to Luton’, about a teenage Lock on a joy ride with her boyfriend, we find her ‘wearing white denim, spotless as a chorister, and we are sculling the druggy gale between the tyre shop and the roundabout’. She describes an awkward episode of teenage sex as ‘pliant writhing in a narrow bed that howls like a chimney’. Her phrase ‘spousal apathy’ sounds perennial in terms of its meaning yet I’m not sure I’ve heard it before. There’s palpable alliteration and assonance: ‘I’m lipping limoncello, lisping citronella, reeling round my handbag like a wasp around a bin.’ Her boyfriend’s back is ‘baroque with spots’.‘A rough guide to modern witchcraft’ starts off in typically rich image-dripped Lockian style as she instructs the recipe of her spell:
To begin with, an incision in the blanched cerebellum of a cauliflower, a pale obol of hot fat. Open up
the pomegranate’s ripe encrusted lung; wrap your amulets of garlic in the white chantilly crepe of tripe.
The anatomical descriptions of fruit and vegetable is particularly effective—I’ve often thought of the brain like a cauliflower, but the pomegranate/lung paring is particularly leftfield though no less effective. The description ‘the slippery white ganglion of a soft-boiled egg’ is also wonderful. While ‘reckless bite of bitter fruit’ is deliciously alliterative. ‘Precarity’ contains more sublime flourishes of imagery:
The needy span of claret in a flashlight, an aggravated purity,
something sore and hurt. How do I love you? Like Christ, his
upturned dumpling face afloat in the golden miso of his own
holiness. Young and born, sunblessed and remedial-exquisite.
There’s something of Dylan Thomas in the galvanizing opening of ‘The Rites of Spring’:
Long day awash with wheezing breath, sadsoft
mood of lesser nettles, heading home at five a.m.
Our mutant cohort treading weather, unkempt
earliness we walk, in transports, tribal blankets,
pixie-hooded, resolute. Come again to London:
affrighted sky, beleaguered wage, the rage we
bargain into grief. Count the ribs of half-starved
dogs while city women shriek like zips. This is
spring, the whole world running with green
scissors, a cockadoodle spite beneath their skin.
Note the portmanteau ‘sadsoft’. From the brighter start of the poem the imageries become darker and grimmer but no less energetic and striking for it: ‘Back, to days spent lying better-dead against the corkscrew guts of mattresses’ is an example of Lock’s animistic personification technique of describing inanimate objects and furniture as if they are animals or at least their carcases or fossils. The images flow thick and fast, it’s as if Lock’s pen is constantly trying to catch up with a stream of consciousness:
… And we will seek dark spaces,
fold our arms like pharaohs, close our eyes until
fury’s gold implosion finds us, sunshine after
cinema. Then we will rise, practise our pagan
ablutions: boys in stonewashed mood swings…
The poem closes on a Thomasian nocturnal note:
… Hush now, hush. The night
is the ambient temperature of a carsick sob,
and in the scrubby parkland the litter bins
are trying their very best to grow.
‘Devil’ gifts us the alliterative image ‘Fat white tonsils of mistletoe’, and the perhaps more generic but no less evocative ‘ice-cream headache’. ‘On weekends’ finds Lock in Plathian vein but as ever with her own curious tilt:
And now we are so used to blood we
miss the silly crimson pity of it. I dream of
hardmen, the torturer’s tweezers; of scholars
supplanting their teeth in basement gardens.
It’s there, but you miss it. I don’t miss
a thing. It’s always there, the aura before
a seizure, inside my expendable circuitry
This is a particularly dark poem, but deliciously so. Lock turns an adage on its head to fit out dystopian anarcho-capitalist times of grotesque inequalities: ‘The rich are always with us, their hexentanz and agonies.’ Lock switches from Plathian to Eliotic: ‘I dream of muti and suitcases; grown men/ stabbed in their Camden hamlets, eyes without/ faces, world without end.’ These are nightmarish imageries but no less beguiling for it.
How many contemporary poems begin as arrestingly and distinctively as ‘Dazzler’:
No, not a duchess, whose nature is a dance of iridescing,
but a pallid aspie with a smoker’s cough. I sit in the kitchen
for hours at a time, compete with the fruit in the fruit bowl
Wonderful d-alliteration and u- and i-assonance apart, this one line immediately tells the reader so much about the poem’s speaker. The poem starts, as so many of Lock’s poems do, as if we’ve suddenly interrupted one of the poet’s internal monologues midway through, hence the candid openness and particularity. In some senses, then, many of Lock’s poems are essentially internal monologues, and often stream-of-consciousness ones punctuated with aphoristic serendipities: ‘Nighttime is a paregoric lozenge. I am stately.’ There is a painterly quality to Lock’s hues and nuances: ‘corrode and fold into souk blue shadow.’ Lock’s muse dabbles in the sublime more than seems plausible: ‘My legs don’t work, won’t run. Prognosis: mermaid.’
There are shades of Plath’s The Bell Jar in Lock’s ‘Some small beseeching’:
… I’ve come to hate the hospitals:
a nurse with lipstick on her teeth, the sucked in guts
of injured pride, discrete catastrophe. I cannot cry, I said.
I’m not afraid of death, hygienic adversary with the self-
effacing smile. His breath is arak, acetone, erodes
the stone I stand on. I am not afraid. He schleps my
splendored guilts in his sample case, all swatches
and bottles; his handshake an affected palsy. He’s
afraid of me. But come, darkness. My head is surrounded:
immoderate swallows whose sharpened beaks will seek
to break a vein. I am so tired, so sick of either ritual or
physic, anything you’d throw to dogs… I will not dream,
to see himrising like a phoenix out of seizure. I will apply
myselfto blindness… I’ll spurn Atropos first, an
alkaloidal siren, shit-faced at a ribbon cutting. Bitch, put
down your scissors or you’re going to get hurt. Come
dark, no more of this. Or illness’ quotidian perfume,
the fevered sheets of invalids, the prematurely wept.
I cannot cry. I won’t. But I will be the broom with which
the beach is swept. The sea will cover everything. A salt
estate that makes a nonsense of denial.
Note the internal rhyme of ‘wept/swept’. Lock’s ingenuity of phrasing is constantly remarkable, she is a vocabular poet who also goes beyond vocabulary by regenerating the semantic gene pool with semi-neologisms, portmanteaus and gerunds (verbs turned to nouns with the suffix -ing). In the former poem we get ‘alkaloidal’, and in the next poem, ‘On insomnia’, we get ‘algacidal light’. Lock makes highly effective use of v- z- and k-consonance om the following passage:
… The voices. His voice,
broadcast on your remedial frequency, making its way
through a rubbishy dusk, the streetlamps beaming fizzy glow
like Lucozade. You will never be whole. Vomit o’clock
and the brain is Kraken, white and shaking…
And in: ‘A girl with high Yorick cheekbones drags a false nail down the scratchy surface of a bri-nylon sleeplessness.’ There’s a kind of dark Coleridgean Romanticism to this poem:
… And you are pining the rhinestone
shine of a lost narcotism. Now trauma’s your ergotamine.
