This is the third in the series of reviews I am posting over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).
The full 2018 shortlist is:
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)
The gateway to Richard Scott’s carefully structured first book is one of the most conventional poems in it. It’s a carefully punctuated, unrhymed sonnet. It is carefully placed (Public Library) and dated (1998). It’s the kind of poem and confinement Scott has fought to escape from and perhaps records the moment when that escape began: “In the library [. . .] there is not one gay poem, / not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads”. The young Scott (I’ll come back to the biographical/authenticity question in a moment) takes an old copy of the Golden Treasury of Verse and writes COCK in the margin, then further obscene scrawls and doodles including, ironically a “biro-boy [who] rubs his hard-on against the body of a // sonnet”. Yet his literary vandalism leads to a new way of reading as – echoing the ideas of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – the narrator suddenly sees the “queer subtext” beneath many of the ‘straight’ poems till he is picking up a highlighter pen and “rimming each delicate / stanza in cerulean, illuminating the readers-to-come . . .”
It’s a moment of personal as well as lit/crit revelation, a funny poem and the flood-gates open in accordance with the Whitman epigraph to section 1 of the book: “loose the stop from your throat”. From here on, punctuation and capitalisation become rare breeds in Scott’s exploration of gay love, shame, trauma and history. It’s only 3 years since Andrew McMillan’s Physical graced the Felix Dennis shortlist but Scott’s parallel collection is far darker, more explicit and brutal (but not always at the same time) and with a fierce sense of obscured queer history and its literary canon.
It’s an exhilarating, uneasy, accessible, relentless read. Section 1 goes some way in the bildungsroman direction. ‘le jardin secret’ declares “boys were my saplings / my whiff of green my sprouts” while ‘Fishmonger’ perhaps is set even earlier as a young boy is taken into a man’s “capable arms” in the back of his Transit van. A more aggressive and unpleasant encounter is evoked in ‘Childhood’ in which a seedy children’s entertainer (in a “caterpillar-green silk jumpsuit”) half-bullies a young boy to take him home for sex. But the poem’s perspective also suggests the child is an agent, making the decision himself: “I nodded and gingerly led him home / by the path that winds through the cemetery”. This is difficult territory (“makes for uncomfortable reading” Scott disarmingly mimics in a later poem) but erotic desire is powerfully acknowledged and (with a more caring partner) is later more satisfyingly experienced and expressed in ‘plug’ which, tenderly and very explicitly, records the moment of the loss of virginity (in fact, to a dildo).
Interestingly, the child takes the clown “through the cemetery”. Scott won the 2017 Poetry London Competition with ‘crocodile’ which also elides, blurs, even equates sex and death. The extended simile of the crocodile dragging a young man to his death is really “that man / who held me from behind / when I didn’t know sex”. The violence and destructiveness in this case is very evident but so again is the young man’s desire: “I have these moments when I / know I wanted it asked for it”. It’s in this way such poems can make for uncomfortable reading. Scott does not simplify either the allure or the destructiveness of the erotic.
In two poems, Scott himself raises questions of authenticity. ‘Permissions’ reports, in choppy prose paragraphs, reports observations from a poetry audience, at first in admiration (“how daring how dark”), then more uneasily (“surely not this writer wasn’t”). This fragmentation evokes fleeting comments, half-finished thoughts but also an awkwardness because one of the burning questions seems to be “is the I you”. It’s as if the audience want to know if these are poems of witness, meaning of authentic biographical experience. Poems of witness also in the sense of the often traumatic nature of much of the material. ‘Admission’ is even more clear: “he asks if my poems are authentic [. . .] and by this he means have I been a victim”. In neither poem do we get a direct record of what the poet’s replies might have been and surely it hardly matters. One of the unassailable liberties of the poet is to make things up. But whether fiction or fact the resulting poem has to possess the feel of the truth and Scott’s work has this in spades.
As I’ve already implied, many of the truths these poems convey are dark and shameful ones. The third section of the book is titled ‘Shame’, again quoting Sedgwick: “Shame, too, makes identity”. Here are untitled poems which make the queer pastoral of ‘le jardin secret’ rather more complex; another boy’s look or look away prompts “the hot-face / trauma the instant rash-jam” of embarrassed blush, made even more painful by a father’s verbal abuse. Elsewhere the father says, “don’t tell anyone you’re my son” and the narrator himself bitterly opposes any easy sloganizing with “the opposite of shame is not pride”. There is some support to be found in reading books by “leo / paul / mark / jean / eve / michel” and source quotes and allusions are noted in Scott’s margins here.
