Alison Graham reviews Richard Scott
Faber Poetry, published 05/04/2018
When approaching Soho, it was impossible not to have in mind Scott’s reputation. The collection has been shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection, one of the Forward Prizes. Scott has gone from strength to strength in the world of contemporary British poetry – his poem ‘crocodile’ was selected for first prize in Poetry London’s 2017 competition, and in 2016 his pamphlet Wound won the Michael Marks Award. In light of all this, I approached the work with high expectations of craft and invention.
In Soho, the internet functions as a timeline along which many of these poems can be located. Indeed, the collection opens at a specified date (1983), when “queer subtext” is “nestled”. ‘Public Library 1983’ is impishly demonstrative, darting from innuendo (“rimming each delicate / stanza”) to the explicitness of “beards and thighs [in] fourgies”. It is a fitting opening, and there is triumph in the tension between a speaker who writes “COCK / in the margin” alone in public, and these same words appearing in a collection from a major publisher. Such is the difference made, in part, by the Internet.
What came before is the world expounded by ‘Public Toilets in Regent’s Park’, a primeval time marked by greasy diphthongs ‘sliming across the yellow groutings’, in which “information on venereal disease” is to be obtained by telephone. Elsewhere, the Internet marks the passing of time less joyously. The speaker in ‘cover-boys’ is breathless with shock and grief. Phrases run together and no pauses for breath are indicated in the lines detailing Raúl and José’s declines – the fates of the titular men bombard the reader. The speaker, too, is positioned as passive observer; the archness in the poem’s close (“too much love or rather crystal”) suggest distance and futility. Indeed, the speaker makes himself known once, when asserting “the future” he wishes for the cover-boys.
In ‘like to take long walks’, the speaker seeks out sex in “those pre-grindr days” – are these conditions preferable? Scott offers no easy answers. The poem deals in a very different sensuality, and at times appears devoid of it – the precise strategy of “X might mark the spot” informed by alliteration is miles apart from “jaw-locked / in a three-way french”, as is the geographical quality in “through industrial estates along the towpaths”. Instead, a devoted eroticism is offered by the speaker, a way of thinking in which both “yourself” and “a milk tooth” are suitable for giving away; in which “your stomach your semi” are a gold, precious “treasure map”. The poet inflects these minutiae with a shimmering beauty.
The online world also shapes aesthetic of Soho. The “♥”s of ‘four arias’, and the “:-(” referred to in ‘blue screen’ establish a permeability between the poems and cyberspace. The ♥ is an illustrative division of the poem’s four movements, ‘blue-screen’ takes :-( as a precise but unstable adjective. Inflection is to be inferred from context and the context is a poem bleating in its intonation – from “into the silent blue-screen blank and sad”, ringing with a music of little assonance, to the subtly lowing o in “programming and code run like teardrops”. In ‘Reportage’, it is the permeability within texts, and between texts and acts of violence that he discusses. First, in “poured petrol over that man”, the plosive emphasizing explosive violence, and the assonance which slows movement and reminds us of the considered nature of such a crime. It then surfaces variously as “tractor fuel”, “spit”, “saliva in my mouth”. The transfiguring of this image stands as a stunning representation of the insidiousness of bigotry; of how geographically distant brutalities are psychologically violent.
This is not the only appearance made by images of mob violence nesting in the body. The speaker in ‘you slug me and i’ is volatile, asking for the “unearth[ing] of my heart”, for the addressee to “beat the queer into me into me.” While performativity will likely be present in any collection oriented towards queerness, these recurring displays of violence and victim provoke reflection on public performances of vulnerability. What is achieved through the gory disclosure in ‘crocodile’? Certainly, a warning of the content to follow would not be unwarranted.
Scott is aware of the problems in producing an exhibit of violence. This consideration is ongoing, and the forefront of the Admission sequence. ‘Permissions’ opens with the speaker “always writing my pamphlet of abuse poems”, akin to “a tramp pocketing bin-butts” for how he will “fuse’em together later”. The poem becomes a consideration of the lyric-I – “is the I you” a question especially pertinent in contemporary poetry and poetics. There is a bleak humour in the assertion in “please take your hand out of my trousers”, in that it issues from a speaker within the confines of a poem. It would seem that in Scott’s determination to unflinchingly poeticise the experiences of gay men, he has not only rejected respectability, but consideration for his readers at times.
‘museum’ is, for me, the standout poem of the collection. Setting out a history of queerness requires philology: a language of fragments to be mourned, gleaned, and loved in equal measure. Scattering is performed by the speaker through enjambment that cuts through the words themselves. “[D]is- / figurations” is itself disfigured. The interruption of the speaker’s “look- / ing” occurs not only through his “steps away” but also through the blinkering effect achieved by breaking a line mid-word. It is coinciding of emotions that drives the central metaphor, with the speaker lamenting to the statue that “your loneliness / which has been my / loneliness”. And a radical narrative at that, one that refuses to shy from its self-prescribed task of scribing the historical violence done to queer bodies and lives. Scott’s bluntness is invigorating. He sculpts a ferocious and proud resistance to those who would implore historical amnesia and shallow forgiveness. Envisaging a queer lineage in which artistic creation is birth, and “echo-/ing voices” are channelled medium-like; where (self-)love is idolatry, has a dazzling result.