Trauma, your ergot, your argot of rye. Awful thought
that treads the brain’s rank breath. Silence. Pray silence.
Pray the dark room away, the candles, the pious vibrations
of flame; the dim bulb with its gospel of moths, one
hundred pairs of gloved hands clasped to powder.
Marooned in your gooseflesh…
Lock’s coinage ‘a gospel of moths’ is certainly highly original though the actual collective noun for moths is the equally poetic ‘eclipse’, which presumably refers to their hovering round light sources. A familiar momentum of image-montage upon image-montage almost like a poetic collage keeps the eyes—excuse the pun—glued to the page:
… It’s three a.m. the mind’s alive
like frostbite, a cold burn that blackens things. Your
graphite smile could shatter. Thoughts of him have
poisoned you, rust in the blood. You have not eaten
for days, you mottle, run your own hands over your
oxidising thighs, watch the bruises ripen to a landmass,
a landmark, a brave new world, a here be dragons.
You listen to yourself, creaking like rope; your body, its
canned laughter repeating mean and low, throwing
out thought according to the malnourished algorithm
some devil has devised…
At this point, I’m reminded of the equally exceptional poetic prose of Andrew Jordan, particularly from his portmanteau-masterwork Hegemonick (2012). These passages are particularly Plathian in tone and imagery:
teeth of your disorder. He will not come again. Sleep will
not come, and make an amnesty of bandages, the white
ribbons rendering you prematurely maypole. It will not
wrap you. It will not keep you. It will not launder or
succour you. It will break into your ballerina box, will
chew the jewels from their semi-precious sockets, set
them pulsing in your frontal lobe. Your heart has
a headache. Drink raw egg. Or Dettol. It’s up to you.
The sky is pasteurised by thunder…
‘Giallo’ leaps off the page from its very start:
I was made for tantrum and for schnapps, for tenebrated
nakedness, libidinous guignol. You might not think so,
but it’s true. Pamper the hatchet, play for me those three
black keys in a scorpion chord. …
The first line of ‘Gentleman Caller’ gifts a simply stunning image: ‘The Cavan night aspires to knives; a dog with a prominent/ spine is moving among the empties like a broken plough.’ We are into Lockian therianthropic territory with the imageries in this poem:
I watch our starveling Tom steering
his long shadow between the table legs. I smile. I was
a young girl once and moved like a cat’s shadow.
… They called me fox, for the teaseled
burlesque of my redbrown hair. They called him bear,
he carried a razorblade under his nail…
There’s also the beguiling line: ‘He was in my/ brain, my blood, like spring’s green treatment.’ ‘And I will consider the yellow dog’ is subtitled ‘After Christopher Smart’ referring to the 18th century poet who was for a time sent to a mental asylum for perceived ‘religious mania’ and who ended his days tragically in a debtors’ prison. It begins intriguingly:
And Smart saw God concentric in his cat.
Smart’s cat, artificing faith from cyclone
volition. There is no God in you, yellow
dog. Your breath is our daily quicksand
There’s a particularly beautiful poetic flourish about midway in the poem:
… And I will
consider your eyes, their hazel light
a gulp of fire, those firewater eyes,
holding now a numb depth down,
and milkier flickering monthly.
There are some curious phrasings throughout possibly evoking the period: ‘Our frank amaze at your hardy/ smarts!’ The poem closes on the resonant: ‘A yellow dog comes only/ once and is hisself: brilliant, final and entire.’ ‘A ghost in our house’ is a hauntingly sublime meditation on poverty:
I don’t know why. But I do know this:
when you’ve been hungry then nothing
is ever enough.
Hunger remembers, hunger records,
like tape, like stone. In the dark our
hungers mushroom, become a fungus
in the lung.
The chiming of ‘hungers’, ‘fungus’ and ‘lung’ is particularly effective. This powerful poem closes on a lingering image:
At the upmost top of the stairs on
the landing, what’s left of you is standing
like a darker patch of dark.
I’ve often thought Lock’s poetry has much in common with Sylvia Plath’s in terms of mood, tone and imageries, so a Lockian nod to Plath is perhaps inevitable, certainly it is necessary, and comes in the form of “Daddy’, indeed’ subtitled ‘After Sylvia Plath’—and it certainly is consciously composed in Plathian style with disturbingly visceral images:
A male muse should remain buried.
You rise like a red velvet curtain. You
rise to thread that fat part of your smile
through a curved hook. Your smile, most
unmentionable worm. Brocade of skin.
Your mouth has been a shrine I fringe
with fire, or feed with coal. There’s smoke
enough to swell a chimney. You are not
dead. The wardrobe isn’t closed, and no
cold shirts yearn for you. I am milking
my long fingers. I take off my gloves
with my teeth…
It’s difficult to think of many other, or even any other, contemporary female poets who can pull this kind of Plathian mood piece off so uncannily as Lock:
… A male muse should
remain among the inveterate-earthed
with mud under his tongue. You rise
to retrieve your fist from the wall.
Your body is soft. You sustained
your softness like an injury. You have
no discipline. You have pinned your
discipline to your children. To the Irish.
To your Irish child. To your Mormon Christ.
‘Dear Comrade’ is equally visceral as its immediate predecessor, and Plathian:
for coffee’s unprincipled liquorice spree. Our tongues
will turn the loamy earth like spades. We know where to
go: away from all the wet brains running their frictionless
mouths; the carbon-neutral haircuts, declaiming their cold
idea. Ours is an afternoon’s bruised republic: a creaking
stair, the crooning French, a semi-coherence of weather,
words. Where poems come, these cannibal colossi, eat
the flesh that falls from me. Art, in carnivorous mufti, puts
out a pristine polar light, as finite as a trial…
I love the phrase ‘bruised republic’. A little further on we get: 'pure as a Medici pearl. We do not see the world the way they do,/ want parables and tangerines; velvet lapels, the gold auratic/ swell of holy things'. The poem closes on a coldly poetic note: '… God save us,/ from the petty spiral of hindsight; from forgetting/ under London skies, to count out each shivering,/ ostracised star'. ‘True Confessions of a Catholic Schoolgirl’ is composed in longer lines: '… Mine is a mood/ you might take tweezers to; my mood resisting spring’s green peek-a-boo,/ with cats alive in the redolent hedges. Despair’s a kind of clockwork lust'. In ‘The Miracle of the Rose’ there’s something almost Neoplatonist in the opening line: ‘I want you to buy me a rose so perfect/ it is a logo of a rose.’ ‘Happiness’ is sublimely lyrical with some more beautiful images: ‘the paschal stink of churches; is beauty as a Byzantine rite’, ‘a skyline bandaged with factories’, ‘love’s low wattage on a leafy day’, while the phrase ‘anxious gallop’ is less serene and in many ways describes Lock’s style.
