Richard Scott | Soho | Faber & Faber
Richard Scott’s debut poetry book, Soho, comes after his pamphlet Wound won the 2016 Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets. Whilst reading it on the bus, I overheard a woman tell her friend that she hopes her baby son will ‘turn out gay’ so they can ‘watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race together.’ Queerness has never been more socially ‘acceptable’, but Soho is not a celebration of gay freedom or equality or acceptance per se. It leans hard into the shame that corporate, family-friendly or normatively affirmative representations of gay identity and culture often ignore or sanitise. As the speaker notes in ‘[you spit in my mouth and I]’, ‘the opposite of shame is not pride.’ Between the hot-pink book covers of Soho, intimacy is double edged. Insecurity haunts a desire for erotic abandonment, complicity troubles memory, the intensity of delight weighs against the threat of violence.
In the final, long poem ‘Oh My Soho!’, the speaker writes ‘I am to be a homo-historian – / mean to turn Biogrope to biography, foreskin to forebearer.’ Biogrope was the nickname given to the Biograph cinema that functioned as a sanctuary for the clandestine trysts of its male patrons, until it was demolished in 1983. Scott’s unyielding poetic eye acts as homo-historian not only of place but of the sensual body, re-materialising the legacy of gay desire and vulnerability, which, much like the Biograph and many parts of Soho in general, have been razed.
In ‘[like to go walking]’, Scott confronts the desperate longing and loneliness that forcibly accompanied the sexual desires of many gay men.
remember those pre-grindr days
when loneliness stung like a hunger
and you wanted to give yourself away like a milk tooth
Scott’s poetic language playfully luxuriates in the anal eroticism that has, historically, been relegated to the blink-and-you-miss-it territory of euphemism and metaphor.
follow me home and I will open my
walls for you tonight I want
your lidless your lidless eye your pearly hum
wash my beard with translucence
transmute my skin to semi-precious metal
enter my mouth my anus with light
Soho is a hyper-sexualised exhibition of vulnerability and trauma, at once violent and tender. Scott combines a uniquely verdant lyricism with his precise, excoriating, wit. Fans already familiar with Scott’s work might be shocked by the new permutations of this collection. This includes the citation of ideas by queer theorists such as Eve Kofosky Sedgwick and Leo Bersani. However, these academic encounters lack the affective nuance of poems such as ‘Fishmonger’ or ‘four arias.’ The tonal register too, slides between earnest confessional and ribald play. This makes for a dizzying, and sometimes jarring, progression. Nonetheless, I found myself unfastened by this aspect of Soho (not by its experimentation with affront), but by the discomforting force of its confessional provocation. It reminds me of the anxieties that were raised in the wake of the MeToo movement that saw survivors of sexual violence undertake public acts of self-nomination en masse. What does it mean to speak of shame? How much speaking is too much?
Even to articulate the shameful thing is to feel oneself shamed by it. In “Crocodile”, which won the Poetry London prize 2017, the speaker reflects upon being raped by a predator ‘who held me from behind / when I didn’t know sex’:
well pity me the boy who cried
crocodile I have these moments when I
know I wanted it asked for it even
to be special to be scarred
The autobiographical potential of these poems is played out compulsively, as a highly productive and volatile thematic fault line. In ‘Permissions’, the speaker probes into his viscerally-felt sense of impropriety. ‘I am always writing my pamphlet of abuse poems.’ One poem is playfully entitled ‘in the style of Richard Scott.’ In ‘Admission’, ‘he asks if my poems are authentic / do I have experience in the matter.’ Scott flirts provocatively with the borderlines of ‘the obscene’; not only with what can or cannot be said, but in which voice and what manner or mood.
Representing violence can be difficult because, in part, the listener is unwilling to believe in it (to go there). These poems secrete a palpable anger, as in ‘[even if you fuck me all vanilla in]’ where the speaker says ‘we are still dangerous faggots’. Asking us to remain with, even to interrogate, our own feelings of discomfort, Soho makes for powerful, urgent and deeply relevant reading.
by Nell Osborne