Fran Lock: Hyena

 Hyena! and the work of queer mourning

Hyenas get a pretty bad press: in Egypt, during the reign of Ramesses XI, the year 1090 became known as the Year of the Hyenas. It was a year defined by climate disaster – drought, crop failure – starvation, and civil unrest. The appellation is both literal and political. Hyena populations felt the knock-on effects of the drought, and sought to scavenge food within the precincts of human habitation. In this way the hyena became viscerally identified with famine and disease in the ancient Egyptian imagination. ‘Hyena’ also conflates these animal harbingers with the feral behaviour of human beings, with a starving populace on the brink of revolution, devolving into chaos.

Hyenas are, according to most classical sources: loathsome and savage, insatiable of appetite,  offensive of smell; they are cowardly but viscous, morally and spiritually unclean. Pliny the Elder tells us that hyenas are the only animal to dig up graves in order to eat the corpses. In legend and folklore from around the world the hyena is a haunter of cemeteries; a devourer of the dead, the mount of witches.

But the hyenas of legend have other strange properties too: they have eyes of many colours, and dogs are struck dumb when the shadow of a hyena falls on them; any animal that looks at a hyena three times will be unable to move, says Pliny. And Ovid offers us this: ‘We might marvel at how the hyena changes function, and a moment ago a female, taken from behind by a male, is now a male’. St Isidore of Seville writes of a stone to be found in the hyena’s eye; if taken and placed under the tongue this stone will induce a man to prophesy the future.

There is something magical and not necessarily benign about the hyena. It shifts between categories of species and of sex.  Neither male or female, neither cat or dog. It is said to prey upon the weak, but it is also a cipher for them: the hyenas of folklore have a symbolic affinity with the disorderly and dying, the sick in mind and body, the malcontented and the maimed. This negative iconography is deeply rooted and enduring. In 1923 a striped hyena from the San Diego Zoo was hired by Dorothy Davenport for the lost propaganda film Human Wreckage. The hyena was to represent the ‘wasted spirit’ of one ravaged by addiction, a metaphor invoked in the title of several contemporary tales of narcotics, crime, and opportunistic savagery. The hyena, like the addict, is weak but cunning, an indiscriminate scavenger. The hyena like the addict is ‘immoral’ and ‘dirty’, not merely wicked but squalid; repulsive yet pitiable. The addict is no longer a person, they undergo a radical transformation.

Therianthropy – the magical metamorphosis of human beings into animals – is one of the oldest folk beliefs. In the Cave of the Trois-Frères in south-western France there is a pictogram dating back to around 13,000 BC that appears to show a shaman figure in the process of animal transformation. The notion of hyena therianthropy is common in parts of North Africa and the Horn of Africa, and these legends are unusual because unlike other therianthropes, who started life as human beings, hyenas can disguise themselves as people. In the Middle East striped hyenas have traditionally been regarded as the physical incarnations of malevolent Jinns. And the13th Century Persian writer Zakariya al-Qazwini in his book Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing describes a tribe of ‘Hyena People’, stating that if one of this tribe should be hidden in a crowd of 100, a hyena alone could sniff them out and devour them. They walk amongst us. They eat their own.

A great collector of therianthropic lore was Charles Hoy Fort, the well-known researcher into ‘anomalous phenomena’. In his final book, Wild Talents (1932), Fort writes about the belief that under certain emotional conditions, such as grief or rage, a man might turn into a hyena. Literally. My friend, editor and mentor Roddy Lumsden had a lifelong interest in all things Fortean. It was something that united us.  By strange coincidence, I was rereading bits of Wild Talents in the week before he died, and thinking about the hyena as an avatar for certain kinds of desire or emotional experience. The news of Roddy’s death was a shock to my system – one shock in a long series of shocks – and it triggered something in me where, following a period of loss and turbulence, I’d reached a state in which animal transformation felt plausible to me, where I felt just mad enough and feral enough to turn into a hyena myself.

Mourning, I suppose, is a process or set of processes whereby all the raw, regressive anarchy of grief is absorbed back into articulate narrative language. It’s a process of mediation and assimilation through which the individual is able to communicate their experience of grief, first to their family and friends, then to their wider community, and on, to society at large. We have many rituals aimed at producing rational, linear trajectories of grief – the obituary, the wake, the funeral, the eulogy, the elegy – and all these discourses – therapeutic, clinical, and literary – that attempt to move you towards a kind of recuperation; that want to socially situate your grief.  All of which is helpful and necessary, but I think there are kinds of grief, and that there are certainly grieved-for subjects, not accommodated by those trajectories or rituals of mourning.

