Three seductive, political first collections
The Barbarous Century
Sometimes when I feel like punishing myself I have a small think about what poetry is. This thinking yields, as you would expect, very little, but I think I know that the best poetry for me represents an unravelling of the world from the sharp point of an individual consciousness. Picture a diagram of a concave lens – like that. A flash of ultraviolet, which, rather than reproducing the lived experience in edifying primary colours, brings the stain, the seed, the subcutaneous bruising into sharp relief against darkness or obscurity. It would be difficult to write a book more ultraviolet than Richard Scott’s Soho. The collection is split into four sections, which, taken together, demonstrate a dazzling range and control of form – but these aren’t fireworks shot into daylight. Scott’s project is a political as it is personal, and the kaleidoscopic picture of contemporary queerness he builds through these poems is as urgent as it is alluring.
The poems in Soho’s first section, ADMISSION, are entwined with botanical imagery. In fact, we begin in the louche enjambment of ‘le jardin secret’, where boys are ‘herbs / square-stemmed furred / scented with musk dank clove / & lovage’, an Edenic respite before the superlative ‘crocodile’, where the same run-on lines gather an unflinching momentum:
[…] he will press his white rawness into me like that man who held me from behind when I didn’t know sex and gripped my mouth like a muzzle […]
Scott has no patience for pearl-clutching, and his wry metatextual nods toward his readers’ potential discomfort, as well as his bold dismissal of euphemism, are two of the collection’s most arresting features. ‘[Y]ou are twenty-eight when a poet says // makes for uncomfortable reading’, he writes in ‘[people say shit like it gets better]’ – a discomfort Scott invites us to interrogate. For me, his candidness is the weft of his poetry’s strange beauty. See ‘four arias’, where the speaker implores the addressee:
wash my beard with translucence transmute my skin to semi-precious metal enter my mouth my anus with light
Or ‘[even if you fuck me all vanilla in]’, where ‘responsible vaguely tender’ sex is ‘still a middle finger up flaming // rag stuffed into napalm revolution fuck- / ing anarchy’. Through these gorgeously frank depictions of sex – and the wry acknowledgement of their provocative potential – Scott explores the social obloquy of the queer experience, but also celebrates the radical artistry it engenders. It would be as negligent to ignore his sociopolitical nous as it would be to underplay the bloody loveliness of these poems. At times he put me in mind of both the languid sensuality of Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photographs and Theodore Roethke’s greenhouse poems, all yearning shoots and dripping sap:
you […] bought me a valentine’s day gift of moulded silicone this marbled root which shone like a newly hatched grub and glistened with spit when you put the tip into your mouth (‘plug’)
It isn’t often you get to say a poem about a butt-plug reminds you of Roethke. Other poems explore the butterfly effects of fate, of decisions made in the chokehold of desire, or lives pursued in its absence. Scott writes particularly touchingly about youth, presenting continuities between childhood experience and adult sexuality in a manner that gestures toward some deep, elemental eroticism – just not the shallow cave-and-cigar of Freud, whose theories the poet explores and finds wanting. Dark, joyous and fierce as a love-bite: read
Abigail Parry’s Jinx is a collection as taut and self-contained as Bluebeard’s bloody chamber (a Carteresque image that recurs in its pages). Parry’s work is showboating and vaudevillian in the most delicious sense, loaded with punning, the jangle of internal rhyme and incantatory repetition. We are asked to submit to, in her own words, the ‘Heathen nonsense of taps and clicks, Struts and echoes, and a huge, surging whisper of the dark / music in things’ (‘The Oracle’). Werewolves, knaves and phantoms are among the monoliths of the gothic imagination revived by Parry’s stimulant verse, which, despite its decadence, avoids superfluity of language or affect – each swag and frill feels precisely measured, exactly enough. One of my favourite poems in Jinx, ‘Requiem Shark’, is as stunning and spare in its construction as its subject:
The great longimanus Lord of the Long Hands glittering razor-edged expressionless a slender silhouette like a duke descending, as a virtuoso might use every nuance between blue and black […]
Virtuoso indeed. Her three-line evocations of the camouflage of moths are likewise small but perfectly formed. Here, the six-spot burnet is an ‘Old bloodspot moon… the dark jester in full slap.’ These poems are a marked departure from the sinisterly invitational sing-song Parry deploys elsewhere in the collection, most memorably in ‘Goat’ and ‘Girl to Snake’, poems that manage simultaneously to evoke the gravitas and lightly worn wisdom of folksong while offering a beguiling take on the drama of innocence vs experience:
Don’t think about that knock-kneed hopscotch, dapper, quick-stepped, keen. The long, tall grin. Goat means to take your shoulder as a bit between his teeth, skip in and out like nifty ribbonwork. (‘Goat’)
I’ve called Parry’s writing gothic, but her macabre is leavened by a sense of whimsy. Take the lapsarian humour of her jejune Baby Eve in ‘Girl to Snake’:
They told me you were trouble, Ropey Joe. You’ve always got to tip the applecart. But you’re a subtle fellow, Ropey Joe, suave enough to worm your way inside and pin your wicked mistletoe above the crooked lintel to my heart.
