Fran Lock: With My Protecting Angels I Navigate Hell


well, i died, and how nearly early 2000s of me. virgil like some knowitall sat-nav says do not pass go. and what is death but a soft pink hell of my own mouthing. or the other thing, come to that. and yet, there i was, in the vulgate maundy midlife of things, astray from salvation, spending money i did not have on a splintery tea and dresses that would billow as i walked. a bad few years, or whatever that means. a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf walk into a bar. that loser was ambient cancer and all over everything. the cats on the lean-to roof do a dead-eyed and ritual licking. lie down for an hour, turn on the bed like a tap: naked and futile, neutered and fake in eternal pursuit, the poets. when the big man started to speak, his face was a clock, stripped of its hands.


dead girl, dead girl, nah-nah-nah. the world half-glimpsed through the wreckage of her ribs. gossip, strained through all the phases of a mouth: from blow up o to paper-cut. to be used. to be spent. and the difference between. what fresh thrift is this? osteopathology, austerity, etc. i was greedy, i was wanting, i was mean. my name contained me like a corset, said pinch two rolls of fat together, make the self more lips. father confessor, when i thought about her, i purred like some mortally gratified animal. to be the bullet-hole and the new broom, shelling her breasts like peas. virgil was no help. virgil was nowhere, was bribing the boatman for a crate of rum. oh death, your contrapasso punishments my cheapest thrill. to be a witch, to do that barrel-scraper’s shtick. the hell mouths conjugate the verb to gloss. i am a glass pole pretending to ice. i am a practising disappointment. oh, my early promise: never quite in a library mentioned as mad. a housewife and a genre-snob and –. the feminine substantial, that fat tentacular extraordinary. oh, go on. women are a foolish world and wilful-cruel. in a state of swooning contentment, the purveyor of an awful charm. i am dead girl, dead girl, nah-nah-nah. occult power in a failed-fun way. that spirited human refusal. such middle-brow sorcery, darling, how quaint. so it’s cameron, jackson, tiamat and me: we’re gonna braid each other’s snakes and talk about the boys we like.


having no desire to be a virtuous pagan, i thumbed my nose at christ and his dudebro harrowing. no offence, but the heavy sickroom sweetness of a meadow just before the storm for all eternity is a long hard nope from me. and the judges, like pannelists on talent shows. yuck. bring suffering alone within my pale survey. when all you have is a hammer, then all you see are nails. citadels, aristocrats, and here i come with the blunt force proper to communism. morons there are, listlessly shrived in a banqueting hall. virginia woolf: a horse-drawn smile is crossing her face like a coffin. swan maidens, all, upon whose needle-lips i live as spirochaete and curse. and slur. here are the laureates, recipients of funding, indecent with authority. we’ve thorns sufficient for the whirlwind, fucker. limbo’s just another clique.


minos is a high court judge. his penis is a gavel and he bangs it with abandon, foaming at the mouth about perverse acquittals, threats of violence. his is the kingdom of the scheduled offences. his is the diplock, the power and the glory, and he chokes himself like so. the kind of man who has to stand up straight to sneeze, whose fingers forget how not to be fists. at the weekend he bleeds radiators and peasants. his glove box contains a chemist’s tin of travel sweets that taste of tar-bound macadam; bifocals, an index of english b-roads bound in human skin. but onward! i like a howling darkness in which carnal malefactors, fatigued by touch live out the sea and its shuddering as one enduring orgasm. what does it mean to lust? to be overcome? who wants to be a dry sow tolerating rut? there’s nothing i have met with yet i did not know how to refuse. even so, i have desires. some jigsaw-obsessive, piecing myself together again, night after night. it is humourless work. that loser, his desire a kind of extrovert brand loyalty. his desire, the arcade’s gimme claw. true love is the self exceeding the self; it’s an arm stretched out with your fingernails growing in realtime to cross the space between, and all this high-faluting talk about stoneless cherries is so much völkisch guff. to wear your shame like a rooster’s comb. to have her grow towards you like a heaving floor of hart’s-tongue fern.