There are those society doesn’t account as grievableand there are some kinds of grief society doesn’t want. How to mourn thosesubjects? And what to do with an experience of loss that is so disturbing and persistent that it can’t be adequately reclaimed by language?

I began to search for a word or phrase to describe what I’m trying to do with my poetry, for the feelings and experiences I’m attempting to make space for. When talking about Hyena! I started to speak tentatively about a work of ‘queer mourning’, about poetry as a making space for the troubling strangeness that grief initiates in us. I tend to think of grief as a queering of the real, as a making strange of the world and the self to the self and the world. The character of Hyena! emerged because the accumulative effects of grief were a kind of therianthropy for me.

The hyenas of legend and lore were strange, fluctuant, threatening beings. There were moments, experiencing grief, when my own body felt strange and dangerous to me. I was changing my body in ways both involuntary and conscious: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I shaved my head. The magnitude of my feelings both provoked and demanded these changes, a remaking and remapping at the physical level. I am not the first woman to feel this way. To find, at times of great loss or stress, all her ‘normal’ bodily functions suspended, caught in arrest or revolt. The body behaving in this way is threatening to others too, wayward and ungovernable: the body that cannot bear to be touched, the body that must be touched, full of intense and compulsive desires, the body that shrinks or expands into ‘ugliness’, the body whose period stops, the body whose gums bleed; the body that resists any attempt at erotic instrumentalisation. The body that will not be managed. At our most abject we are often at our most revolutionary.

In 1957 the artist and occult practitioner Marjorie Cameron painted The Vampyre,  also known as The Beast. It features a central female figure on all fours against a black background, experiencing some form of therianthropic transformation. The figure, anorexic and deformed, twists between the human and the animal, the fragile and the grotesque. It excites both sympathy and repulsion. It has a hyena-like mane of red hair. Cameron, as she preferred to be known, made this picture during a long period of mourning for her husband Jack Parsons. It is as eloquent as any art I’ve ever seen in describing that sense of alienation, awkwardness and loathing with and inside of yourself, a queering of your own shape and substance.

The queer, I think, is an identity or mode of being that is imperfectly held within language; it is an identity that cuts across and partakes of multiple categories of vexed belonging. The hyena is a cat and a dog, an animal, man, and a spirit; the hyena is male, then female at will. This is something I connect to my sexuality, of course, but also to culture and to class identity, to the feeling that has persisted all of my life of being, simultaneously ‘both’ and ‘neither; to finding no perfect expression of solidarity, no true ‘home’ in any one territory or lexical field. Grief does this also, it destabilises you, it upsets and scatters your points of reference. To talk about death, or to talk about sexuality, we frequently resort to endlessly abstract and multiplying euphemisms; to cipher and slang and code. Language itself becomes strange as the known world tilts on its y axis.

Grief changes how we see and say, everything gets magnified, sensitised, brought into weirder, sharper focus. It changes what it is possible to think and to know; the words in which and through which we apprehend reality. In this state communication becomes complicated, the way we interact and understand one another changes. This relational uncannying is something I’ve always thought of as being part and parcel of the queer: the need to find new names, a new language in which we can speak our strange truths back to one another.

Hyenas have a language, or they have a kind of complex anti-language comprised of ‘giggles’, whoops, howls, and groans. These sounds have a kinship to those produced at the disruptive hiccuping core of human trauma; to the collapse of articulate speech that occurs when our rhetorical resources are utterly exhausted. It is not so much that trauma silences its sufferers, but that it begins in them a compulsive and repetitive need to speak: to gab and garble, jibber and slur, to laugh and cry, to be discursive and sullen in turns, and yet to come to the end of their invention without ever reaching or naming the thing they are trying to describe. It is not the case that trauma is or must remain ‘unspoken’, rather that any attempt at intelligent representation fails at, or is failed by, the limits of language. This is the difference between articulate and eloquent. When words won’t do, we recruit gesture, the body, guttural non-verbal noises.

