How to approach this? With caution. With care. With stratagems and stealth. Come at it slant, sneak up on myself, say: it is not that my obsessions define me, they create me. There is no essential “self” who decides. I am not inspired, I am impelled, compelled, toward this, towards that. My movement through cultural space has been feral: omnivorous, opportunistic, erratic. I identify with hyenas, jackals and dogs because my mode of life has been scavenge and trespass. How ill at ease I am within art and literature. Half of what I love seems destined always to resist or evict me. I am rarely the implied audience for anything. I feel awkward, self-conscious, full of shame. More, my regard degrades that which it touches, just as my mouth is fated to warp the words it shapes. In the mainland school taking drama they cast me as monsters, hags, or not at all. I am drawn to monsters. Maybe I am searching. For my art, my literature, my tribe. I could say I have a hole inside of me: my obsessions are the result of this hole; they are my best attempt to fill it. Or else I am all edge, no centre, and being fragmented, I make my world from fragments. Rather, I live in the world through fragments. Call it collage. Call it poetry. Call it a certain mixtape mentality. These the other others.
Henry Joseph Darger: The Vivian Girls
Henry Joseph Darger was posthumously discovered to have written a 15,145 page manuscript, titled: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which was accompanied by several hundred drawings and water colour illustrations. His work is an intoxicating mix of exuberant and fantastical landscapes, populated by naked children and colourful chimeras, together with horrific scenes of violence and torture, drawing heavily on Catholic iconography and martyr pageantry. Darger's most sustained work centred on the seven daughters of Robert Vivian: princesses of the Christian nation of Abbieannia. They are the central protagonists in a daring rebellion against the child slavery imposed by John Manley and the wicked Glandelinians. It is an astonishing work, rendered all the more so because its author – a dirt poor, orphaned, and serially institutionalised hospital custodian – worked in isolation and in secret. I loathe the term "outsider art" as a sneaky little act of semantic subordination. It recuperates, even as it excludes, the difficult art made by social "others" back into establishment discourse. It's a way of claiming this art while keeping the "others" who produce it at a distance, repositioning them as backward and inferior. But where Darger is concerned the term is at least literally accurate: his work's force and strength come precisely from its being hidden, cut off from wider cultural participation, from all those tedious conversations about "technique" and "taste" and "style". The work is admirable because of the pressured innovation that drives it, the relentless improvisation necessary to evolve skills or work around their lack, to overcome an absence of resources, to use whatever comes to hand. Darger collages and traces, he works in the detritus of others' lives, the paper "trash" they chuck away. The work itself is a strange and vividly realised rhapsodic epic, but it also captivates me for the subterranean fevers that fed and sustained it. Darger's art is the result of poverty, abuse and mental anguish, but it is also the mechanism by which a mind survives and transmutes those things. Darger turned an experience of dearth, disappointment and struggle into a psychedelic adventure story. I think all of us who create are attempting some version of that. Gold out of air, honey out of stone.
Valerie Solanas: S.C.U.M Manifesto
I came to radical feminism at a time in my life when I desperately needed a space and a framework through which I could articulate and understand many of my own formative experiences. But when I found Valerie Solanas, I knew I'd hit upon a mode of writing and thinking supple, mercurial and muscular enough to accommodate and channel my rage. I think people who are put off by Solanas' work fail to understand that stark choice: speak or be consumed by fury. We live in a world where women die of rage every day. They die of the male rage that is directed against them, and they die from the self-inflicted wounds of a rage turned inwards and festering. I nearly died because nothing I had read, no thought I had been allowed to formulate in the language offered me, could adequately express what had happened to me or how I felt about it. I was reduced to gesture, to starving myself and otherwise punishing my body for the shame and disgust that had been allowed to accumulate around and inside it. I needed Valerie, with her swift-witted, savvy, feral burlesque of queer anger. The S.C.U.M Manifesto somehow embodies the too-muchness the world hates in women, in queers, in poor people. It's hyperbolic, excessive, polarising, and hilarious. It is incendiary and prescient, and what still impresses me is that such a profound clarion could come from a person so marginalised and so vulnerable. There's no meekness or shame in Solanas' writing; her work constitutes an absolute refusal of shame, and this from an abused and destitute woman. The writing's power and Solanas' own powerlessness exist in irreconcilable tension; this tension is what gives this work its explosive quality, a quality I have always aspired to within my own best writing.