the freezing mire, the mauling worm. to fill the monster’s mouth with mud and mixed recycling, inching past like a cartoon cat on tippy-toe. and why? here are the gluttons, with a whipped-dog’s grovelling gait, wading through slush. boys of a stumbling pulse, of selfish sleep-walk sensuality, they said. as if they didn’t know. how debauch is their manner of negation, an ague. the porn star, porous and bored, her back is a burning bridge. and midnight’s junkie songspiel, of perishing and sweat; superfluous wits slowed to foliation. an ottoman tulip, the beauty of which is an engineered sickening. there should be flowers here. a dior-shaped joy. look! a desert trolley loaded with ironic tortures. maraschino nipple twist, cement gateaux. when they push it past you, you must grab whatever you can.


the fourth circle is a  karaoke bar in which politicians and investment bankers are forced to perform rendition after soulless rendition of money (that’s what i want) over and over again on a loop forever. worse than this, there is a eurovision-style points system and they must vote on the strenuous efforts of their peers. worse than this, there is a meat raffle during the interval. the tv in the corner shows muted sports of the kind it is possible to play with half a lung. everyone waits for the adverts to kick in. then they stare at the screen with a hard, doped yearning. at a certain point, need itself becomes the anaesthetic. virgil eats big d nuts from the palm of his hand. honey-roast, so they stain like nicotine. the warhead-chested blonde on the blue display card has probably been dead for at least twenty years, and anyway her smile did not reach her eyes. nobody thought this worthy of comment. jeff bezos now, with an ugly smile usurping his mouth and catching an inherited cough in a pint pot, stumbles to the stage. we do not stay to listen. or to ask why their hell looks like our lives.


but rage has that wow! factor, doesn’t it? an itch i can’t unlearn. the old hates, idling in slime. the head, slow-cooked in its hood of nettles, its hessian sack. hyena, my teacher, i carried an early animal as my grandmother raised me to carry it. the ferrous budget of my sin, slung across one shoulder, knocking me in the lower back as i walked. hate was a waxing moon, whelped of long shadows. i licked its sweat, it kept me going, we bit the evening clean in two. but wrath is a dynamo, isn’t it? all that flying glass, all that splintered wealth, and the part of me that goes good. learning in reverse. to kill is to cure, uncausable cause. and spite was a rib-cage world, was a second stomach, was a lush and grassland animal, eyes lit up with a lachrymose flame. a god and a book, but a hyena first. they sowed our brains with salt so nothing would grow. oh, i wanted the landscape without men. the men, without heads. a pile of femurs with the aspect of a gift. a hyena whose teeth are candles. candies. and someone was always saying: eat leaves, annul the lipsticked mouth. and there were always women, maimed by dainty labour, embroidering abasements into undergarments. but hyena was my chosen theme, crunching her republican syllables in a scullery manner. they made rage sexy, they sold us out.


through the stygian marsh. we skirted the cow’s meat bustle. fat, slack cows, in the doom of their dependency. stepford wives, both cosseted and crazed. replay their lonely romance in a remnant lowing. hawthorn snags, the weather’s hot and methane-laced. they were women once, ruled or sainted, in the toothsome whimsy of their worship going girls just wanna have fu-un. there are cows behind the climate, always, kardashians in leather girdles made of themselves, farting their dumbbell pastoral on twitter. the real housewives. a vulnerable bulk is not in vogue. the past will absorb them, into the period costume of a sexist joke. their redacted names are the little black oblongs that go with everything, can be called only cow and with terrible teeth in the seventies. immovable, with truly feminine bad manners: cows. virgil stands there scratching himself like some flummoxed cuckold, like andy capp, but i’m a dung whisperer, cow persuader, bovine negotiatrix with intercourse and a megaphone. if you do some fine-art-angry cow-hyena poems they’ll shift. i’ve got sister outsider and a blister pack of sweet pink zip-ah-dee-doo-dah. i’ve got hannah weiner and  nancy morejón. they’ll admit that they’re women, and they’ll fucking move. at the top of the meadow we are rebuked by furies: nuns more concerned with punishing sin than obtaining grace. they’re as brittle and stiff as honeyed locusts. mother superior pushes a wheelbarrow. the wheelbarrow is full of jesuit babies. when the wheel hits a rock, a baby rolls down hill. it bites you as it flies. it gathers no moss.


