From In the Time of Rat


The Common is pleased to present the opening pages of Norman Lock’s book-length poem, In the Time of Rat, which will be published by Ravenna Press this winter (2013). In a “narrow measure” muscular as Skelton’s but with the wit, precision, and grace of bonsai, Lock delivers the story of Nicolaas Jansen, “soldier/deserter,” insurgent subject and celebrant of Rat. Not since Ted Hughes’ Crow have we encountered a figure with this much disturbing gravity and charisma, and Rat is the more cunning and mercurial of the two. By the book’s end he has become God’s mimic and shadow, double to soldier and state, patron and incarnation of the impulse to war, that force relentlessly “turning/ what is human into/ meat.”

from In the Time of Rat

By Norman Lock


No angel weeping rust will mark my grave. Only Rat and
the bitter earth.

You will judge me
for I’ve stooped
to crimes damned
by commandments.
I’ve forgotten God
and found in Rat
a reason for Earth’s
winter and my own.
But how in so long
a war could a weak
man do otherwise?
Winter’s sharp
needles will knit
water into ice.
If as Hindus think
we will return in
some other form
I hope I am strong
and upright as a mast
when the ship quits
the roadstead for what
cannot be mapped
or fathomed. I hope
this time my canvas
swells with sweet
airs from Paradise
instead of the sty
we make of Earth
in the name of Rat.

Nicolaas Jansen
Deserter from the Thirty Years’ War


When Arminius slew Romans in Germania’s ancient
forest for Rat to fatten on, its imperial seed already had

ripened everywhere in darkness. When Alaric’s horde fouled
Rome’s streets and made Circus Maximus a home for
vermin, Rat gloated to see its reign confirmed.

Who speaks of Rat? With what voice say what it is to be
that despised object of dread – or if there is not some
particle of delight in being so base a thing?

My verses are
roughly made
like a doublet
for Danube mud
rain in Picardy
caking snow in
the Alpine pass
from Piedmont
to Liguria. They
are not cut for
courtly dances
but for winter
campaigns’ hard
toiling and tavern
brawls. I like
a narrow measure
such as the English
poet Skelton
wrote. In a brace
of thuds I hear
what noise heart
and breathing make
when I’m tangled
in a woman’s skirts.
Condemned for
stealing an altar-
cloth to sell
for gin I waited
in a cell for light
to fall against
an eastern wall –
and then the axe! –
and wondered at
the life packed
in that moment
the blade rests
above the neck
the bones like
knuckles sticking
up under the skin.
Like the bones of
a poem. I was
reprieved, flogged
and sent back
to the war. And
so I lived and –
I swear I am no
poet! – wrote
in a kind of verse
what I endured
(too grand a word!)
in the time of Rat.

In Prague I saw
Imperial Regents
fall (obedient to
laws of motion
affirmed in Pisa
by Galileo) from
a window pushed
by admirers of Hus
the martyr. They
rushed pell-mell
down Hradcany’s
tower as homesick
for the Dutch I
waited for Captain
van Rees to finish
a sutler’s daughter.
Rat that blister on
creation had incited
the Protestants to
murder Rudolf’s
envoys who fell
to earth unharmed
an outcome by Rome
ascribed to angels.
Hussites however
credit the manure
piled in the moat.
I little cared if
God had borne
them safely down
or pillowed them
with dung. But
what the moment
meant to them: Did
they see with clarity
denied the living
sights granted only
to the dead? Did
they hear a music
beyond all hearing
save God’s? Did
they begin to say
their paternosters
or shriek or discover
in their fall silence
which like a period
ends our mournful
sentence? Was it
ecstasy or terror?
Rat only knows.

Norman Lock has written novels and short fiction as well as stage, radio and screen plays.

From In the Time of Rat

Related Posts

Hall of Mirrors

November 2023 Poetry Feature: Virginia Konchan and Gabriel Spera

Gracefully we hold each other / architects and optimists / always at arm’s length like / congenital dreamers / tango masters slinkily coiled / bright candles in a hall of mirrors / whatever I propose you propose / to conquer repeating and repeating / the opposite.

a golden field of wheat

Thresher Days

The wheat wants an apology, / for taking me this long / to show my wrists / to the thresher boy. // Finally a summer where he asks how my parents are / and my jaw is ready, / stretched open so he can hear about them, / easier. // I may look different after, / I will need a new name.

People gather in protest in front of a building; a man (center) holds up a red flag

Picket Line Baby

White women give my father shaded looks./ Bringing babies to do their dirty work,/ mumbled in passing. // I am paid in jelly doughnuts / for my day on the boycott. // My dad leads my baby brother / to the front of the grocery store doors / for a meeting with the manager.