Literary Criticism

Fran Lock – Flatrock

Flatrock is a very impressive first book by any standard. Its reeling portraits of lower class life hearken to the rough speech, coarse sentiments and unapologetic sexuality of Emile Zola's Germinal or Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road by employing neo-romantic realism and social comment to create an exciting visceral experience for the reader. Ms. Lock's voice, by turns perceptive, witty and tart, and yet still capable of great tenderness, is remarkably consistent throughout, . . .

Fran Lock’s poem, “The Erotic Life of Michael Cochrane, Stargazer” was recently published in Poetry London (Summer 2013), on the strength of which I immediately purchased Flatrock (Little Episodes 2011), her first volume of poems. As I tend to seek out poetry that defies conventional attitudes, I was more than rewarded by my bet on Ms. Lock. The author’s biographical description alone is enough to warn us that the experience will not be marked by your average conception of British gentility.

Fran Lock is a sometime itinerant left-wing activist and writer who is becoming a familiar sight at open-mic nights and poetry slams in and around London.

When not wearing a hoodie and campaigning loudly for social justice, Fran is a dog whisperer and M.A student, studying creative writing at Kingston University.

Her work embodies the feminist maxim that the personal is the political and often deals with themes of sexual abuse, domestic and sectarian violence, poverty, and drug use; she also offers a disturbing slant on the rituals, traditions and fables of rural Irish and traveler communities. She now lives in London.

Flatrock is a very impressive first book by any standard. Its reeling portraits of lower class life hearken to the rough speech, coarse sentiments and unapologetic sexuality of Emile Zola’s Germinal or Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road by employing neo-romantic realism and social comment to create an exciting visceral experience for the reader. Ms. Lock’s voice, by turns perceptive, witty and tart, and yet still capable of great tenderness, is remarkably consistent throughout, which doubtlessly explains her success at the open mike readings that eventually made the publication of this volume inevitable.

The poems in Flatrock center around a young woman’s formative years. Flatrock is a persona who adapts to her hardscrabble life like a chameleon, assuming whatever guises and attitudes will enable her to survive:

Below us all Old Town is sleeping
at twitch in the overworked
womb of its dreams

and only Flatrock is keeping
her vigils
the electric light.

This is home.
Home with its unplanned pregnancies
and wet renewals.

Home with its thick-
necked squaddies
pot-bellied proddies
hard- bodied
returning from prison cells.

And Christ. By Christ!

Shanked like somebody’s
borstal bitch

a dangling hank
of salted meat

in the terminal
of living-room

Ms. Lock demonstrates expert craftsmanship in a variety of poetic forms, yet she makes even the most conventional of these submit to her own unique recipe, as in “Parting Shots”:

While children honoured
their fathers and mothers
and old men awaited
their sainthoods, stooping

you and I met
at the fork in the road
and practiced a last
lovers’ parting.

Ochre stones
on the Roman road,
a couple of crows
in the rowan trees.

We have on our peevish celibacies,
convict caps and fingerless gloves.

We are not built for
long goodbyes.
My tears
like cufflinks on your sleeves.

We stand beneath the winter’s eaves,
commit the cold to memory.

No. A lie. Not like this.

And if I ever lay
my red lips next to yours
before you went away
then it was for comparison
purposes only.

Here she weds the theme of parting love with the elegiac form, taking a sip from the well of John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” She paints her canvass with traditional imagery associated with mourning and invokes the memorial day celebrations of “fathers and mothers” and the old men who await “their sainthoods,” adding nice touches of ochre stones and crows, as well as the image of the star-crossed lovers beneath “winter’s eaves.” The poem also uses an interwoven rhyme scheme that keeps faith with classic traditional elegies, even as its free verse form lives in the present. But all of a sudden we find ourselves in a sham dress rehearsal, a “lie,” as she deliberately breaks the spell. We have a hint of this in the mocking portrait of the lovers as petite bourgeoisie slumming in the dress of bohemians (“our peevish celibacies/convict hats and fingerless gloves//We are not built for/long goodbyes”). Indeed everything preceding the last stanza is intended to ironically elevate the ego of the lover to whom the poem is addressed (“My tears/like cufflinks on your sleeves”) just so she can take her “parting shots” at him. The subtlety and pathos of the poem is the disingenuous way she hides the hurt.

There are some other scores to settle in Flatrock. Although the revenge of the poison pen is not always the most endearing quality in a poet, if the poetry delights, as it does, for example, in Francois Villon’s Testament, readers will take note. In “Bedisphere” the clichéd teacher-student affair gets the Full Monty:

We were close, as hyphen-
ated words:


While a fog hung low
over Cambridge,
a thick skin settling
on top of steamed milk.