"Song of the Faithful Departed" by Radiators from Space
For lyric gift alone, Phil Chevron should occupy a position every bit as internationally exulted as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Yet doesn't. I'm not sure why. Too Irish? Too gay? Too singular? For whatever reason, The Radiators never achieved the success they deserved. And they were pioneers, the first Irish punk band. Without them none of the other music I love would have been possible.
Chevron joined the Pogues around 1984 and wrote for them the brilliant – and arguably his most well-known – song "Thousands Are Sailing". I treasure both these records, but "Song of the Faithful Departed", written some three years earlier, is an enduring obsession. I've not heard anything else that so captures the impossible and frustrated love so many of us feel for Ireland. The song carries that quality of bruised and struggling tenderness, the need to mourn without eulogising. We see with painful clarity yet are compelled to love despite ourselves. It's a song about all our difficult homelands, and it's a song about working-class grief, of groping to find a framework and an exit for that grief, something more satisfying, more real, than the religious and nationalistic scripts we have been offered. This search is especially sharp for queer persons, or those otherwise excluded from easy identification. There's something in the synthy swagger of the music that speaks to this uneasiness. It feels savvy and alive, but also a little awkward and at odds. It's punk learning how to speak through Irishness, Irishness sussing out how to express itself through punk. This is the song I played to digital glitches following the death of my best friend, conscious that I was grieving for us as much as for him, for an entire generation out of sync with and brutalised by a place we love; a place that refused to love us back. This is one of the most enduring themes in my own work, but I don't think I've ever come as close to distilling those feelings as Chevron in this song. I'm glad he wrote it, for all of us.
"The Names of the Hare" in English
The Middle English poem commonly known as "The Names of the Hare" is currently preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It forms part of a trilingual miscellany, alongside bawdy fabliau, romances, devotional texts, and seriously screwy prognostications. It dates from the late thirteenth century, and originated in or around the West Midlands. It is composed of sixty-three lines and describes itself as the seventy-seven names you must say to a hare to avoid bad luck should you happen across one. Which raises the question: why should you need to say a prayer of protection after encountering a hare in the first place?
Good question. Scholars have long debated how seriously or how literally "The Names of the Hare" should be interpreted. Is it a genuine prayer against misfortune? Or a kind of satire or burlesque on superstition? One of the things I love about the poem is that maybe the answer is both. Take these lines from the beginning of the poem: "Bot if he lei down on londe/ That he bereth in his honde/ (Be hit staf, be hit bouwe),/ And blesce him with his helbowe." ["But if he places on the ground/ whatever he carries in his hand/ (be it staff or bow)/ and blesses himself with his elbow."] Consider the glorious physical comedy of that! Laying down whatever it is you're carrying and blessing a hare with your elbow. Further, the seventy-seven names both exceed and fail the poem's stated aims of either describing the hare or warding off the bad luck attendant upon meeting one. The litany runs from the obvious to the frankly whimsical, including many names unique to the text, which repeatedly signal both the importance and strangeness of the hare. Finally, the poem refers to the hare as "The der that alle men scornes/ The der that no-mon ne-dar nemmen." ["The animal that all men scorn, and that no man dares to name."] Which feels like an odd summary for a poem that just went to excessive lengths naming that very animal. So, yes, potentially a parody on superstition charms, but also perhaps an anxiety is being expressed about otherness, and about language itself? Perhaps about our need to locate particular kinds of human domination within and through language? The need to name the hare forms part of a contest of mastery: the unknown speaker attempts to categorise and know the animal other, to absorb it into his system of signs and understanding, to ultimately control its perverse, amorphous nature and form. This control was a big deal in the Middle Ages, and it created the literary genre known as the bestiary: a compendium describing various kinds of animal and drawing from their characteristics or behaviour a moral – usually Christian – message.