‘Drink with friends’ gifts us some more beguiling images such as ‘tallowy arms’. There’s a Plathian tone in the acidy imagery: 'God is sieved through drink,
her thoughts are chemical plankton, phosphorescing,/ strobing, sifted, drifting, gone'. And the closing passage is particularly Plathian, wrought with glorious alliteration, assonance and sibilance:
Here is the gilded Papal slug
of Goldschläger, its slick cowlicks of fire
dancing in her head. Here is her face,
flat and grubby as a used nicotine patch.
And here is her stung knuckle, a reliquary,
In ‘On trauma’ we get the following flourish: '… The scurried/ burlesque of suburbia, preternatural nets atwitch for/ the kid who kept to himself, his melon-head pranked/ open: unpopular, ginger, and they didn’t mean it'. There are occasions when Lockian images are oblique: ‘Behold: the skull/ exhibits its cracked-spinel eye!’ Lock is particularly skilled with consonance which she uses whether consciously or not to frequent cutting, spikey effect, as at the start of ‘Rock bottom’:
He walked out over the estuary, like King
Cnut contradicting the tide. He walked until
the numb pearlescent light spread from his
waist like a grey soutane.
A ‘soutane’ for the uninitiated a type of cassock worn by Roman Catholic priests. It soon becomes clear that this is someone walking into the sea and about to drown themselves: ‘He walked with/ his hands at his sides, his white cuffs/ trailing like paper boats’, and:
… He stepped
into vanishing, knelt without solemnity
or fervour, was met by a velvety purring
dark. And this is how I picture him,
marbled, cosseted and drowsing, on a bed
of blue anemones. His smile a lustring
relic, eyes like sunken stars.
Lock’s choice of enjambments is interesting here, particularly ‘purring/ dark.’ In ‘On guillotines’ Lock has more aphorisms aplenty—this nicely alliterative one: 'What am I afraid of?/ The woman next door, her Mersey perm; men/ in general, ridicule and malnutrition'. There’s never an ounce of complacency in Lock’s poetry, but always the sense of a poet constantly in pursuit of surprising turns of phrase: 'He inflates himself/ like a blood pressure cuff; he’s brown and bones/ as a peat bog sacrifice. Make another cup of tea'. The Plathian aspects to Lock’s poetry are almost always counterbalanced with a wry sense of humour: 'His ee-i-ad-i-oh banging
a gong in my knotty gourd. I could lose the plot. But/ mine is a sapling madness, bends and does not break'. This poem closes on a deft internal rhyme: 'Peers of the Realm,/ their padlocked luck, their lack of a clue, their big/ ideas: they’re coming for me. After that they’ll be/ coming for you'.
In ‘Children of the Night’ there’s a stunning musical trope: ‘I finger my playlist louder; bite down on a payload of miniature bliss,/ sugar steeped in sweet hibiscus ‘sinthe. Apéritif, I let it rock and fold/ me.’ There’s an equally striking passage which has all the painterly Grand Guignol of a Goya painting:
… Camden, a dithering grammar of knives; repertoire
of wounds and juices. I am at home here, my hunger is at home. I
chew my tongue. He’s looming again, blue gummed and smudgy-
goth, Grimaldi with emetic mouth, black lipstick on…
The g- and m-alliterations here—‘Camden’, ‘grammar’, ‘hunger’, ‘looming’, ‘gummed’, ‘smudgy-goth’, ‘Grimaldi’, ‘emetic mouth’—are palpable. And how true and yet seldom cited in poetry is the following contemporaneous trope: ‘Weekends are worst, the worst, a hotwire in the head, and eff all on the telly.’ This poem—excuse the pun—comes to a climax in a visceral and explicitly depicted sex scene laced with adolescent lust and Catholic guilt:
… I pick him up in clubland,
flaunted and scoring; beckon him back with a breath that smells
of wet cement; with a breath that smells of spent matches, ethanol
and atropine. He doesn’t notice, and I must feed, skimpily fetish
in leather and lace. Gorgeous short-changeling, up fer it. I can
taste hairspray, aftershave and high alarm. I run my tongue
across my teeth, and test his fine raised veins like braille. He falls
back, acutely climaxed, shipwrecked on a daybed, preened in his
own mildewed pearls. His eyes are wide, his skin is cold. I roll
him over, wipe my mouth along my sleeve. Blood’s red pheromone
loose in the room. My dress is Gideon Bible Black. I belong to this
place. Forever, amen.
The title poem, ‘Contains Mild Peril’, contains—to paraphrase Walt Whitman—multitudes in the form of various mainly female figures from mythology and history which serve as a series of leitmotivs—they include consumptive Pre-Raphaelite artist, poet and model Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal (who died at 32, probably by suicide), the ‘bathtub Ophelia’ for Millais’ iconic Ophelia, Madonna, and Medusa, but also male figures such as Caliban, Minotaur, Lorca and Ian Curtis. I particularly like the second section:
Wednesday’s Child is sputtering out her permafrosted consonants. Today I am thin Lizzy Siddal. I put
on my Dama, and then I am stark and raving. This mask deals in absolutes. Pretentious moi is a red
head, an orthodox whore with a starry crush of penetrative pronouns. Pretentious moi has ninety-nine
names, is drenched in her own extrovert suppleness, pale and protein-free in party clothes. This is not
poetry. Bitch is a bathtub Ophelia in her no frills wickedness, a thrift of flowers. Bitch is a bindweed
bombshell, crass as a Poor Clare, utterly ignorant, porous with mercy. This mask is all things to all men.
It weights the face like your heaviest thought.
In the third verse, the iconic Joy Division lead singer, lyricist and suicide, Ian Curtis, is described imaginatively as ‘an analogue Lorca’, while ‘my whole head is a sad Calaca stiff with marigolds’ calls to mind the intoxicated decadent imageries of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, as do the subsequent lines:
Yes, my mask is a louche señora, bright with rude hauteur, ideal for when the jaw clamps shut like a
music box and all speech is self-harm. My mask is a mask for when you are dead. My mask is a mask for
when your fingers refuse the piano. My mask is hardnosed, mechanically explicit, absolutely tasteless. A
mask to mean my short-lived lusts, sealing my face shut like an evidence bag.
The theme of masks is an interesting one—how many of them do we consciously or unconsciously don in our daily lives? It seeps into the fourth and final section:
I am Caliban and there is no mask just a life that I wear like a bag on my head. Minotaur, whose
thoughts are jutting horns, whose long face is its own scold’s bridle. When I am Caliban spirits of the air
surround me like wasps around a litter bin. Girl as a grimacing fakir, anorexic and pig-headed with
penitence. When I am Caliban I am wider than flood defences with nobody loves me. I eat worms. I
comb the crackbaby tangles from my beehive hair and pioneer new stress positions, squatting under
bridges. When I am Caliban I am too ugly for even sunlight. My face should be shut up in an attic. My
face is a speaking clock. My face is a fifteen certificate.