After, you read me your poems:
competently sexual, arranged in rows
like pamphlets on genital health.

After, soft
with metaphysical tristesse
you glowed, lolled
from your self-loving lotus,
scratching your belly with stranglers hands.

We were close, conjugating
like a couple of woozy French verbs.

Je t’aime.
Moi non plus.

You wanted it again,
my dear indecent friend.
Your untimely orgasms
tugged at my heart-strings

Who was I to say no?
A baffled dead-weight, pressed
between the desk and over-
head projector.

Who needed niceties?
Not me, spiky-haired pikey
in all my un-
educated entirety,
precocious, lippy, pert, coarse
and licey as prison blankets.

You were fatherly, of course,
salt and pepper, diplomatic.

But you used me.
Like a piece of athletic equipment
to kick against, work up a sweat,
sopping wet, stinking like a horse
in heat

(Fucking, you called it.)

My back
smudging up the black-
The kinetics of nudity,
pubescence, erasure.

A word half-chalked
on my forearm,
something to do
with what you called The Famine.

We were close.
You dipped
your dick in me
like a toasted solider in a soft-boiled egg

or testing bath-water
with one dainty, pinky toe

or you’re wagging your cock
like a lawyerly finger
telling me off,
you turkey-necked scold!

They call you a poet.
Shows what they know.

This poem does not float like a butterfly and sting like a bee; it’s more like a good old-fashioned scourging with a cat o’ nine tails and then a good measure of sea water as astringent. The level of vituperation exposes the raw nerve of the personal affront, the illicit advantage taken by one in a position to know better, which is now being repaid with the unbridled lust of the poet’s language (finally with “you turkey-necked scold!//They call you a poet./Shows what they know.”). We quietly watch as her scorn repeatedly flays her misogynistic target. Yet, at the same time, the poet is reduced to exfoliating her own naiveté (“baffled dead-weight” and “spikey-haired pikey”) so that what might serve as pathos in another context ends as badly as a train wreck for all. As performance the piece is brilliant (at a launch reading she read this poem with a lower class accent and profaned the last line); as personal memoir and confession it is a right of passage that few outside of Anne Sexton would admit to in so bluntly naked a fashion.

Notwithstanding the false impression I have undoubtedly given thus far, Flatrock is not a mean-spirited volume, nor is Ms. Lock a harpy by any means. She can be extremely tender, as she is in “Anatomy Boy,” which has a Dylan Thomas sound design about it:

He came from the protean welter
of bodily ambition,
yearning weightlessly pale in the privacy
of the dumb earth’s secret core.

He remembered when he wore womb,
dreaming of beautiful boys
whose skin and skilful bones
conjoined in giddy symmetry
resembled his own.

Fruiting flightlessly
in the tight seeding-place
where a tactile magic redoubled its efforts
and flesh gladdened over the grass to grow him.

Truffle snug, he was, blind as a buried bulb
in spineless, sightless, seahorse shaped sleep.
Discovered himself to be floating

then, free from amniotic yoking
he dizzied between the stars,
sucking vestigial thumb.

The introductory poems from the first half of the volume (e.g., “Easter, 1986,” “Marguerite,” “Drillin'” and “Vacant Possession”) are wonderful self-portraits of childhood. “Drillin'” recounts a family funeral and ends:

I learnt that losing someone
was an excess
of orderliness.

I learnt that sadness
was expressed
by a back as straight
as the spine of a schoolbook.

You took
your formal leave of us.
The uncles shook hands,
with a gruff parade-ground discipline.

She mines the pastoral in “Wintergreen” and “The Loss of Virginity, ” the latter containing these beautiful lines:

A woman bakes like
the earth, I know.
Be the soles of her feet
as soft as silk purses,

her fingers the pearl
of butter knives,
slim feet adept for dancing.

You come to me, my desire,
fox in the quickness of plump, white chickens.

and ending with:

You, lover of the curds, the sulphur,
the alchemy of metals.

You, the obliviousness of lips,
the cloven hoof of my husband’s buttocks,
the fists that ripen in to open-
handed gestures, chicken feathers, delirious as hair.

You come to me, fox.
The heat tastes like wild fruit.

Ms. Lock stretches herself in longer poems such as “Gret, on the Oudekerksplein,” a portrait of a Dutch prostitute; “Scenes from a Marriage” (“One time he’d loved her./Her face in profile/made moonlight happen.//But she became cool/as a solar eclipse./A close-clipped garden/where nothing grew.); and “Prometheus’ Daughter,” the last a surrealistic dream sequence which is less successful with lines like: “I see men/busy at Mecca/finding a kissing affinity with shop floors” and “Impact does not open/its arms to us/to gather us to our proper heaven.” Ms. Lock’s forte is the character portrait and the emotional freight she brings to each with language that harvests and protects the precious cargo. If the language trends toward the banal, which it sometimes does, the final product suffers.