look, who’s telling this story? shut up. i am particles, let’s span time and don’t touch me, okay? i am dead, that is, i lay on the bed for days ingeniously neutered in an air conditioned room. if you don’t think the dead are to be looked at, consider the frigid atmos of galleries, or the exacting tender morgue-light of vermeer. ooh, i feel so expensive. my incident tape is a red velvet rope. virgil stares straight ahead like a childish husband who has lost an argument while driving. we descend through muzak and the aerosol musk of the food court to the hell of the sell-outs: eternal fire, enclosed within a kinder egg or glitching tamagotchi. speech is slow, corroded monologues taped from the telly. trapped without tracking in a sub-pov late-nineties segue on letterman. virgil starts harping some marxist summer school shit about art and nature and the dignity of labour like the obvious plant that he is. cameron tugs on his face. it comes off in her hands like a mask. but it isn’t a mask.


violence is a three ring circus. but the minotaur is mooted. for he is kusarikku, tiamat’s truant son. and she hung him in the dust of her love by his horns from a beam and took away his iphone. the rest of us made our excuses. tyrants wallow, lesser henchmen wade, in a centre parcs swimming-pool full of boiling blood. the man-made currents carry them round and around the contoured concrete islands, the unconvincing plastic palms. fuckboys in muscle beach posing pouches push back those who attempt respite against the chipped stone steps with a vintage hasselhoff sneer. the generals are here, the presidents, the aides, the spooks, the tactical voters, the failed-staters, the sexer-uppers of reports. thirsty scourges all. i was not sorry. i saw blair, of course, his eyebrows rising above the phlegethon like air quotes round his legalise. thatcher, but we will not speak of her, except for the scalp she wore like a swimming cap, and the plasters over her eyes, sealing them shut like used verrucas. jackson pulled me away. in the wood we both became trees. listen:


i died and i identify as an ogham script inscribed on stone and stave. i died and i identify as a tree alphabet,  an alder’s oracular power, as bran’s back, as a whistle for the wind. i died and i identify as birch’s fertile purgative, the womb, the whip. i died and i identify as blackthorn’s cudgelled kennings, needles of me in the wax of the world. i died and i identify as a forked rowan wand, the witchwood cross on the cattle pen, gran brigitte, beguiled. i died and i identify as ash, i pull focus, i make both men and spears. i am the weaver’s beam, the leaves beneath your pillow. i died and i identify as willow groves, their mourning flux, a loose knot in a pliable shoot, and catkins for the fever. i died and i identify as serpents’ eggs, oak galls gathered in the hem of a dress, a green man struck by lightning. i died and i identify as holly, and as ivy, the vigour of an animal entwining. i died and i identify as hazel, sacred to the fey, my nine nut scruples sunk in a pool. i am fish-food and water-work. horny poets chew on me. i died and i am vine and reed, and anything tuned towards music. i identify as elder, rapidly rooting, thought forms summoned through a cursed fluting, the roost of hags. burn me, i’ll burn you back. i died and i identify as hawthorn, christ’s wounds, the hottest fire, your creeping intuitions boiled for tea. who wants this ruing form. harpies come to preen and not to punish, strip the human out of me. the tactical caressing of their tanto claws. beaks like feudal hooks, paring the mortalmost part of the self from the self. sheer insult to the body, this treeness, and good. who heard of a thorn tree with cervical cancer? a cactus fucked against its will?


stupidity squared: the boiling rivulet, the burning plane, and so much love-the-sinner bullshit you wouldn’t believe. blasphemers, supine upon burning sands, gay-bar boys running in circles like dogs, usurers crouched in the corner and weeping. against god, against nature, against art. my friend, that sounds like a party! but the rain descends in scalding stair-rods; everybody’s screaming. the bass is thumping. better call geryon, an unlicensed cab with a wyvern’s face, a venomous javelin aimed at the heart of our melee. all of us shrieking in broken stilettos: for fuck’s sake take me home! the ugliest yet. what god would shear the tongue from the wagging of its pain? would wince at love? to the loan-sharks alone the smouldered portion that is proper: they pull each other’s teeth with pliers, they fill their pockets full of coals. when the house lights come up, they freeze: life-size collection box kids in callipers, slots in their heads. the boys in their bleachers and chinos swarm them, crack them with crowbars, scatter their hoarded wealth. to litter not to loot, coins rolling everywhere, and they leave them where they lie, turning away with a florid disdain. and the bailiffs sob, and the asphalt sparkles. geryon, feu orange and wandering hands. he doesn’t usually go this far south, but for us he will make an exception.