For persons in the Middle Ages the "natural order" was stringently delineated, so that any inversion of that rule provoked both humour and unease. Human beings were at the top of the heap, with wealthy human beings just below God and peasants just above animals. What the poem belies is an insecurity about humanness itself: how this is categorised and constituted through language.
My interest in the poem has endured, I think, because of my own anxiety about language, specifically about the English language. English is the only language I have, but I have never felt welcome or at home within it. This uneasy relationship to language is something that saturates Seamus Heaney's 1982 translation of "The Names of the Hare", which is the form in which I first encountered the poem. Heaney often wrote about his complicated relationship to family history, which he stated held both the rural Gaelic-speaking past, and the modern industrial Ulster of the present. His translation of "The Names of the Hare" seems to be grappling with the notion of heritage through language, specifically through the use of Hiberno-Irish slang. The translation's profusion of compound names attracted me because my own spoken language was a compound too, an improvised hybrid of English, Irish, Shaetlan and Shelta. None of which I perfectly possessed. As we moved around, my version of English gathered scrappy offcuts of dialect from this town or that, drawing them into itself like a dirty snowball rolling downhill. The Heaney translation instantly appealed to me because its slangy compound words conjured a fraught meeting of languages and the many uneasy allegiances they represent. It is also a poem populated by caustic and inventive insults. What stayed with me about the poem was that the hare could not be held within or degraded by any single one of these words or definitions; neither could it be restrained or assimilated. As the speaker tries to degrade or bind the hare with language, so language forms the instrument of the hare's escape: leaping and surging away across makeshift identities, shedding names like skins.
Manny (beloved pit bull; eternal muse)
When I was born my mother's dog ate a portion of my umbilical cord. I have been bound to the dog ever since. True story.
Although I have always felt an affinity for animals, and for dogs in particular, the bond Manny and I share is special. He came into my life as a seriously disturbed, potentially "dangerous" rescue. He is now a (mostly) well-adjusted, happy member of the family. Which is not some kind of dog-whispering miracle on my part, but the result of love, patience and a refusal to give up. I knew there was a sweet, well-behaved and good-natured dog in there, I just had to give it time for him to prove me right. My favourite photo of him is a picture in which he is sitting on the sofa with my brother. We had just that day turned a huge corner. He used to bark and lunge at Kidder and, when he first encountered him, he had to stay on his harness and halter. Then only on his harness. Then only on his lead, sitting beside me whenever Kidder was in the room. Finally, on that day, my brother came downstairs one morning and, rather than barking as he usually did, Manny started wagging his tail and picking up his toys to show him. We'd done it. He has adored my brother ever since (although the feeling hasn't always been mutual). In the picture, they are side by side and both grinning from ear to ear. The joy just radiates off them.
If that was something I was able to give to Manny, he has more than returned the favour. He came to live with us following the death of my best friend and of my previous dog, Rocky. These losses were only months apart, and I had never felt so bereft and adrift. Working with Manny gave me focus; something to care for, a reason to get up in the morning. It allowed me to pour my love and energy into something, to prevent it curdling and turning toxic. It helped me back to myself. That's the grace animals extend to humans. Not just the love and loyalty they show to us, but the love they make possible. Manny and I have been pair-bonded since day one. I would rather be hiking in the hills with him than anywhere with anyone else. I always say that part of our closeness is that we have been subject to a similar and interconnected set of classist assumptions and prejudices, conflating feral "pikeys" with their so-called "dangerous dogs". The irony is, I would be proud to be thought of as dog-like. It's humans who are the problem in my opinion.
Dr Fran Lock is a some-time itinerant dog whisperer, the author of seven poetry collections and of numerous chapbooks, including Hyena! Jackal! Dog!, which was published by Pamenar Press last year, and Contains Mild Peril (Out-Spoken Press, 2019). She completed her Ph.D. at Birkbeck College, University of London, titled, "Impossible Telling and the Epistolary Form: Contemporary Poetry, Mourning and Trauma". She is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters.