Fragile

Life is so fragile. Make sure those you care for know how loved and cherished they are. Tomorrows can be so capriciously and cruelly taken – so make sure you express to friends, comrades and partners what they mean to you today, whenever you get the chance, always. Ultimately, it’s our care for one another that makes more tomorrows – more hopeful tomorrows – possible, and that structures meaning into the relentless vicissitudes of the world. Sometimes little of any of this makes sense, but I’m reminded even amidst the most terrible of circumstances there’s something extraordinary and ineffably important to hold on to in those bonds.

Graduation

Graduation day, for me, is more an emblem of the past than the future.  I attended the graduation of my older sibling a long time ago and after enduring the tedium, the artificiality, the ostentation of it all, I was pretty determined not to attend my own. For the most part I’ve always perceived it as an exclusive, grandiose and anachronistic ritual through which parents could finally witness the (almost necessarily cynical) aspirations they sought to embody in their children vicariously bear fruit. I always thought of it as a chore, an exercise in sitting restlessly through tired platitudes about ‘journeys’ and ‘the next chapter’ and ‘ambition’ expressed by self-aggrandizing managers and bureaucrats on obscene salaries, who do and have done many an unscrupulous and venal thing to clamber up the sordid ladders of capitalist society.

It feels somewhat like a coronation in atmosphere, as if we are processions of loyal subjects queuing up to be graciously bequeathed a gift by the array of aristocrats and professionals donning extravagant gowns lined up on stage at the front – stages reserved for orientation speeches, ceremonies, gatherings of honoured guests, where the curtains open and close and conceal beneath all the splendour what actually happens here. You get the sense that even the esteemed individuals delivering the speeches don’t much believe in what they’re saying, nebulously appealing to notions of ‘society’ and ‘community’ and ‘tackling pressing global issues’ whilst in their own institutions presiding over declining wages for academics, slashed paid breaks for cleaners, desperately underfunded mental health services, and relentless attacks on working conditions. It’s why this rhetoric of aspiration really rings hollow – especially in this vast, coldly-lit, adorned theatre, the stage like a distant altar at which dissenting thought, passion and justice are nominally extolled and gracefully sacrificed.

We’ve all been waiting for this moment, right? This is why we clawed our way here through depression, trauma, obstacles and adversity: for this curtain call, drawn down finally with glory and pride and closure. In a way, they were right: it’s a fitting end to a process of higher education that has become more and more performance to serve the ends of the rich of this society, a reminder of the history and legacy of universities as institutions of the elite. Of course, universities are much more job factory than sites simply in which the ruling classes and technocratic elites reproduce themselves now, much more bound up with training skilled professionals than channeling elites into parliamentary and managerial positions – but you get the sense of ossified tradition here, a carefully choreographed set of proceedings designed to convince us that this place and the debt-ridden pursuit of phantasmal, degree-ticketed wages are altogether more noble than perhaps we would otherwise believe them to be. The meritocratic myth seeps through proceedings, that we can all be our own boss and should indeed want to be, micromanaging our time and our lives to best serve the ends of individual success and acquisition. It’s still this acting out of hierarchies, this preservation of a mythology of universities as distinguished and enlightened sites of knowledge and development and not deeply authoritarian, exploitative and ruthless institutions embedded in the barbaric projects of imperialism and neo-liberalism.

This is what we worked so hard for, right? That gilded piece of paper finally in our grasp like a trophy, proof and evidence of our ambition, conviction, and capability – our education an illustrious commodity purchased and earned to rent out to the bosses of this world, to vaunt on our CVs as a quantification of our accomplishment and self-worth. I understand why people want to attend graduation – especially those who have struggled the most. It would be unbecoming of me to deny that we deserve to feel pride for our achievements. But – perhaps because I am profoundly, intransigently unambitious – my mind lingers on those who had to drop out because of mental health problems, who failed because of personal difficulties and hardships, or who could never even attend university in the first place. It lingers on those who have had to retake or have been awarded degrees that apparently don’t deserve ceremonies like this, or who have been informed last-minute that they can’t attend because of outstanding fees. It lingers on all those under-remunerated, exploited, precarious, alienated workers who only get to see this stage in the capacity of cleaning up the dirt of aristocrats and professionals who would deport them without remorse if it served their business projects. It lingers on all those the spotlight excludes, all those who have struggled with little to no support throughout their degree, who have bled and cried to reach this day but to no avail. The margins are firmly reinforced around these rites, and so many should be here who aren’t.

