“Contains Mild Peril” Fran Lock
ISBN 9781916046856, 96pp currently unpriced)
The title comes from the British Board of Film’s Classification descriptor ‘mild peril’ for a film not suitable for younger children but fine for older teenagers. It also encompasses a sense of collective precarity, whether from being caught in the gig economy and zero hours contracts and/or the climate crisis, the absence of a safety net. It’s not gloomy, however, the poems focus on exploration and a reach towards understanding. Fran Lock is an expert at long, discursive lines that in lesser hands would meander off topic and never return but here even the apparent diversions have a relevance. This makes it tricky to quote from poems because they are complementary and cohere so intricately that a fragment becomes awkward without context. In “Precarity”,
“My love is harrowed treasuring, devoted and fanatical. That is
to say that we’ll have no half measures here. That is to say,
and how much water can a lung hold? That I would drink
the mid-Atlantic all unsteady, ride the rooftops bareback into
sleeplessness. That is to say, I am here, present but meagre,
with nothing else to send but love. Condition the day to walk
at heel, and think about you, often, as brave as the climate,
facing things. What fills me now is admiration. Hardy, still
you are, and singing.”
The poem expands into rapture until that “meagre” pulls it up sharply. The next couple of lines dip into the routine everyday of love that has to pay bills and carry out chores before looping up again on “singing”. It has a sense of longing that comes from separation. A sense also explored in “A ghost in our house” which starts with the first line “Not you but your after-image” and later continues,
“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.”
It could be both literal hunger and metaphorical hunger for someone or something and it’s destructive. Mushrooms grow in dank, dark places that are breeding grounds for bacterial infections. Night is often a time for rumination, of dreams feeding imagination and unsated desires grow.
The title poem considers putting on masks as if trying on a part to play, one needs to be held in place with her mouth, “Silence is pleasing both to husbands and God.” Another invokes Pre-Raphaelite drama, “It weights the face like your heaviest thought.” A third is Madonna and Medusa. From Part iv,
“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.”
A fifteen certificate means not suitable for children aged 15 or younger; a face that scares young children merely for being wrinkled with age and experience. Despite the lack of mask, the scold’s bridle prevents the narrator from speaking, although it seems unnecessary since the narrator avoids others, fearing them misunderstanding her. A theme picked up in “Sisters under the sun”
“Only the mean girls come to my coronation. I was crowned
with a decadent head wound. They tore the pages from my
books. My books had caught the war like a sneeze, trapped
between tissues. The war? What war? they said. Forgive
me, please. I meant my war, but tried to imply a definitive
sickness. I wear my war like a dunce’s cap and stand in
the corner. My war is unremarkable martyrdom, white
bread, keying the side of a Ford Cortina, and Micheál is
dead. My war is not their war, is not your war, is nobody’s
war. A far man in an English pub is sporting his war
like a laudable bruise. I wonder, do you hate him even
half as much as I do?”
“Contains Mild Peril” isn’t just about the narrator. Other topics include Vivienne Eliot, T S Eliot’s wife, and her brother realising the truth behind her life, Sharknado and lists such as “Seven habits of highly affective people” a deliberate pun on the memes of habits of highly effective/successful people. “The accidental death of a plagiarist” starts “I think you want me to suffer” and continues, “I suffer, I tell you. My loss/ throbs, I am depressed. I drink/ like hardboiled film noir./ My Mum is very cross” and ends “Yeah, this has been a very difficult time/ for me. I look forward to regaining your trust.” The poem reads as a non-apology throughout.
The final sequence “death / sea” explores a friendship between two growing up together, however, one ends his life. In part iii “everything happens for a reason”,
“do you remember the night we climbed the flyover? we thought we’d touch the sky, we thought we’d leave a footprint in its glittering physics. below us a swamp of lockjawed concrete. the empty motorway was waiting. predictably fatal, an estuary. fever ray’s first album, a deep distance inclined to kestrels, the shape of a hare courting a hot pulse under an eye. you were starry, then, we made our own beauty. oh love, my only friend, i need you when no north is true. taking the train today, this latest vertical coffin accuses: there are worse tragedies than yours. i’m running, sunrise like inspiration porn, all pink-red-orange-captionable sky: everything happens for a reason. i have friends who say this.”
It not only captures that time when youthful dreams and plans fall to earth but also the complete sense of disorientation when an unexpected death derails the track you thought you were on. A sense that can easily become isolation when people unthinking recite empty phrases of misplaced condolence. Someone, somewhere is always worse off but there’s no hierarchy of grief or trauma. When someone’s life finishes too soon, either a child or young adult, it feels like a double-grief: the life lost and the loss of the life that could have been.
“Contains Mild Peril” is packed with compassion in discursive poems that wear their craft lightly and offer a new discovery on every reading. Highly recommended.