It’s this very self-conscious sense of these poems appearing within a canon of queer literature and experience that jet-propels ‘Oh My Soho!’, the long concluding sequence to the book. Whitman again presides in the epigraph and in the free-wheeling, long-lined, detail-listing paean to the present, past and future of Soho itself. The narrative voice becomes a self-appointed “homo-historian” and Scott’s love of word play (which elsewhere can feel too self-conscious) here finds a suitable form and tone. The historical element takes in a discussion of the Warren Cup (in the British Museum) but is never far from subjective and exclamatory moments too. The vigorous, secretive, once-unlawful, now legal, still persecuted, lives of “homos” is noisily and slangily celebrated:
We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!
Too busy sending dick pics and I saw Saint Peter Tatchel shirtless [. . . ]
We are a long way from that library in 1998, but “normativity” remains the enemy against which Scott takes up weapons (one of which is his own body). ‘museum’ is a superbly sensual poem, expressive of a man’s desire for the damaged male body of a Classical statue. Here normativity re-appears in the “giggling pointing prodding” of a family also viewing the statue; their ridicule is self-transferred to the gay man who stands observing in silence. The persecutions pursued in the name of normativity are also disturbingly clear in ‘Reportage’, the reports being of the immolation of a gay man somewhere in Europe. And Scott’s own revolutionary and erotic zeal are unforgettably conveyed in the poem opening “even if you fuck me all vanilla”, going on with characteristically explicit descriptions of the ironically, self-consciously, unprovocatively, vanilla-ish act, he still declares at the climactic finish, “napalm revolution fuck- / ing anarchy we are still dangerous faggots”.
8 thoughts on “2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Richard Scott”
Another brilliantly written review, thank you Martyn. I often wonder if I am unusual in finding other’s sex lives, whatever their persuasion or experience, of little interest. I’m not prudish or adverse to any subject being material for poetry, but I do find all the fucking a bit ‘good for you’ and ‘so what?’
On reflection, it isn’t the subject matter. It is the fact the language (in the quotes above) seems so disappointingly ordinary.
Also, I’ve been thinking about the Library poem. From my limited knowledge of male poets who wrote ‘gay poems’ or love poems to other men I can think of Abu Nuwas, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H Auden, Fernando Pessoa, Pasolini, Allen Ginsburg, Shakespeare, Whitman, Rimbaud and Verlaine, and of course Thom Gunn. I think Byron wrote a couple of gay poems too. I’m mentioning this because the library poem can be interpreted as implying that there were no obviously gay poems. It may have been a poor poetry section. Also, I’m not sure this reader would be ‘illuminated’ by a ‘cock’ in the margin.
Thanks for commenting Roy – always great to think someone is listening to my rumblings and ruminations. There’s plenty of sex in Scott’s book that’s for sure – a good deal of it a bit eye-watering! As with a lot of stuff these days it’s partly about poetry accommodating such experiences which it hasn’t always done – an aspect of the identity poetry so predominant here and in the US. It’s often hard to judge the quality but I do think Scott’s language and forms are exciting on the whole. He is also using the queer experience as a way of commenting on the normativity still dominant in society – exactly as one might use racial difference or simply (not so fashionable now) mere personal alienation from an overriding, stifling bourgeois set of values. He can also be very funny, self-deprecating and the book is a damn sight easier/more pleasing read than some that one wades through these days. I do want pleasure from poems – a sort of sweetener or fuel for the energy I am also willing to spend working at the more obscure areas.
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Thank you for your response Martyn. I look forward to and enjoy your reasoned, concise and balanced reviews. My comments above were made hastily and I have not read the book. I was probably expressing a perception I’ve had of late that a lot of current poetry is not for me since it seems almost unaware of the shoulders it stands on (i.e , its social and literary precedents) and instead is concerned with the persona of the poet. The persona of the poet and subject matter of their experience also seem to dominate a lot of collections, and, having lived a bit (perhaps,) I don’t always find the revelations of these experiences to be shocking, enlightening, entertaining or ‘new’ . Above all it is the quality of the writing I am interested in (always subjective) I hope this makes sense. It isn’t something I’ve spent a lot of time trying to articulate. .
I appreciate your comments.
This format makes for hasty comments I think – which is why I’m always a bit reluctant to get into the (expected) to and fro of posting. I always need a long think! But your thoughts are very welcome and I share some of your unease. There is such a cult of youth (especially in poetry I think – so desperate to be relevant and not up an ivory tower) that Auden. I think, was right – or maybe it was Maxwell echoing Auden – something about not having anything to write about until you were 30 at least. But Richard Scott seems very aware of tradition of a certain type though it’s still a first book and ‘range’ is not really something he’s bothered with. Spot-lit intensity more so. all best wishes for your own writing and blogging.
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[…] The full 2018 shortlist is: Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK) Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book. Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book. Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press) Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book. […]
[…] The full 2018 shortlist is: Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK) Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book. Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book. Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book. Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book. […]