yes, we are sons of the soil. we are well acquainted with ditches: with trenches, moats, embankments and cuts, with gutters and gullies, the sewer pipes of calcutta, etc. the fosse and the trough and the channel and the duct. the warren and the rookery. the charnel wynds. malebolge is a mouth filled with sand, the canal’s cold excreta turned with a spade, is a maze without a minotaur, and the flatblocks built like cists along the quayside. the image of a city in corruption, yes. two flute bands marching in columns ahead: drummer boys stretching their own skin over the frame of the lambeg, the bodhrán, a civil flesh distended into sermon, set to music. men in mirrored glasses held together by the zips on their harrington jackets. soft-eyed imbeciles, cupping their confessions in a repoussé bowl. how their lives were hammered into low relief. i know these boys, punched and planished, coursed and chased, hot-worked with tongs, acetylised and grieving. faith and other tempering tools. along spurs of rock, the spokes of a wheel; divis ring road, summit trail, the hallmark silence of the hills. stipple-chinned boys who lisp with a serious and stunted energy about nothing. their trying tongues would make a virtue out of vinegar; each leads the boy behind him by scent, by sigh, by the many upright mottos of injurious chivalry. kneeling on the kerb, their eyes averted: mothers putting cigarettes out in their own ears.


yes, i am well acquainted with ditches: all the back-doubles of a country cunning. here, i am quite alone. men lean from bedroom windows, skirmishing with tinfoil swords. in a place like this, even their cardboard crowns catch the light. but the girls run by and the boys grow hoarse. if one should stop, her tresses turn to incident tape. the men are caught half-hanging out, aphids stiffen their tongues. the liars’ mouths, where maple pests lay eggs in teeming clutches.


the third ditch has a rule of wires, a row of heads. each face screams inside a live tv supported on its shoulders: they breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin… the breath of satan is upon us… you sodomites, you anti-christs, you, with your arsenal church… in their convex prison, they breathe their own boiling air, waxing internecine on purity and love.


along the rim of the fourth ditch we walk backwards bent into living sigils, usurping god’s prerogative, talking among ourselves. cameron and i do the adiago act, do the corde lisse, do the spanish web; do the arabesque, the spider, the miracle-split. jackson condescends to a marinelli bend, and from our body-packed positions we give all comers the lazy eye. i’m swinging shew-stones in a sock now, like billiard balls. when i cut the cards of fate, i do so with an axe. no one here is crying. in days of kesseltreiben and shit-witted j’accuse!, they said we forged the nails that crucified christ. who would not want the future in an alchemist’s alembic, when the present was imprisonment, a penalty of bears?


walking crab-wise we come to the lake of boiling pitch. the malebranche have the arcade claws of mrs thatcher. politicos, poliss, grasses, turncoats: tar is their medium. not a punishment, but a dominion. their crocodile tears of seeping crude.


we are well acquainted with ditches: the hypocrites with gilded jaws, massaging their statutes with stranglers’ hands; nine-sided whitehall wets who pay for their blood on expenses. shankill and glenanne know their names, a king on a throne of knotted tails. the hoax, the claque, the poets. rattenkönig. double-faced dolls, their biscuit-porcelain cracked. those penny kewpie bitches singing in a round. here comes the chorus: the we do not negotiate with terrorists song in waltz time. the poets, glib lickers-up of faint praise and yesterday’s vomit, whose tongues are not golden shovels so much as the polished scoops of jcbs.


the parasite pit is a reptile house, swarmed by the reclaimed skins of leather goods. here we saw the landlords and the dealers and the pimps. narcotised by venom, digested while alive.