In ‘A tiny band of glittering stones’ Lock sums up her hand-to-mouth upbringing memorably thus: ‘the bitten lip, the free school meal, the dawning of a navy bruise.’ There’s similar imagery in ‘Valery in Zombieland’: ‘skin that lilac-blue beneath the same/ old battered platinum aura, a staticky snowblind blonde’—this is another Goyaesque urban Grand Guignol engorged with ghoulish images:
… I walk with you, into these dank, inoperable
streets where Hawley’s punters grunt their knuckle-sucking
music. It’s raining, shattered glasses curry incandescence
on the pavement, the whole of Camden buzzing with a lairy
electricity. The Marathon’s disbanded and staggered into
headlights, irregular and legless, they puke their rumbled guts.
Girls go by, tricked out for drunk dysphoric kabuki in
The k-alliterations are particularly effective here: ‘dank’, ‘knuckle-sucking’, ‘puke’, ‘tricked’, ‘kabuki’—and in the subsequent line: 'Dreadlocks selling one love lollies, preposterous/ with THC. Anarcho-crust-patch vanguard on the bridge, old/ friends we duck'. ‘Gentry’ is laid out on the page a little more like a conventional poem, with shorter lines—but of course, this being Lock, it’s anything but, threaded as it is with strikingly imaginative similes: 'On my walk/ to work are cars crushed into/ walls like faces buried in pillows'—and: 'Here/ is a cat with a hookah tail./ Here are tattoos and childbirth;/ other people’s palsied photons/ fastened to a screen'. This poem also gifts the image ‘alky dark’. In ‘Loneliness of the long distance runner’ (named after the iconic 1962 kitchen sink film written by Alan Sillitoe and starring Tom Courtenay) we’re treated to the phrase ‘prefab taboo’.
‘My dear Maurice’ is preceded by two quotes about T.S. Eliot’s first wife Vivienne Haigh Wood who has been historically characterised as mentally unstable, and who sadly ended her days in an asylum, but who was an unsung poetic collaborator of her husband’s particularly regarding certain passages in his Modernist tour de force The Waste Land. The first quote is rather typically judgemental and dismissive from Virginia Woolf, while the second is a much more compassionate summation by Vivienne’s brother Maurice. In this poem Lock ventriloquises a(n internal?) monologue by Vivienne, and one instantly gets an uncanny sense of period and atmosphere:
… April yet again; a season of caprice and pale
Jacquard is soon to be upon us. I shall not stir. I will remain
Immaculate—one must. Mother said that beauty is a white,
unyielding power that stiffens girls like frost… I froze when spoken to, a spider
stunned by torchlight. Now, I think of you, at eight years old,
a cruelly scrutinising god, you burnt the slow blue beetle up …
So uncanny is the verisimilitude of this speaker that one senses a kind of poetic mediumship. This poem is a sort of feminist deconstruction of the Eliotic mythology surrounding Vivienne, and is welcome for it since one senses she was harshly treated: ‘women whose sickness is militancy, who swing their arms/ like soldiers, whose lunacy is a uniform? Is this your love?’ This is a mesmerising poem seamed with aphorism:
… I seem to dream,
suspended in decorous torpor; casting these unvaried
shadows on the orange carpet. I seem to dream, amassing
my inertias like a sundial; lichens climb my embonpoint.
My apathy is eveningwear. And yet—the mind remains,
obstreperous and pure, a child’s fist curled tight inside.
Lock’s vocabulary is not so much commodious as sprawling and I’m grateful to her for introducing me to the wonderful word ‘embonpoint’ which means the plumpest part of one’s body. The poem closes on a lasting image of breakdown and disintegration which not only well evokes Vivienne’s sufferings and decline, but also at once summons to mind the misunderstood and tormented anti-heroines of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and the hoary ‘hysteria’ and ‘madwoman in the attic’ motif deployed in a patriarchal psychiatric past with the indirect effect of further oppressing the female psyche and grossly misunderstanding premenstrual and menopausal pathologies: 'I don’t remember well; sometimes I see a river,/ blue and gold, the bright and tattered fabric I am remnant of'.
‘Sister Cathy’ is a meditation on the caprices of a Roman Catholic upbringing. It gifts the wonderful phrase ‘the chaperoned-real’. There’s a domestic play on Christ’s resurrected aura: ‘And Christ, on gas-mark seven, bluest flame,/ a terrible burn, a solipsistic only-child.’ Lock’s own very particular kind of belief is fascinatingly expressed: 'It’s not a blind/ obedience I loved, it’s holding every doubt in turn up to/ an inward jewellers’ loupe; it’s faith in faceted beholding'. The poem closes on a mental blossoming, a heartfelt expression of natural faith, which carries the cadence of subtly emplaced internal rhymes:
… And should I speak? And how to say? I did not do
enough. Until one day – – – the early spring has bunched
my upstart mouth with flowers. I entertain the ardent shoots;
the bowl I have become inviting rain.
The mysterious even opaque ‘Francis’ is a Plathian lyric piece with shades of Edvard Munch: ‘The immobilised mouth melts into/ its own scream. A scream without edges, my mouth.’ ‘Poem in which I attempt to explain my process’ is brilliantly alliterative tirade against faith sacrifices:
… Poem in which the old
cripple’s Bombyx fists are burst on the low corner
of a tea table, where funerals are manners, ramekins,
napkins, and a picture of the Late Pope. Poem in
which I cannot sleep, wear faith like a verdict, blacken
the blackest Friday in recorded history. Poem in which
Belfast beams her paranoid telemetry, in which there
is no past, only history. Poem in which my suicide-
cousin gave everything away to the stupid utopian
ponzis of God and his chronically bothered Christian
The phrases ‘ponzis of God’ is particularly potent. ‘Saint Hellier’ sports some of Lock’s most beautiful descriptions: 'the pastel drawings dragged/ their skewed perspective over the eye; their colours mumbled:/ weak coffee and commiseration, Styrofoam and dandruff'. A little further in we get ‘brow-beaten flowers’; and there’s a stunning image which recalls Eliot: 'Beyond the main reception,/ figures, smoking, paced out against the grey and early/ day like cockle-pickers'. While ‘Caffeine, like a finger in a hinge’ also stands out. ‘On incantation’ is an apt title since Lock’s poems are often like incantations; again there are arresting phrases aplenty: ‘cull my love like a captured flag’, ‘a rank lacquer of sweat’, ‘You belong to me, just me, just come, with olive branches,/ smoking roses’. Some tropes hit home contemporaneously: 'I fix grit-coffee, watch the news: riots, obesities,/ the ingrown godless poor who are always with us'.
‘Citizen Pit Pull’ gifts the following memorable trope: ‘Here he comes, my Citizen Pit Bull,/ attacking the slow handclaps of Liberal Democrats’—wonderful assonance. In ‘Jonah’ Lock writes candidly: ‘… his mouth a spectacle/ of inkjet orchidity. He said I kissed as if/ I was licking an envelope’—and the following verses are particularly potent in terms of sense impressions and o- and e-assonance, m-alliteration and sibilance:
He sought me out. He sought me out
among my books and bed sheets, clamant
masturbator who always called at the wrong
moment; groaning, gaunt and grainy
as footage of Roswell, peevish and smutty
and smelling of hash, of wet cement.
