Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Wound – Richard ScottThe cover of this pamphlet has the single word title WOUND in large black caps just below the centre. The name of the author, also in caps, is much much smaller beneath it, and hardly visible compared to the big WOUND word. Behind the text and covering the whole cover there is a relief scene of men apparently hacking at each other with swords. The men are naked. It could be a scene from a Roman bas relief perhaps, and it's white on red. Curious. Looks almost like pretty wallpaper until you look more closely and see it's a scene of great violence.
Rialto, 2016    £5.50

Sex, sadness and toilets (Helena Nelson)

It’s not my world. Here is the exquisite vulnerability of men drawn to anonymous encounters in public toilets. And a poet who, without equivocation, sets the squalor of bacteria and ‘yellowed groutings’ beside ‘a beautiful cock unfolding like a swan’s neck / from the Harris Tweed of a city gent’s suit’. This isn’t something I understand or know. Neither is it salacious or titillating or, to me, desirable. But the sadness, the vulnerability, the aching nakedness of a penis with the foreskin rolled back and waiting – all of this is here.

Also some beautiful writing. Here is a sexual initiation: a boy and a fishmonger (Hamlet called Polonius a fishmonger, by which he meant, I think, a pimp):

He took me into his capable arms
and I did not cry out.

he fed me prawns, wiped
the brine from my lips –
let me try my first razor clam
unzipped from its pale hard shell
the tip, soft and white and saline.

In that battered old Transit
I took the whole ocean into my mouth
and then he sent me home
with a dozen eggs –
church-cold, freckled, unbroken.

Here I am, an ageing heterosexual woman reading about a boy's experience of sex with a man. My experience of sex, too, has been with men. Except it is not the same. There is a contract between men and women and it is different from the one between men and men. Ours does not involve public urinals. Even for cheap sex, women expect a token degree of comfort, a one-night stand, not a one-toilet-stall standing-up. The vulnerability of man-with-man anonymous sex is chillingly acute. It caused me pain to read; I almost could not bear it. I identified with the boy’s mother:

From behind the empty shed I sense
my mother welling up, as she watches

but I don’t stop till he finishes in my mouth.

There is lust here, joyful appetite and tense desire. But sex in these poems seems to me terrifying in its demands, in its exploitation of tenderness in order to get what it wants. I was saddened at heart, and fearful.

But there is energy here too, a great surge of things needing to be said, and said well. Sex is such a powerful thing. At some point or other, most of us are in its thrall, most of us ‘victims’ in one sense or another. This is his troubling matter, and Richard Scott is its master. 

Ruptured meaning (Charlotte Gann)

The first poem in this beautifully-written pamphlet is called ‘Childhood’. Here are its first five lines:

Can I come with you? asked the clown
in his caterpillar-green silk jump-suit.

If you’re going to say no then give me a crisp!
He spat, thrusting his fist spelt     L          O          V          E

into the open mouth of my Golden Wonder.

On the face of it, this all seems pretty familiar if disturbing territory – a creepy figure ‘propositioning’ a child? It’s the stuff of nightmares – and, of course, all too often, reality. It also has a particular period-feel.

But it’s not, as told, clearcut. Maybe not quite reliable? As if the child-narrator isn’t sure he can trust himself. The phrase ‘If you’re going to say no’, for instance, suggests perhaps he still thinks saying no is an option. It at least raises the spectre. And I find an unnerving disjointedness to the syntax of this deceptively smooth-seeming surface: like splicing. (Are there bits missing from this apparent narrative? Words? Whole phrases?)

These sensations disconcert me even as I arrive at the two lines culminating so potently in ‘Golden Wonder’. What an exceptionally disturbing, upsetting, stunning image this is – managing in parallel to evoke child abuse and innocent wonderment: a sunny-haired boy with his mouth wide open.

The poem has an allure, and clasp, as I read – as does the whole pamphlet. But it’s not a simple picture that’s painted: for me, it’s a mess of smeared emotions. Perhaps this is its intention, and its brilliance?

It does not only imply a rupturing of boundaries; it enacts it. It demonstrates the thieving of easy narrative – not least in the way that ‘L O V E’ breaks the physical boundary on the page. So, what is child here? What adult? What pleasure? What pain? What yes? What no? What right? What wrong? In short, what’s happening–? Here, perhaps, is the mess that child is left to live with, even as he ‘gingerly’ leads the clown ‘home’?