The hyena’s laugh is repeatedly miscast and mischaracterised in folklore and contemporary culture alike as demonic, hysterical, or mocking. So too are the sounds of grief and trauma misunderstood. Women’s grief especially. I began to see – or at least to imagine – a thread of connection between the hyena’s laugh and the practice of the caoin, which exists in popular consciousness as a species of pagan noise-making. This misrepresentation was fostered by religious and occupying authorities in Ireland, who frequently demonised its practitioners as animalistic, immoral, or crazed, when in reality the caoin belongs to a highly complex and specific verse tradition, one with its own rich set of tropes, its own particular aesthetic disposition. Historically, criticisms of the caoin performed a kind of Janus-faced manoeuvre in which it was simultaneously despised for being heathen and wild, and destained as ‘immoral’, because it ritualised – and sometimes monetised – the process of grieving. The caoin was too unrestrained and artless to be quite proper, while at the same time too formalised to be authentic or sincere. For the women who practised the caoin there was no way to win, and because the caoin was embodied to such a high degree, condemnation of the form also attached to those who performed it. It wasn’t simply that the tradition of the caoin was in some way disorderly or ‘bad’, but that these qualities were also the signal moral attributes of the women who participated in it.

Hyenas are misunderstood animals. I don’t suppose there is a woman alive who wouldn’t feel some sense of kinship with their abjection and vilification, but it must be felt most deeply by the women who are ‘other’ even in the otherness of being a woman, women who are told they are mad, or perverse, or profane, for the ways they desire and the ways they grieve, women who are made to feel like animals.  Witch belief is alive and well in many parts of the world, where rumours of animal transformation still attend accusations of witchcraft. The witch has her familiars: the bat, the owl, the toad and the hyena. And the witch takes on some of their properties, she sheds her own skin and becomes a beast. Not a ‘useful’ beast either, a thing that cannot be harnessed, a thing that cannot be used for food or fuel, a thing that refuses rational control, that belongs to and in its own frightening magical world.

Magic, Silvia Frederici tells us, was a huge stumbling block to the rationalisation of the work process. It functioned as a kind of refusal of work, it was a form of insubordination and grass-roots resistance. The world – and women – had to be forcibly disenchanted before it – and they – could be dominated. Women’s claim to magical power undermined state authority; it gave the poor and powerless hope that they could manipulate and control the natural environment, and by extension subvert the social order.  So magic must be demonised, must be persecuted out of existence. If Hyena! is a witch then the poem is a spell. It is that scene of hope whose ambition is to overcome the horrible logic of death and the impossible demand to ‘heal’ from loss, to be made ‘useful’ again.


In the Emerald City

my friend is face-down, consulting her
hangover like a map. or else she is dead.
in a city like this is the pleasing secret
picked clean, the microclimate quick to
tears. tell me who you are. i’m all
the darkness draining from an eye. go
on, do the dead in different voices. do
the our father and the gratia plena. do
daddy issues. do the girl crush. do
the predatory lesbian. i’m a glacier
calving in a warm tumbler full of bells.
in the emerald city, an insect phrase,
closed against colour. how do you like
me now? would roundly slut my ethic
skin. the carnal hairpin noir of witches.
by which i mean – not that you asked –
they like you better dead, pressed to
their own piqued kink, gassed or slit
or bombed out of their ovaries on
pills, a row of gracious cabbages. eskar
of an old wound, how they hate. dames,
they want you good and doomed, and all
your limpid oeuvries debauched in
scalloped cotton. three women
in a room is a coven by default.
three poets in a room is fucking
riot. oh, those amatory zealots,
severed heads in a bowling bag.
listen, to cut it in the emerald city,
you’ve got to be tough, feet planted
firmly apart and screaming: come at
me, bro! with a fidgety vigour, all
omnicompetent female badass. my friend
says we shall never make it. pain is
a convex blues strained through lyric’s
syrupy extremes – edel, idyll, idol: weiss,
weiss, weiss! – my contrarian austerity
will never be enough. failure of medicine
and strict machine. i have come to
fragrance under ailment, a way of being
wrong at which the dog sniffs, the nose,
irked in its turn with dying. i am old,
and my face is a sprawling proposal.
what are the symptoms? a circular rash
like the bite of a wolf. fever’s dull urging.
exhaustion, turning, is a wire dreidel.
the enigma of ordeal, my gravel kingdoms
regained. but oh, we are so remorselessly
alive. season of doleful cirrus, spindrift,
loosestrife’s louche anathema. in the emerald
city they pull us up as weeds. herbicide
and baling wire. haul me over the burning
coals of grim contention. by the roots
of my hair, by the picking of my thumbs,
by the screaming of my leukocytes. anaemia’s
fatigue. the diminished marrow sings.
my friend, the neon crown she tilts to
rakish emblem. we were found wanton
at the animal fair. all the great old men
were there: sleekly dulapped in a staring
match with a stubbs cow. stuffed
and mounted. or antic, ripping wipers
off a ford cortina, gripping bent aerials
with their ugly prehensile iambs. listen,
the emerald city is full of zoos. vindictive
with sin. abattoirs: the punch-drunk
patiency of bovine, pedestrians, walking
pensions, students. in the emerald city
they ask to see your identity papers. tell
us who you are. we too have turned
to compost on the pillow, turned the pillow
into compost, run through your dreams
like a raptor on stilts, like a swan in
drag, a diseased mouth enriched on
its own emetic enormity, gorged
against grace. we know what they say
about us, a kind of do not resuscitate
daymare. ’cause they want you to be
a luminous dummy, all hankering
exploits and an intermittent signal. oh,
emerald city, fuck you. girl with
promiscuous ditches for eyes, fraggle
with nettles, her lines will harden
into symmetry. some cloistered furtive
screw, and the hopeless promptings
of a serious man grown thin in holding
back a laugh, fat in holding in a yawn.
when our lips move he slumps, tiredly
farting. women, there is a difference
between elegance and grace, and you,
surpassingly slag. and you, spilling over
with the soft grey fervour of a stranger.
let me design you a while, until you are
a ribboned cipher in your own stale works.
my friend and i, we will burn the emerald
city to the ground. yes, we fed communion
wafers to the cows. we drank their simmering
milk from the teat. shrews now, wasps, or
peevishly feline. no. a pit bull bitch. your
ripped throat a fillet of sweet fondness.
your fingers yet, your prizes too. oh enviable
world we have fucked to sufferance. everything
everything, wild green spoils.


There is a hole

into which i’d wad
your reluctant presence.
dog-eared now, or foxed,
this orphan pose. hang-
dog, dog-tired, waspish:
metaphor’s plangent
bestiary, its animal
remainders. call a fig
a fig, and a trough
a trough, why not?
manic pixie dream girl
trope at nearly forty’s
really sad. a bulbous
wreck. depression’s
croneish bent. the tedious
hokey-pokey of weight
loss, weight gain, weight
loss. there will be no
snow angels, indie mix-
tape, video spin-off,
respite. this chilly
teacup scene wants rid
of me, slip into quiet
nervosa, mutilation’s
clichéd spite, the lyric’s
mawkish dalliance.
sometimes i tell myself,
i might. the tongue
tickles its stock
of could’ve been
contenders’ speeches,
lays them on
a shelf, untried. what
is the use? going on,
your own effort closes
over you like waves
of rolling credits. to
stop is to become a pair
of floured hands, sensible
shoes, a walking condition.
the nodes grow nerves
inside of me. i am inside-
out, and it hurts, and it hurts.
there is a hole.
bigger than the body.
seen from the peak
the plateau is a hole.
the eye is a hole
but doesn’t know it.
a hole is a well
that has outlived
its water. i am trying
to tell you. that has
outlived its village.
that has outlived
its haunting, its
japanese cinema
schoolgirl drowning,
its horror stories,
freak accidents.
just a hole. there’s
a hole. which is
the mouth, when you
get right down to it.
which was always
the page. poetry
is ted kaczynski
in a satin jumpsuit
and mary janes.
is an amateur terrorist.
ulrike meinhoff played
by natalie portman.
is raving weather-
report uselessness.
poetry is a hole and i
tried to swallow you,
a light lowered down
and i’m sorry now.
at the bottom
of the hole, more
holes, a dynasty
of zeroes. the mouth
in stroppy colloquy
and i’m trashing around
like a shark in a boat.


I will learn to be more brazen

hyena says, rubbing her eyes until her waking
rings true. brazen is as brazen slides the gorgeous
stain inside the mouth. hyena walks into a room
like a heron in a koi pond. there are your bony,
mouldy gods; there are the women, offering up
their cloudy sighs when stepped on – puffball
fungus all. hyena had a friend, now the friend
is retaining water and talking up the dharma
of a cupped tit: babies. give her the glass slipper
of a contraceptive coil any day. no offence. well,
some offence. well, all the offence you can eat
if you must. the doctor told hyena there was
nothing they could do. he put his hand up her.
he pulled her about like a ship’s cook peeling
a potato. hyena wanted the pain to stop –
flawed and floored – just cut the bad bit out.
but no, it’s no can do, and what if you want
kids one day, and how does your husband
feel? hyena will learn to say that he is not
the one with a mediaeval jousting tournament
in his reproductive crawlspace, so how would
she know, and why would she care, and why
should it make any difference to you? if a baby
is a blessing or a miracle, then hyena is a what?
a blasphemy, a curse. she will learn to be more
brazen. she won’t sit home all day, rake leaves
against ruin, picking the bone of perfection to
a witch’s finger. she won’t bite her nails, cast
lots for a creosote tea in the shit cafe. she will
not take a swilling stand beside the urns of dingy
brew, and turn her face to the wall in crowds,
and people will not say of her that her voice
is the murky mirror of her own self-hatred.
her voice, pared down with an emory board,
an anglofile. ha-ha-ha. she can almost see
herself in red. she is moving with the furies
in precise circles, taking slow sardana steps,
reaping the corn with the hem of her skirt,
using the wet silk edge as a scythe. her feet
will foment dances, trample grapes. she might.
and no longer lie awake, burning with a sullen
fervour, eyes on the artext, breathing asbestos.
a fierce heat will flow through her fingers.
when she meets a swan maiden she will spit,
and there will grow a heart-shaped swimming
pool. hyena will learn to be more brazen,
have a male voice choir comb her mane
until it gleams with the posthumous lustre
of a victorian daguerreotype: the misty dead
propped up in their chairs. oh, she will be
flagrant. she will have cupboards full
of cordials, the sacristy bursting with candies.
a real witch. a prairie pyro inflamed by the long
dark night. she will tie the orchard to the tail
of a kite and let it go. she wants you good
and thirsty, ready to make sacrifices, spooked
by fire. on the day of her rebirth she will hold
a bal masque where everyone must come
dressed as their own worst fears: the eliot
long list, dying alone, postal voters, etc.
hyena will come as the thin white line between
savour and decipher; a mundane chill that will
not suit her coat, her mood. her most fulsome
costume is herself, wrapped in the stealth
of strong gauze. listen, you, who pity her,
she wouldn’t be you for all the lithe republics
of a country saying. these, her nimble, quickened
sounds: exalted thoughts, learning how to swim.


Boon companion

that i have my honeycomb strongholds too,
impossible penetralia. shall i compare you
to a milky stoat? my mucus suitor, sifting
near the heart. hair weight weaved in
the throat. shall i compare you to a badger’s
bone erection? thin migratory needle,
slivering in me. all disfigured favour now.
gallicrow for fallow fields. flailed lapels,
a fiction of thread. autumn is a spectrum
of disquiet. a finite infamy, pin in
a bubo. the blister on a lip. you
are a straw plateau made meal. the apple’s
malic sting. rodent declensions, softly.
winter’s stingeing appetites are on their
way. the mirror is your grail and your
bruise. the sun sinks its teeth into
a broken leg, the plough’s malefic: crock
and tuber, seam and sherd, and reliquary
yield, all dead things turned up. us too.
you’ve the grinning sickness now, make
dirty talk like a smirking toy. canescent
spectre of the laurels. farmyard dark
of treadles and of cleavers. crack,
like a greased teat in the cold. show me
a midden and i will skim you the world
from its watery depths. who are you to
talk of love? who fucked the susceptible
chestnuts into blight. kingdom
of wimping benevolence. you cut
up my clothes with lambing’s
six-week shears too late. a v of geese
slain in flight. the geas i lay. geist
you rouse to charm school in a pesty
dream. but i’ll have my honey-come
strongholds too, my castle keeps, my
ridding mien. keep your pastoral
appeasements. spring runs cold.
my chilling vein.


Fran Lock is a some-time itinerant dog whisperer, the author of numerous chapbooks and seven poetry collections, most recently Contains Mild Peril (Out-Spoken Press, 2019). Her eighth collection Hyena! is due from PB Press later this year. Fran has recently gained her Ph.D. at Birkbeck College, University of London, titled. She is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters, and she edits the Soul Food column for Communist Review.


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