I saw him last in the dank grotto
of his Blackrock squat, bent low
like blowing glass; one of seven
skellybone boys in dirt and shreds
of denim, delicate and fidgeting.
He hit me up for a tenner.
The incantatory quality comes into play in the Icelandic ‘Sailing from Jökulmær’:
… so I brought you gruff ancestors, wrapped like baby
teeth in paper napkins, packed between the flannelettes in thermal snug. I gathered
all the arrowheads, all trinkets, charms and thunderstones…
One assumes this is about the poet visiting Iceland judging by the Icelandic term in the title, which apparently means something like ‘young woman of the glacier’, and by the images such ‘ice and basalt’ and ‘black sand’:
… I have brought back to you: grim thimble of black sand, a photograph: these people were your people,
lean and fearful pilgrims; upright dynasties that split their bows on slick green rock. … I offered you
their wassail and their isinglass; their offal and their crochet lace. Their god, a cramped mistaking sworn
to in the dark. You did not see yourself in them. I handed you their church instead, an off-white spire, a
pallid tusk. I showed you stained glass, paschal musk. I had smuggled their Christ through customs as a
splinter under my nail. … I told you of my husband’s hands, the headland’s feral gloom, and morning’s
caustic coffee taste… impression cast in plaster of his every skittish kiss. You are unmoved. I fashioned
you an amulet from Jólakötturinn’s teeth, and scooped the stars like mushrooms in my skirt… But you
would not remember, corpsey green and violet lights astray, askew, and wandering. The thin black ice,
salt cod with every single thing. … Out there beyond the car park, London harps her asphalt theme…
You spit words like a sailor still. These fragments of perfected spleen.
This poem is presented on the page as a chunk of prose and Lock is a poet who can do this since her linguistic engagement is so heightened, so figurative and image-rich, the effect is still that of pure poetry (once again one is reminded of the aphorismic prose of Iain Sinclair). The opaqueness of Lock’s poetry often means I’m compelled more to focus on the poetic language and less so on the narratives or identities of any ventriloquised monologists, so for ‘Matthew in Heaven’ I don’t pretend to know whom exactly this poem addresses nor to speculate but look instead to the abundance of yet more arresting phrases, as in the opening trope: 'I see him still: a cat creates itself anew from oblong/ shadows under cars'. For me, this line immediately calls to mind Harold Monro’s ‘Milk for the Cat’:
She nestles over the shining rim,
Buries her chin in the creamy sea;
Her tail hangs loose; each drowsy paw
Is doubled under each bending knee.
A long, dim ecstasy holds her life;
Her world is an infinite shapeless white,
Till her tongue has curled the last holy drop,
Then she sinks back into the night,
Draws and dips her body to heap
Her sleepy nerves in the great arm-chair…
And also T.S. Eliot’s feline personification of the London fog near the start of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
It then occurs to me that literary criticism, or at least my form of it, can often be a kind of stream-of-consciousness exercise where numerous associations, synchronicities, connections, serendipities and so on are drawn together from various sources—but I’d not call this stream-of-criticism for the obvious misinterpretations. I haven’t the foggiest, for instance, about the following image and what it alludes to, but can at least admire the image in itself: ‘His long white opera gloves are waving,/ wavering, silky seabed parasites’—and, again, I can simply applaud the following imaginative description:
… A fist will eclipse
a crooked tooth, the window brittle into
butterflies. Men will thunder down South
London streets like centaurs in Ben Sherman
I often take this kind of Keatsian Negative Capability approach to poetry criticism since my main concern in this medium is the use of language, image, metaphor and so on, and much less so on narratives (indeed, if I was particularly interested in narratives I’d probably be reading and reviewing novels instead). ‘The accidental death of a plagiarist’ is a ventriloquised monologue which seems to take a hyper-empathic polemical tilt on the vexatious issue of alleged plagiarism:
I think you want me to suffer;
sit in, night after night, swigging
the caustic miso of my own
repentant tears; surviving on scraps
and surpassingly snubbed, I become
meagre and suave, in love
with my own vaulting contrition.
If anything one detects that Lock probably there are, essentially, much more important things to be harping on about these days than perceived literary infelicities and one is also reminded of T.S. Eliot’s controversial take on such issues in his essay ‘Philip Massinger’ (21920): ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.’ There’s also the more fundamental point that no writer or poet owns the words they use (unless they write in neologisms) and thus we are all to some extent borrowers of words (though this could be seen as philosophical hair-splitting). The tone of Lock’s poem is a teasing sarcasm which makes for witty reading: 'Ouch!/ Subsisting on the charity of dolts,/ jostled by the lukewarm cruelty
of Guardian readers, assistant eds'. Nonetheless, one senses that the issue of plagiarism is here being used as a metaphor for some broader existential point:
What more do you want? Should I
slash something to prove it? Should I cry
Wolf! Wolf! Wolf! or The sky is falling down!
Oh, please forgive me, I shall wither and die.
If ‘A backward dark’ is Lock’s pocket Bell Jar then it’s completely her own as one would expect from a poet of her powers, one senses it’s a first person recollection of mental health struggles—poets perhaps more than other artists are often afflicted thus—and possibly some time is spent under psychiatric supervision, whether as inpatient or outpatient:
They said they could not help me, professional obsessives in glum and underfunded rooms I crawled to
and then back, by ugly alleyways and flats, breathing in an air of eager menace; psychotic riposte, urine
and homicidal shoplift. Inside, a dead, dry plant with crispy bacon leaves, expired medication.
Typically, there’s some stunning imagery in this haunting poem: 'My mirror is a study in malnourishment. I drop my untidy shadow by the bed like crumpled clothes'. True to her Catholic socialism Lock’s sympathies and empathies are always with the outcast: 'Evicted, unemployable, people like me shouldn’t aim too high. It’s Friday and the blackly estimated self is slipping'. There’s a hint here that the poet might have received ECT: 'I wish this pain electric, to exit via the fingertips in sparks. But it does not, it is a dull and stumbling blow, the cold slap of another wave'. Having once provided poetry workshops on an acute psychiatric ward, an experience which led me to write an epic poem and poem sequence on mental illness and psychiatric treatment, Captive Dragons/ The Shadow Thorns, I can certainly relate, from conscientious witness, to the descriptions of that last excerpted line perfectly describing the blunted effect that ECT seemed to have on inpatients. The poem closes on a bitter image: ‘I grew like a twisted tooth, with dirt at the crown and rot at the root.’
In ‘What it is’ we get the striking tropes ‘ringtone pneumatics drilling the front of your skull like baroque and switchy birdsong’ and ‘permissive fizz of their white wine is a shuddering pulse in the sinuses’—the latter trope relating, I think, to some kind of stilted academic soirée. In ‘The difference between’ Lock deploys more imaginative turns of phrase to great effect, as in the following passage: 'Yes, this is really happening. I mope my morning cup,/ wallow in music: the mad glitching skirl of our breadline/ braggadocio; feral euphorias, fanfare of aggro'. Note the equally great use of g-alliteration with ‘braggadocio’/’aggro’. There’s flavour of Lock’s Irish gypsy/traveller roots in the following trope: 'But oh, there are jigs, love, and then there are reels./ And somewhere between the thumped gut of the bodhrán,/ the twitterpated squeak of the fiddle'.