after which we grow weary: the counsellors of fraud wade through flame on stilts. the sowers of discord must schlep their ruined bodies round a never ending circuit. i saw my father there, swinging his severed head like a censer, thurifer of his own rage. of course, he does not know me. schismatics ripped from groin to chin, heretics slashed like prison snitches, informers wearing the kick me signs of a contract kill, assassins nailing their kneecaps together. a devil aims an aggy look, but i am rooted to the spot. the ninth ditch is a mighty sluice, a great sucking funnel into which malebolge is tumbling, every man, woman, and child, like a circus troupe, like a may day parade. they put out my beloved’s eyes with a coke-cored biro. they made him wear a notre dame jersey and a green bowler hat. when he lunged and swung, they laughed at him. he had a lightbulb in his mouth, each time they tripped him he bit down, hard.


falsifiers: tv psychics, mainly, whose skin peels off in real-time while they are harangued and spat on by every dead fuck they claimed to contact. alchemists also, uri geller, bent up like a pretzel. imposters too, naked and trying to cover themselves with their tattered bona fides. counterfeiters, like storybook wolves with rocks in their belly, living purses tight with chocolate coins and laundry tokens. finally, the perjurers, rebuked by burning fever, more poets penning bad advice in a spidery hand.


and now we have reached the central well, into which i stare without thought or comment. jackson flips an arch wish over the lip, sings a few bars from three coins in a fountain, shrugs and recedes. tiamat turns back into an unrealsied tattoo, and cameron assumes the shape of a painted fox, erasing herself one whisker at a time. well, i died. i died and i reached the end of my magical thinking. death is not a buddy picture. death is not oz. i am not a sorority girl in the curfewed dorms of death. i have always been alone. i say to virgil, i thought there would be giants. he mimics me back in a bully’s quit-hitting-yourself falsetto, then shoves me hard in the small of the back. i grew up in the country, i know about falling through ice, and here denials of love form freezing sheets in four concentric rings. beneath the frazil masses, traitors to their kin. they make fish mouths up through foetid slush, their lips are hard and blue as muscle shells. cobolt gorgeous. international klein. beneath the loose layer known as anchor ice, the traitors to their country, to their party, to their cause. only their faces emerge, grimacing lilies, bloated with cold. crushed between floes, the traitors to their guests, eyes beneath visors of ice, unable to speak, to blink or to breathe. still as a twist of glass within a cat’s eye marble, one man moans. or the wind makes a nest in his open mouth. in the deep ice all is silent. what sin is here is mineral, calcified long ago. these are not people, these are quartz suggestions of shape. virgil assures me their minds are alive. i am not so sure. that is, i hope not. finally, there is satan, his first face mauling on judas like a pit bull with a bone, his futile bat wings are limp wattles of black polyvinyl, shrivelled against his back. his other two faces chew the cud of a prominent traitor apiece, with all the bored compulsion of a teenage chain-smoker. while he chews, he cries: tears of blood and scalding slimmer soup. i am not afraid. i can’t see who he’s eating, but i could hazard a guess. satan, like a cow, has four stomachs. the cow’s stomach is a book. i think about this for a while, like sitting in a cinema watching the credits: it’s raining outside and you’ve nowhere left to go.


i tell virgil that i haven’t seen anything here significantly worse than life. he gives me a lip-smacking god father kiss: then back you go, poet, off you fuck.


Fran Lock is the author of numerous chapbooks and nine poetry collections, most recently Hyena! Jackal! Dog! (Pamenar Press, 2021). Fran is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters where she recently edited The Cry of the Poor: An anthology of radial writing about poverty (Culture Matters, 2021); she edits the Soul Food column for Communist Review and is a member of the new editorial advisory board for the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry.

Together with Hari Rajaledchumy, Fran recently completed work on Leaving, an English translation of poems by the Sri Lankan Tamil poet Anar (Poetry Translation Centre, 2021). The next book in the Hyena! cycle, Final Hyena! is due from Poetry Bus Press next year; a collection of hybrid lyric essays, White/ Other, is forthcoming from The 87 Press, also in 2022. Fran teaches at Poetry School and hides out in Kent with her beloved pit bull, Manny.


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  • Doug Jones

    You have probably got this a lot Fran. But this is very good


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