To so many this will be like a banquet after a war or a celebration of finally being rid of this place and all its alienation. To some it’ll be a mourning for one of the best times of their lives finally passing. Maybe that’s why I was kind of sad upon receiving the email saying that because I hadn’t yet been awarded a degree my place at graduation would be cancelled. Not because I ever wanted this, but because I damn wanted that opportunity to not shake Croft’s hand, to not stand for the national anthem, because for all its artificiality and pomp at least there was an illusion that this moment was one to remember, one to feel pride in, one that was ours. This university affords us so few moments of revelry and I swear just for a moment I wanted to see my family smiling and proud of me again, a moment of normality, a respite from the battles we’ve all had to fight, the chimes of celebration signalling that this has all come to a close, that we’ve finally been victorious, and that maybe it is in our power to do great and exceptional things. However artificial, I wanted to take that moment and relish it for all it was worth – because for all the time I’ve been here it’s felt like Warwick has not even performed the principles and virtues it waxes so lyrical about and every day has felt like another battle. It wasn’t about the ‘distinguished’ speeches, it wasn’t about the ceremony or the rites, about the feeling of eminence and prestige – but a feeling of triumph.  I’m sad that I’m not sadder to leave this place.

Someone once told me that closure is a fairytale, anyway.  It’s clear neo-liberalism sells us lots of myths to obscure the brutal realities of its functioning. I think I’ll remember university not for the story it mapped out for us and expected us to tread, but for the narratives we forged with occupations, with protests, with dissent, with real community, with a real sense of belonging and camaraderie. All this university’s extravagant, hollow spectacles couldn’t even begin to emulate that feeling of empowerment and affirmation in seizing and repurposing corporate space on campus, possessing real collective power, finding real friendship, affection and compassion to heal all the cracks alienation has wrought across our lives. We haven’t been spectators, but have grittily done everything in our power to change things. I’m proud not of what I’ve done to subordinate and advance myself as a ‘paying customer’ and ’employable graduate’ but everything we’ve done to resist that logic, everything we’ve learned, every moment of resistance and adversity and solidarity. I’m proud of disobeying, acting out, surviving. I’m proud of the communities we’ve created, the bonds and alliances we’ve forged, the strength we’ve found. I’m proud of the drop-outs, the undesirables, the troublemakers, the professional agitators. I’m proud not of what this university has granted us as ‘consumers’, but everything we’ve created and discovered and reclaimed as collective social agents. I won’t remember the moments I’ve been in the audience and witnessed the ceremonies play out, but rather every time we’ve spoken out, stormed the stage, sabotaged the charade with blazes of banners and choruses of chants.

It’s a story that’s not simulated, that’s not perfect, that’s not proofread, that’s not reputable, that can’t be packaged. But it’s mine, and it’s ours, and I believe in it.

Power

I’ve seen that enraged expression before

Felt the violence it harbours

That predatory, baleful glare

Scrutinizing points of vulnerability

As you begin to intimidate me and snarl

And I’m already on the defence

Ever vigilant, ever tense

Prepared for the raised fist, the shove, the slur

Jarred from conflict to conflict

 

I’ve seen you clad in black vests

Bearing riot shields and handcuffs

Erupting in sparks of tasers

Surging forth in barrages of batons

Stalking through mists of CS gas

Displacing and dispossessing and devastating

 

I’ve seen you in fascists marching the streets

Hurling bottles, punches, venomous vitriol

Phalanxes of cops guarding your ranks

Guaranteeing your safety

Until the lines mingle and blur

‘Facilitating’ – participating in – your strategy

To control the streets through force

Police lights coalescing into brandished union jacks

 

I’ve seen you command the spaces of buses and trains

With disapproving glares

Scornful sneers

Cruel and oppressive remarks

Belligerently reminding us that we are other

Unwelcome, a pestilence, lesser

Weak and decadent and impostor

Deviant to be punished

Malfunction of nature to be forcibly cured

Legitimate target to be preyed upon

For nation, for pride, for power

 

I see you in flags still casting a shroud

Over occupied and colonized lands

I see you in glacial prison cells

Devoid of humanity and compassion

I see you in love, manipulated and contorted

Into another territory to be conquered, another weapon.

 

I’ve seen that expression as police descended

And bludgeoned us with a grin.

I’ve seen it reflected in handcuffs

Seared into damaged wrists.

I’ve seen it etched in scars

That overlap until I cannot trace the contours

And I blame my fragility and recklessness.

 

I want to wear an eyeliner that doesn’t feel stained

I want to construct myself

Out of more than fragments of pain.

