Richard Scott’s debut collection from The Rialto is the ninth in their series of Bridge Pamphlets designed to cross the gap between magasine and book publication for new writers. It is a beautifully produced pamphlet in cream and what I would describe as Germolene pink – appropriate for a collection of poems called Wound. The cover is a detail from the Renaissance engraver Pollaiulo’s Battle of the Nudes depicting naked men fighting with swords against a background of dense foliage. Again a perfect choice. Like the poems themselves, the cover image is beautifully wrought.
I first heard Richard read at the Aldeburgh poetry festival in 2014. In person he is engaging and funny which contrasts strongly with the subjects of the poems in this collection: hidden and gay desire, self-loathing, abuse and sadomasochism. Andrew McMillan’s first collection, Physical has gathered a range of literary awards including the Guardian’s First Book Award; but Wound goes to an altogether darker place. Richard writes from a position of deep wounding, where desire is often conflated with disgust. In fact many of these poems are very difficult to read. But they are important; they aren’t self-indulgent; the truth of the pain rings out clearly.
Like McMillan, and Gunn before him, he sets out to examine male love and sexuality.
In The Butcher’s Apprentice he has reduced myself to meat
Oh to be your prey!
Hang me up butcher – my nape is ripe for your hook!
In these moving, sad and sometimes shocking poems there are references to early abuse. Trainee priest at Rochuskapelle gives us a narrator who imagines he is like the priest – young, bound for a lifetime of suffering behind cloth. In Reportage he contrasts the freedom to be gay in Britain to the persecution of that poor sod who dies horrifically in some minor fictitious Baltic state, which is the subject of the news report. There are religious images throughout the collection that speak of a Catholic childhood – the martyrdoms of St. Margaret and St. Sebastian, as well as recurring references to sin and guilt. But there is also black comedy: in Cover boys he imagines finding long-forgotten top-shelf rags where three pixelated pricks / have stayed this hard since two-thousand and five.
And there is room for redemption too, or a kind of dizzying transformation: in Le jardin secret a list of lush garden images describes his relationships where boys were my saplings and seeds exploded onto my lips like sherbet. In Jeanne Bare observes the inlet he asserts that all of us are capable of great change describing how perch transform / into dark birds by making:
inestimable leaps into that other world
through the fearsome belt of oxygen
Richard also addresses the reader’s unspoken question in Permissions – is he really writing a pamphlet of abuse poems? But he doesn’t answer it. And again in Admission where ‘Ed’ ask if the poems are authentic … I tell him the truth he talks to cover my silence and it’s not your fault I remain dumb. So there is no direct confirmation. Not that it’s needed. Whatever the lived truth is, these poems give voice to those who have been abused. Whether they are confessional or not is beside the point.
For me the most shocking poem is Dancing bear, which I recently heard Richard read at the Troubadour in Earls Court. Like Pascale Petit’s poems, which deal head-on with abuse by her father but are couched in tales of metamorphosis, in Dancing bear his father has become a circus performer in a bear costume:
He apologises to me
for all the places on my body
his hands have scarred
but I just close his eyes,
sing him to sleep…
There is room for forgiveness, a kind of acceptance, but the narrator has to be ready with a blade / in my other hand. The wound can never truly heal.
In the poem which gives the collection its title we see how surgery has resulted in a wound where tiny black stitches which he compares to bugs are bedding down for a feed on my prick. The fear of pain and shame, whether historical or anticipated, seems to stem from this experience and the ‘I’ of the poem imagines that
the surgeon had named a fault line,
always at risk, ready to split.
By reading these poems, we engage with the process of transforming human experience through art which is what the best poetry can do. Wound is a very strong and moving collection by a skilled and sensitive poet.