A visit to a hospital is put under Lock’s poetic microscope in ‘Visiting Prometheus’. The poet isn’t sure how to get to it: ‘I ask the girls with salted earth complexions, the drizzle-/witted men outside of Wetherspoons’. It seems this may be a psychiatric hospital as the poet speaks of a ‘flightless spiral down into depression’s praline velvet dark’—displaying sumptuous p-alliteration; and: ‘Somebody said you lived without/ fear. But all your eerie pleasures curdled into vertigo’. Nuances in terminology provoke a possibly sardonic response from the poet: ‘Your doctors are true/ poets, finesse their fine distinctions: strength is not the same as health’. There’s a ghoulish passive-aggressive Plathian image: ‘I’ll lie, I’ll say it’s fine, and feed you fruit so soft it comes/ apart in your mouth like a child’s sigh’.
‘The seven habits of highly affective people’ is a meditation on otherness and neurodivergence. Early on it gifts a great aphorism: ‘And work, the self-inflicted ethic no one holds me to’—a glorious poke in the eye for our work-obsessed society. And, as ever, it’s aphorism aplenty: 'Poetry/ helps less than coffee, truth be known. There’s pleasure in refusing/ things: the crummy lusts of undergrads, a bowl of indiscriminate meat'. Lock’s self-perceived neurodivergence is alluded to in the following trope: 'I can see myself for my/ remedial breed; I can see myself, recalcitrant and aspy, and striking/ a match on my noseblown sleeve'. (For the uninitiated, ‘aspy’ is an informal abbreviation for Asperger’s). There’s a great phrase for the arduousness of the pen: ‘the onion chopping work of writing down’—we get a similar gustatory and gastronomic image with ‘in some dim bar where they are slicing hemispheres of lime’. Lock has a deep sense of empathy with those who are othered in society, the outcast, the psychiatrically afflicted (something I can relate to strongly myself): 'Those days I have the tryptamine affinities I build with bus stop loonies,/ acid mascots, disappointed ponytails; a tribe of brush-sucking obsessives/ spoiling for dystopia on locked wards in plastic sandals'. Near to the poem’s close Lock declares evocatively: ‘I am still me, despite the stale fertility of sink estates’. In the similarly themed ‘Special needs’ Lock expresses her otherness in gustatory images: 'Your nights are gorged on gulyás and pampushki; black bread in low/ light on a low sofa, low fire on a low-moaning flame. This is home, the peasant/ compulsion I rattle my pans with'. The long assonances of ‘low’, ‘sofa’, ‘moaning’, ‘home’ give a sense of slowness and torpor. The poem’s soporific closing lines—'A Bombay/ Sapphire sort of moon, the inundated eye is sifting sparks. I go down like a lead/ balloon. Your bossy kiss. Our pit bull barks'—continue this o-assonance: ‘sort’, ‘moon’, ‘down’, ‘balloon’, ‘bossy’.
‘The very last poem in the Book of Last Things’ contains some striking descriptive phrases such as ‘herringbone boys in porkpie hats’, ‘ashveloped in cigarette shelter’, ‘the bible is a catalogue of baby names’, ‘the mothers misfiring a nightmare into Catholic guilt and tinnitus’, ‘a decked wife is a shining lamp in the rare good giddy-up of the pub’, ‘spongiform forgetfulness’ etc. Note another Lockian portmanteau, ‘ashveloped’.
‘Us too’ is Lock’s counterpoint to the Me Too phenomenon. She caustically describes ‘women in acrylic skin and slit up skirts and circus stilts,/ preening their screams in a nightclub queue’ and a ‘young girl, sucking a hardboiled silence, cut right down to her tight pink passing-/sacred’. The poet sees herself ‘undoing my smile like the top button of a shantung blouse’. Aphorisms abound—‘Pain is our roseate intercourse’—and arresting turns of phrase—' a busted spring in my empty belly’. There follows a scene which is particularly disturbing and seems to describe an experience of oral rape: ‘He grabs me by my sleeves;/ he drags me past the sagging wrecks of blackened bandstands, wind-distorted/ portacabins. I’m on my knees beneath the beer-gut of an old pavilion. The reek/ of fish and week old fat. He leaves my mouth a smashed mess of slang and teeth./ Woke up on the wrong side of the war: I’ll school you, you pikey caant’. This visceral scene is then contrasted with a reflective verse in which the poet appears to be remembering a long lost friend with such pet-names of ‘ba-lamb’ and ‘bestie’. The term ‘benediction’ surfaces; then a more specific reminiscence of Roman Catholic ritual:
… How we adored the Paschal musk and chorus
of Compline; the way the lady Saints inclined their heads, girding a devious grace in
groups like school-gate gossips, how they might blow a scented mercy you could
treasure like a kiss.
A little further on we are treated to a Plathian—or Sextonian—flourish of imagery:
… Four and twenty blackbirds baked
inside this grief, this keening extremis. No prestige grief we plump like pillows on
a sickbed, but something with yellowy incisors, stripping the meat from a glistered
The word ‘glistered’, with its near homophonic chiming of ‘blistered’, is a fairly typical Lockian choice over more common and pedestrian words like ‘sparkle’ or ‘glitter’. The image of ‘yellowy incisors’ would seem to evoke the sharp yellow beaks of the ‘blackbirds’ mentioned earlier. There is Lockian candour again about her psychical struggles, dosed as so many young people are today on the supplements of antidepressants: ‘My mouth was a glass/ house, gathering stones, stoned and phobic on Seroxat and Sertraline’ (I’ve been on exactly the same sequence of medication). School is a daily soul-purgatory, evoked here with olfactory sense impressions—the most potent and mnemonic of the senses: ‘I’d smell/ the lino, chalk dust, desks: dirty grey, and barnacled with chewing gum’. One of the teachers is sibilantly described in ghoulish detail: 'Mr B is bad breath and soiled ambition. His face swims like a boiled shirt, his skin/ the white of unsigned plaster casts; he has the long front teeth of a talking horse'. A veritable miasmic Houyhnhnm. The line ‘Social worker measures out her well worn spite in meticulous inches’ could almost describe a character from a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh film; the description goes on, with a super-perceptiveness which sees the Lockian become the poetic- Sherlockian: ‘Her smile is frowsy industry, coastal erosion, and economic stalemate’.
‘X (mouth)’ is a curious puzzle box of a poem, almost slightly cryptic, it calls to mind the mystique of Jeremy Reed’s poems:
… You are
conjurework and hoodoo, a bestowing and a banishment.
Science fiction, fascist ballot; the error and the choice.