I want more of a choice than

To be either martyr or coward.

 

I want to do more than wait on guard

Railing against the shadows

Desperate for those moments clustered around campfires:

The smoke gathers and advances

As we find ourselves amidst loss and disrepair

In retreat even as we earnestly stand our ground

Recalling the lost, tending to the injured

And never truly recovering

With even triumph a prelude to mourning.

 

I fear every crack is a fissure

And dare not wonder how deeply they course

How this hurt engraves itself and lingers.

I see you everywhere

Every quarter claimed

Encircled, until I police myself

And remember my place

Extinguish everything

Outside your reign.

Vote Labour

I’m tired of seeing benefits cruelly revoked from friends that can’t work due to ill health, punished by callous and degrading bureaucracies that relegate peoples’ lives to a set of criteria and a scoreboard determining whether they deserve to survive or not. I’m tired of feeling desperately helpless in not being able to support friends who have been failed again and again by underfunded, overstretched, under-equipped, slashed-to-the-core mental health services with unconscionably long waiting lists. I’m tired of dreading that there’s days I or those close to me might not make it through, overcome by the feeling that it’s just too damn hard to carry on in the wake of the political, social and economic turmoil wrought by the Tories, where fear, despair and drudgery are the routine and inevitable order of things.

I’m tired of a neo-liberal system of university which is more and more transaction, job preparation, commodity to be consumed, a sentence of debt, corporate discipline and crushing alienation that we become increasingly desperate to escape, rather than a place of transformation and dissent.  I’m tired of waiting for scarce, ruthlessly-competed-over, under-remunerated, precarious, dismal jobs with no protections or rights, atomized and isolated, encumbered by debt and dejection, anticipating that mechanical response of ‘your application has been unsuccessful’ hundreds of times if they care enough to reply at all. I’m tired of hearing my mum’s strained voice on the end of the phone as she recounts the daily indignities of work in a call-centre, with conditions becoming more and more draconian, workers more and more micromanaged, treated as more and more disposable, falling more and more ill, or worse, due to stress and pressure.

I’m tired of seeing the fear and fatigue etched in nurses’ features as they survey severely overcrowded A&E waiting rooms, realizing some will be waiting upwards of ten hours before they can see a doctor regardless of the pain they’re in, regardless of whether they’re crying out, bleeding profusely, struggling to breathe. I’m tired of speaking to people of evictions they’re enduring by vicious and rapacious landlords despite suffering from severe mental health problems – these very problems often resulting from or exacerbated by grinding poverty, by sanctions, by insecure work.

I’m tired of being too damn burned out to even grapple with politics anymore because it feels like such a forlorn struggle against impossible odds. I’m tired of the nights isolated in my room because I barely have the will to confront the world anymore. I’m tired of feeling disconnected from everyone, tired of friends struggling and suffering needlessly, tired of the routines of panic, trauma and tragedy. I’m tired of seeing lives, their potential, dignity, freedom, disintegrating like this and sacrificed at the altar of the free market so an elite can prosper.

I implore you to vote Labour tomorrow, if you’re tired too, if you’re scared or angry – even if it’s just for that glimmer of a promise that things can be different and better than this, that renewed if fragile possibility that things don’t have to be this way. I need to believe in that. I want to believe in that.

Waiting

I know how dangerous the undertow can be

And that you’re the kind of person

Who would dive headlong into a maelstrom

If there was a chance you might be able to rescue someone

 

I saw you in the colour of the stranger’s maroon dress

That grievous night of waiting

Steeped in the water’s depths,

Frozen in catastrophe

Fragmented memories of dancing

Scattered amidst the furies of the rain and wind

Fibres of fabric fraying

Unravelling and spiralling

Their dreams of splendour and passion

Dashed upon the rocks

Flurried steps capsizing into oblivion

Words washed off worn scripts

Floundering, panicking, choking

Desperately casting out cords

Hoping something might catch

Clambering with dread

Into the crowded, punctured lifeboat

All our frantic efforts to keep it steady lacking

Terrified the glacial cold would set in

Before we reached the shore

Doubting, even, that there was a shore at all

Helplessly waiting

As reapers patrolled and shrieked overhead

And encircled us in shadow

 

I thought back to that day you said you liked the colour:

It was animated as I watched you draw

With the gentle tones of watercolour

As the rain pattered the window

And tender soundscapes ensconced us

On those afternoons when we didn’t mind so much

That the clouds had shrouded the sun

And the colours had fled from the sky

When you could invigorate every last one

With the tip of your pencil

 

I watched as the maroon bled from the dress

And some part of me wished

You could have been there to repaint it

 

I wondered whether I would ever see

This colour in the same light again

I wondered just how many stories a hue can hold

When here beauty just feels like a stain

I wondered how many tragedies

A frame can endure before it unfolds

 

That’s why I didn’t call

Even though I thought about it

For every agonizing minute

Because I don’t want to expect you

To repair these withered seams

To ensure these nightmares

All transform into dreams

To bear these sodden clothes

With you everywhere

 

I’m so tired of seeing those I love

Devoured by the waves

Yet we must persevere

As if goodwill alone could save us

Huddling as we wait for the cracks to give way

 

Know I thought of you

In every lurch of the boat:

All that kept me afloat

Was knowing you were not sinking too

And all that steadied my hands

As they trembled from the cold

Was the thought of them clasped

Someday again in yours

Communion

You said you saw a feather fall from the sky

And that it reminded you of him

That it was a sign he was okay

Maybe even in a better place

That it descended from heaven

From his gentle and majestic wings.

 

I dismissed it as coincidence,

As just another shift in the wind,

With a bitterness I regret.

For what are these poems

But an attempt to seek communion

And truce with that which has faded

And will not fade?

 

I wish I could believe what you said

And I wish sometimes that you didn’t

Because there is no glory, no elegance, in death

Only desolation, and oblivion, and tears shed

In the throes of pain and mourning.

 

I’m scared that you cling

To this like a desperate vision

Of release, as if hope can only ever be a relic

And that you only believe in heaven

Because of despair that we cannot change the present

As if these conditions of oppression

Are some twisted celestial plan

And we must acquiesce to drudging toil and suffering

As some virtue, as inexorable and meaning something

As if a test restituted by some future redemption

As if compassion were some barb-wired bargain.

 

But I sometimes wonder whether dreams of salvation

Are that different from thoughts of revolution.

Maybe we’re all just waiting

Under the reign of spectres

Invoking barriers and illusions

To soften their sting.

 

So I hope you see more cascading feathers

And I’ll keep writing

Both hoping that angels can deliver us from here

And envelop the perished with their wings

Hoping we can soar, and surge amongst clouds, and sing

A hymn which soothes the roar of the wind

Hoping, praying, that there is something more than this

Sleepless Nights

I know there are nights that seem endless

When all purpose and promise collapse

When despair seals you, sets itself in stone:

Heavy, unyielding, the asphyxiating tone

Of an elegy, raucous and bereft of cadence

Jarring, defeaning – as if there is no sense

To be made of any of this

As you wander through the cemeteries

Of everything you have lost

And everything that is

Wondering what might be etched on your tombstone

Maybe the fragment of a poem

That you could never quite finish

On whether we truly live and die alone

Whether life is only tragedy and pain

And there are ravages that will not wane

Wrongs for which we can never atone

Whether this uniform of flesh and bone

Is simply a tableua frame

For all our scars, all our failures

All our doubt and desperation and shame

A host for torment and nightmares

An arena for fiends that cannot be tamed

A memorial, a war cry, a siren song

For all our friends and lovers maimed

And for all the things we could not change

Or whether we can nurture blossoms

From these blood-stained cracks and weathered plains

Roots deepening and intertwining to resist the storm

Whether a touch, a kiss, an embrace

Can soothe and rejuvenate us with time

Whether despite vine and mist and mace

Joy can persist, bloom, thrive

And we can together overcome this bane

With courage and defiance

Doused, still, and tired

But determined to remain

Honouring scars that will not fade

And all those futures yet unclaimed

Igniting shadows and rain

Believing, fighting, even if in vain

 

I want to be able to say

I want this, here, engraved

That I tried, I want to try

To hold on and stay:

This is dedicated

To all those sleepless nights

All those aching wrists

All those bruised and forlorn hearts

All that rugged grace written

And that could have been written –

To all that is remembered, loved, missed

 

This is to all those dawns

That could not quite break

For all the moments

We did not feel brave

But still held on to horizons

We could not yet perceive:

Maybe I can enshrine them here

Dancing in the Dark

I feel the warmth of the sun on my skin

Like the softness of your touch.

 

You said you love how everything is more beautiful

When the clouds part and the sun,

Amongst clear skies, shines through.

I love how you believe that the world can be beautiful

You make it more beautiful

Make me want to believe

It can be beautiful

Make me want to write

Of warmth and light

Rather than simply storms and tides.

 

I love how you want to read these poems

Whether I write of either,

That you ask me what they mean

And honestly listen

When I speak about why I write so often of grief.

 

Because persisting through all the maelstroms in the world

Would be worthwhile

To finally be here to breathe with you

To cry and smile and fight alongside you

To savour the scent of flowers with you

To hear the the melody of your laughter beyond the chaos

To explore and dream of visions of the shore with you

To witness pain reforged into glorious tapestries

To feel, to breathe, to be here with you.

 

The clouds have settled again today

But I’m still thinking of the sun

And of what it would be like

To dance in the dark with you

Until the sky is fractured

And the warmth of our bodies kindles wonders anew.

 

I remember the night

When the wind was so ferocious

I thought it might tear the window off its frame.

As we rested under the fairy lights

I swear I’ve never felt so warm or so safe

As I did in your embrace.

 

True Trans Soul Rebel

My untaught hand still shakes a little

As I lace the liner across my eyelids

And smudge it under my eyes

Patching and straightening it out as doubt creeps in

Deriding the lack of uniformity

Like flaws in an unconvincing costume

Like I can still see monsters hiding in the shadows

Of this lipstick’s hues

Like I can see them haunting my reflection

Mocking me, conjuring some ghoulish pageantry

Jeering like an audience baying for blood

Demanding that I be both less and more

As if I’m a caricature of everything I want to be

And I’m just trying to conceal the fear

The fatigue and anxiety

With stains and shades, a masquerade

Of femininity

That feels more like negation

Than bravery

Not resistance, but concession

To the violence of society

Not a divergence from the performance

But abiding it all too cautiously –

This bleak evaluation

Of how much I want to be taunted or hurt today

Balancing a desire for ‘authenticity’

Against fear of punishment and sanction

A tightrope the dispossessed all tread,

A disguise we all in some form don,

As directors backstage

Instruct us exactly how to perform:

We are both judge and judged,

Ever both performer

And audience member

Whilst never interrogating who dictates

This grotesque show

 

By the end of the night I look in the mirror

And feel like I have been wrenched through a trial

My lipstick no longer gleaming

But etched more like some ghastly bruise

Some ghost of withered dreams

As I grapple with the memory

Of looks of disgust, intimidation and heckles

That I screen out with Against Me!

 

And I know the demons have compelled me

To want to rub it off all night

But I curl my lips into a smile

Because despite this fearful trial

I still believe we can be saboteurs rather than actors

And that we can tear down this theatre together:

And each time I apply this liner

My hand gets a little steadier

I feel a little safer

A little stronger.

 

I can’t and won’t wear this binary:

These choreographed steps and expectations of me

Aren’t my reality

And I don’t need any embellishment

To instill me with coherency

As I feel this punk symphony

Seize the spotlight and occupy the stage

 

Even if I can’t quite see myself as beautiful

I’m trying to be myself

And that’s something

I want to believe that’s enough.

An Ocean Between Us

Almost a year ago you called me up

And told me your friend had committed suicide.

 

I remember how the rain struck the windows

As if demanding entry, as if storms

Surged in dirge and bitter salute,

Railed and seethed and raged as if in unbecoming

As if only floods could wash away this anguish

And the devastation craved more victims.

 

I remember how the room was cold, dark,

Shattered, like it could never be whole again,

Like we were clinging to remnants of a shipwreck

And all I could hear was your breaking voice,

Desperately searching for him amongst the wreckage

As you struggled to breathe, to hold on,

Struggled to resist the overpowering might of the tides,

Struggled to overcome the impulse to just surrender

As if you could hear his voice in the storm

Feel his phantom seep through your skin

As the glacial waters and winds numbed your flesh

As nothingness beckoned, crushed and submerged your senses

And the tempest erupted like a crescendo inside your frame

Like a choir of everything you had lost

Currents hauling in the ruins of distant shores

Every gust of pain incited into whirlwinds

Wresting at your grip

Bludgeoning your resolve

Withering your spirit

 

I tried to reach you, to call out

Pleaded with you to not let go

Cried that I loved you and it was not your fault

But the words were lost in the clamour

And no words could conciliate it

And it felt like there was an ocean between us.

 

They called it an accident

But we knew that wasn’t true

What hurts the most is knowing

It could have been you

That so many cast themselves overboard each day

And we mourn, grieve, but never speak

Of the vessel, the cruelty of captains toward their crew

Or the storms we are consigned to sail through.

 

I remember everything of that night

And nothing at all.