Despite those rare occasions, I applaud Ms. Lock’s willingness to take chances, as she does in a number of other poems in the latter half of the volume, like “Diminishing Returns,” “Virgil Navigates Hell #5” and “Yous,” the last a tour de force in the identity politics of home and heart. She must certainly break down the barricades with her frankness about sex in “Handjob” and the couplet, “But, Damn!/Her cunt is a happy clam!//He’s eaten her out/like a rotten apple.” The poem is a big healthy breath of life and Ms. Lock deserves credit for her courage in being able to lay these emotions out so broadly (“If this isn’t love/then she don’t know what is”). The crude language bespeaks of emotions felt by her characters on their most basic level because they have no other cultural touchstone of refinement within which to couch them. [Yet, as poetry, “rotten apple” confuses the experience (as it must coming so quickly after “clam”), for it makes the man a worm and her vagina rotten at the same time.] Conversely, the volume’s following poem, “Complete Boyfriend Experience” (the ending of which is quoted below) displays an empathetic subtlety in communicating the plight of the lower class girl dating (perhaps a euphemism in this case) above her station and feeling every excruciating implication of a dead-end future:

Sometimes I
feel cold inside,
gash like a fish-mouth
packed out with ice.

Except you squirm,
caught in me
an animal
with its leg in a trap.

I watch the world
turning purple-gold,
a colour like your lamé shirt
made from weaving thick silk threads

beyond the window, out of bed,
a world of cloth, turned-
back cuffs and covered buttons

where I
can never go.

Doubtlessly, some readers may suspect that Ms. Lock is surreptitiously and unfairly trading on the lurid side of the low culture she portrays, for not too much time is spent fleshing out the everyday existence of the church-going working folks who make the best of the life they have. But balance is never a prerequisite for poetry and often must be eschewed in order to attain the hyperbolic arc and unique expression that characterizes it. Poets write what they must, and Ms. Lock has done so here, highlighting the lives of a segment of the culture that does not get enough attention from the poetry world. The portraits ring true because, as we know, regardless of class, we are not as noble as we believe ourselves to be.

Ms. Lock certainly has the intellect, talent and skill to take her poetry a long way, “beyond the window” and “the world of cloth” and “covered buttons.” We are sure to see much more of her work.


4 comments on “Fran Lock – Flatrock

  1. Even though I attend university, and am studying for a degree in English, I struggle writing criticism. I’ve been able to stop summarizing and retelling the story, but I never talk about diction, style, form or structure. But I know I need to. This analysis argues both the form and content in good measure. In class, I mostly write about prose, but hardly ever discuss anything but the content. This provides an example of arguing form. I enjoyed the criticism more than the poetry. The poetry did not conjure nor stir too much for me, but the analysis did.

    • I was lucky to have good teachers who emphasized how content was supported by form, diction and other structural elements. Terry Eagleton (in How To Read A Poem) is a proponent of this kind of analysis, which is “old school.” The form of the expression is a principal way of interpreting tone, perspective and point of view. You apply this to prose by asking yourself why the author chose a particular voice or voices, narrator(s), form of narrative (picaresque, memoir, history, etc.) and how specific tonal qualities strike the average reader. In both prose and poetry, symbol and metaphor have significant responsibilities in presenting content. In poetry, great advantage is gained through the use of rhyme, diction and form, both for subtle and broad effects. You may not realize a comfortable and cogent reading until you take the structrural elements into consideration. In How To Read A Poem, Eagleton does a beautiful analysis of W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, where he takes the reader through each line, demonstrating Auden’s deft use of language to vary tone and hence meaning. Thank you for your kind words.

      • Thank you for this instruction. I did write it down. I will order Eagleton’s book. It will go nicely with his book on theory, and his “How to Read Literature,” already in my collection. Last semester I dropped a creative writing class. One of the reasons was their treatment of the poetry segment. We had zero instruction on any of the forms and structures. The book and TA’s eliminated anything seemingly not “five minutes ago.” I need old school in my studies. Re: my comment, I do realize that not all reading has to result in “enjoyment,” and I rarely read for that anyway. I regret using that word in my comment. So, to amend my meaning, I want to say I derived more value from your analysis, than the work.

  2. Good writing should always be enjoyable to read, accepting the fact that not everything we read will suit our pleasures in the same way. Wallace Stevens does not satisfy us the same way as Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot, yet all yield pleasures for different reasons. Finding the pleasure points of different kinds of writers and literary forms will make you a broader reader, and a better writer for that matter.

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