Christogram. You magnify, you capture, you’re a sinister
fork in the cause. A blackmailer’s signature. …
… You are nexus and crisis,
the indication and the absence. Being both sanctum and any
The o-assonance is particularly marked here: ‘conjurework’, ‘hoodoo’, ‘bestowing’, ‘ballot’, ‘error’, ‘Pornography’, ‘fork’.
The final section of Contains Mild Peril is a long sequence of poems under the umbrella title ‘dead / sea’. There are some excellent phrases throughout the darkly titled ‘music for suicide’: ‘marbly seaside dark’, ‘a bed of velvet devastations’, and the strangely constructed ‘your dead slum the current trailing furs like film stars’. In ‘a brief history of the intoxicants industry in ireland and the americas’ we get the Sextonian phrase ‘white bird adrift in a damaged brain that cries to god’, and the following elusive trope: 'and i’ve no use for crows. mangan, dragging his iambic/ backwards through a hedge, slapping the dust from his genius'. Once again, quite cryptic. In ‘everything happens for a reason’ there are plenty of image-rich aphorisms: 'a hurt so thick that you could stand your teaspoons up in it. weekends of clammy pique, bowing from the waist behind the yellow curtains'. We also get phrases like ‘grenfell graffiti’ and the wonderfully assonantal ‘gutless pubs’. But it’s as ever the aphorisms which really pack a punch, as in ‘your worst thought was a desert and you walked out like a mystic and were gone’ and ‘i am like london. cumaean, an unsuccessful suicide’. In ‘martyn / sybil’ there’s an Eliotic feel to 'the dead will take root anywhere, surging again through the curdled mortar of pre-war houses, out into our dingy gardens, our small, obstreperous palates of stone'. There’s a striking phrase in ‘when the day is a blue lingering’. A subtle and perhaps serendipitous use of internal semi-rhyme in the following: 'bittering your innards in off-licence vinegar, insisting on the stinging cider piss that kisses you goodnight forever'. This poem is lit with similes but being Lockian they gift us highly imaginative if not even faintly surreal comparisons: ‘picking their scabs like delicate red and black brooches’, ‘opening an awkward scream like a wet umbrella’, and ‘the man who dragged an abject blanket like a baby brother, sucked the salt from flint to stave off hunger’. Lock’s images are always imaginative: ‘the whole world gold through penny-toffee cellophane’, the Eliotic ‘running amok in jesuit plimsolls’, and the strange ‘all alone in my in my flat ampulla’. This poem also contains what seems to be an allusion to the myth of Orpheus:
… they found his whistling head: large, and forced between two rocks. the head was singing like a kettle.
the head was white and bloated, made from spit and paper. a nest, an egg, a lantern.
The title ‘of marat, etc.’ appears to allude to the French Revolution radical and champion of the sans-culottes, Jean-Paul Marat, who was assassinated in his bathtub. The poem is oblique but grabs our attention with lines like ‘their glow agrees a milky grief that trails its sleeves through snow’, and images such as ‘obedient porcelain teacup bone’ and the assonantal ‘warped hormonal loom of you’. ‘micheál / osiris’ would seem to be a monody to a long lost friend or possibly ex-lover. It begins with a nod to the famous opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, ‘April is the cruellest month’:
april conjures insult into symptom. i have often hated spring; this garden in its slow,
perishable dominion. mulo, there are stale raisins on your grave; the black canal has set your
bones like tar.
Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’, the river of ‘The Dry Salvages’ (Four Quartets) is replaced here by Lock’s ‘black canal’. The term ‘mulo’ is apparently Romani for ‘dead man’. The poem continues in figurative vein, the following passage closing on a typically unexpected Lockian simile: 'your eyes have met their lustering fate in moonlight; decay coerces pallid iridescence from the fine/ curve of your jaw. rib bone, hip bone, shoulder blade, vertebrae like delicate cufflinks'. A poetic archaeology. Lock finds therianthropic imagery aplenty in Egyptian mythology:
i used to believe in the one true god, and with misguided gaze would offer my eyes to the stars. But you,
my lover, are myth-mettled: osiris, bird masked for wran jag, adolescent demigod, all wingspan, antlers,
and blasted sight. … i will wander the earth in tedious hysteria, while you go grinning in a jackal-headed
graceland. a crocodile cohort follows you…
This process of poetic mourning leads to an explosion of imageries and memories all laced with a residue of Roman Catholicism:
lover, i had searched for you, among the juiceless tubers, bulbs like little shrunken heads. i sought you
out within the cushiony lungs of churches; ransacked all the wet black earth with clumsy, panting
greed. my need was such i rubbed the brasses smooth. on my knees in nightclubs, graveyards,
supermarkets. … i did not find you sleeping in the long, clerical shadow of a sundial, where once we
sucked the soft grey thumbs of mushrooms to see god. i did not find you in the gold tooth of that prison
snitch, or the nicotine pinch of his thin fingers as he witlessly plucked the lapel of my lagerfeld suit. i
did not find you, orchidaceous in the botanical garden…
There are some great Lockian phrases such as ‘listing in the shipwrecked kitchenettes of unplumbed houses’; and some striking herbaceous descriptions:
pulled up those witchy fingers interlocked in secret charms to bring down chimneys: mandrake roots
like sickly grasping infants. … tormentil and tansy, pennyroyal and yarrow. … my gender-swapped
ophelia, the worse for weeds, a crown of gothic corals for your head, and i could weep. here’s violet
pyrosoma for your pillow. … the black canal colluding in a sleep.
The imagery is a meticulous depiction of Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece ‘Ophelia’ as modelled by the doomed Lizzie Siddal lying in a bathtub. The poem closes on the gently lyrical lines: ‘i would take you inside myself. and i would give birth to birds, my love. i would give birth to birds.’
One suspects that Lock lost this particular friend to suicide and this seems to resurface in the following poem ‘intoxicana’:
… he called to me. at zero hour in giddy
heaven, called, but left me with the looping blare of grubby
feedback. canned static, or he spoke of suicide in thread-
needle whispers until his bluff was called, until the salt
air could not brace him.
This is another Plathian poem of the psyche with some phantasmagorical imageries: ‘enter the brain’s vestral spaces: here are a heap of mildewed/ ghosts. the crease in an embroidered sleeve is black with/ them, all black, quite wrinkled through’—the ghoulish: ‘death is a grim, protracted mothering’; the paranoid: ‘the nurses are thieves and vampires, readers over her shoulder’; and the sinister: ‘torn/ waltz ending in a twisted ankle. and the mahjong click/ of women’s teeth’.
The opening of the long piece ‘cordelia at the home for the incurables / maestro’ has the poet relating to a fragile rose with some exquisitely microscopic descriptions:
it has been said that i suffer on purpose; there is an art to that, and in an ugly soapstone vase
the yellow rose aspires to texas not to sweetness. … i swear i’m not in love with pain, but there is a
splinter under my nail, and it is a piece of the one true cross. who has been bringing you flowers? and
don’t they know you cannot siphon life enough by suction through a cut? the rose is trying to grow,
trying to stand on a snapped green tendon. oh, how sad. i crush her petals out of spite. we are alike. … if
love becomes an unrecorded weight, there’s joy in that, in going under, just the way some bodies melt
like floes of ice. a rose that cannot feed can only float. and you, some luscious drug has caught you in its
velvety fatigue. the rose has put its yellow on like armour. a paper boat with its paraffin seal.
I love the e-assonance of the phrase ‘machetes are fretting, all bets are off’ and the i- and p-alliterations in ‘as we speak some woman is typing up a prissy-fingered list’. It’s often in her highly distinctive and imaginative turns of phrase that Lock excels: ‘where sound curls into small convulsions’, ‘disfigured fury’, ‘bygone gargoyle’, and surprising similes: ‘rolling the moment end over end like a wet mattress’. Lock invokes the chimerical antagonist of The Tempest as a figure of metaphorical identification: ‘caliban, my back like the bottom of a capsized boat./ caliban, rising, barnacled, from the shallow end of the gene pool’. Later in this poem, we have an allusion to the iconic and tragic Joy Division singer-songwriter Ian Curtis: ‘and you can see ian on stage, along/ with every other tatterdemalion suicide bid the biz sicked up’. The image of ‘a brakish pint’ almost makes one think of the old nautical trope that drinking seawater makes you go mad. There’s a platonic sexless quality to the following passage, a sense of detachment from the body:
… the forensics of undressing. there was a time i was raised from the bed like a peat bog body, a bronze
age tool for cutting stone. an unkind archaeology, those hands. … you don’t like anybody touching you.
alone in the dark, developing your fetishes like photographs. in this we are the same. you said the world
does not belong to us. the world belongs to the cousins, those incorruptible pixelsmiths, perpetrators of
precision. their iphones make adjustments for erasure…
Something like a dark nursery rhyme or riddle in ‘one to hunger, one to thirst. which is hardest? which is worst?’. Thirst, it would seem: 'it’s hot. I require coffee so black it sucks the colour from our surroundings. you’re like a legionnaire/ crawling for water, holding out your arms'. Suddenly the poet appears to be in hospital and the Lockian evocation comes in typically potent sense impressions: 'chicory piss, the man in the next bed who is so fucking yellow, spread dead-centre like the
hardest heel of cheese in a trap'. Outside, and the imageries grow more therianthropic and Goyaesque:
… unswappable wives with rocks sewn into their bellies like wolves; junkies conjuring dithery mischief
from flailing sleeves, and a narrow dog, whining at a bus stop, enticed to shy allegiance by the crumbs
in my jeans pocket. … the girl in impractical sandals, her pink feet cooked and trussed like meat on the
One of the many things I love about Lock’s poetry is its sporadic habit of dropping in figures from history or fiction (or popular culture) to deploy as symbols or leitmotivs, as in ‘today you were wide-eyed and roundly abusive, ahab on adrenaline’. Even when the allusion is more general it still manages to stamp an image on the consciousness: ‘you have the profile of some roman general, embossed against the light. … immortalise your sneer in gold upon an obol’. I’m aware Lock has an interest in hagiography (the biographies of saints)—and this comes through in the following trope which is particularly evocative:
… i’m sitting in saint saviour’s, amateur catholic that i am. the evening lends itself to genuflections and
to reveries. the saints all have the gridlocked middle-distance stares of drivers in rush hour traffic.
Lock describes a barista serving her coffee thus: ‘her mouth is a blunt red pulse, wide and round with a new wound’s promising succulence’. There’s another Lockian aphorism: ‘there is no respite from the ethicless work of leaving, of being left’. This is a stream-of-conscience, something confessional: ‘and i said i don’t want to catastrophise... but i do. i want the salty river’s lick, a sleek limb in a silver gauntlet’. Then into Jungian territory: ‘i know how it is to live by maladjusted tumult, black amusement six a.m., when you cannot confront the former self you’re shadow of’. And there’s the image of an androgynous Hamlet in ‘playing the dane in a dunce’s cap, a tricorne hat, half smiling. the moon is a tinfoil fascinator tonight’.
‘dead / sea/ remix’ starts out with immediately arresting images: ‘in all my sad dreaming, where the sky is excessively sapphire; butterflies are fickle hinges, joining the world to the world’, ‘my tears, at twelve, a long, silver brocade that runs from nose to wrist’, and ‘the hillside hugs the heather to her superstitious bosom’. The following image is almost like the description of a painting: 'a woman on a lichened bench coddles her pungent son, inhaling solvent gusts of him, showing him the broad and/ untranslated country: sudden drops, the sweet amoral promise of the spring'. More arresting phrases: ‘they said your face necessitated websites’, ‘like something you might whittle out of green wood’. There is much avian imagery in this poem—the following passage closes on a Senecan aphorismic flourish: 'out here i feel we might mistake flight for strong drink and swallow bluebirds, blackbirds, starlings,/ unmappable galaxy, augury, omen. our deaths await us like our unmade beds, fit to shame us'. I especially like the Joycean close: 'open my mouth pull the english out of me like silk scarves, an infected tooth, give me a word for/ when naming fails us, something to call you. glory o, glory o'. And we’re back full circle to Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The shorter ‘substance’ contains phrasal multitudes: ‘london’s small brown dogs’, ‘old men rehearsing / their sooty mortalities’, ‘my cigaretteless leanings’, ‘omnivorously abject / in the blunt convulsing light’, ‘from the people who brought you weaponised malnourishment’, ‘who cringe in cells like white cresses’.
There’s an ambiguity in the final piece of text, by far the shortest in the book, ‘Outro’, as to whether this is a sort of potted afterword, a poem, or perhaps a combination of both—I excerpt it in full:
Yes, there’s something sentimental here, something over-the-top, silly even. In part it’s a poetry
collection read by a white-faced Baby Jane Hudson, or by Norma Desmond flinging herself at a
Victorian chaise longue. There’s violence in that, you know, a kind of weaponised hysteria, a mental
self-indulgent flux that’s utterly destructive. Or that’s how it seems today. I change my mind about
these poems often, except that it feels right, that they’re here like this, now, together. Excess as
aesthetic? Mode and commentary out of melodrama? Somebody called them Gurlesque once. Maybe
that’s true but not as we know it.
I appreciate the references to the two faded film star grotesques of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard played by Bettie Davis and Gloria Swanson respectively.
So ends Contains Mild Peril, which in more ways than one fulfils the disclaimer of its wittily oxymoronic title.
These two exceptional volumes by Fran Lock could well in time ferment into the kind of critical reputation apportioned to such past triumphs as Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus and Anne Sexton’s The Awful Rowing Towards God. It’s the sheer intensity of Lock’s poetic tone which raises her work far above more complacent postmodernist experimental poetries.
Dogtooth and Contains Mild Peril are ringing testaments to Lock’s extraordinary, seemingly exhaustless gifts with imagery and phrase, boundless vocabulary, and singular grasp of angst and nostalgia, and an anti-zeitgeist, in the saturation-point (mis-) information age—in these senses Lock is the unwitting poetic delegate of her precariat generation.
Alan Morrison © 2022