Another staple of the genre – the doppelgänger – raises his head above the baroque parapet in the schlock-movie diptych of ‘The Wolf Man’ and ‘Black Lagoon’, in which Parry inhabits two of the most iconic personas in horror cinema. One of the things I find most impressive about these poems is that Parry isn’t content with straightforward masque; these poems are concerned with unpacking the nuances of persona, of representation and voice, in such a way as to create a matryoshka effect of speaker-within-speaker. It put me in mind of Parry’s stellar description of David Bowie, in ‘The Man Who’, ‘[stitching] catsuits from his ogres’. In ‘The Wolf Man’, our speaker is ostensibly Lon Chaney Jr, who took as his screen name that of his silent-movie-star father – exactly the kind of fateful wrinkle Parry relishes:
That’s how it was, each time I saw that name, my father’s name, mine but not mine. The man himself played twenty roles a week, could lose both legs and break his back by close of day.
In the context of this sinister double play, ‘Black Lagoon’ seems, for me, particularly resonant. The poem begins with a touch of bathos, what appears as a plea for understanding from the depths of the titular murk as the monstrous Gill-man addresses his Captain Lucas:
But what did they tell you, Lucas? Out of the murk and mystery – was I all pleats and webbing, spats and pipes, my wet heart thrashing for lovely Julia Adams? I live here all alone. The water looks like screens look after everyone’s gone home.
‘After everyone’s gone home’ is a formulation touching in its naive simplicity, but the ‘lovely Julia Adams’ chills. Here the speaker and his implied audience exist in the realm of fiction – but their heroine is very much real. Not Kay Lawrence, but Julie Adams, the face behind that iconic mask of feminine terror. ‘The Amazon’, Parry writes, ‘chugs turpid gold and greens / through California’s glitz…’:
Oh Julie, Rita, Kay –
each night, in phosphorene, you’ve loved the lot –
hot, pliant, all lit up like slot machines.
I don’t suppose I need to labour the implications, in this instance, and at this moment in time, of the Gill-man’s intimation that ‘each man has his double in the dark’. This is the crux of why Parry’s vaudeville is not empty showmanship or candyfloss; Jinx speaks to the enduring importance of the gothic, re-animating its archetypes with fresh threat – and seductive heat.
If Jinx feels taut and self-contained, Leah Umansky’s The Barbarous Century tends, as the title might imply, towards the sprawling. Umansky experiments with form and texture, but the book also has a vaulting psychological ambition, alternating between the elliptical and the boldly affirmative. I found my first approaches toward this collection a little like watching hentai (perhaps don’t Google if you’re at work): sensually gratifying, if sometimes knotty and difficult to follow. Every concatenation I found perplexing, every weird dyad that threw me askew (cf. ‘a sleepy pungent / a beautied terror’, in ‘I HEARD THE SPARROWS AGING’) was couched in imagery so beguiling and lines so euphonic it didn’t matter. Or mattered less:
I want you to dream and let you ride into the night – all shaky-hinges and crated-screams. I want you to ferris to me. Oblige to gravity. I want your fall to be planned. (‘DON DREAMS AND I DREAM’)
Umansky’s feminism sometimes ruffles at the edges of her more obscure poems, as in ‘THIS IS AN OLDER GOAL’, a gorgeous reflection on the protean quality of ‘womanhood’: ‘these arriving she’s / their teetering hearts / the molt of their lusts’. And sometimes it is centred, sharpened by anger and wit, as in ‘SOMETIMES THE ANGELS ARE DEVILS’, a very contemporary response to Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’: ‘fires are everywhere. Mine are real, not self-made, but man-made, and they will not be drowned.’ I like this angry Umansky: the scorn towards the cruelties ubiquitous under patriarchy; the desire to shrug off the strictures of a language which can sometimes be complicit in oppression, as well as liberatory; the hunger for ‘civil riot’, a mode of joy that is ‘defensive’. Perhaps that’s what I meant by psychological ambition. In ‘FORCE’, the narrator even seems to lapse into a frustrated nihilism:
will nothing come to bless what has had a chance to spring? will nothing stand for what once was ruined? love to slaughter it all love to bring it all down bloodied […]
This is a sentiment that wouldn’t seem out of place in the mouth of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones. Indeed, Lannister gets his own poem later in the collection, as part of a series that, as a fellow nerd, interested me greatly. Umansky brings her feminist dialectic to bear in these as well, cleverly deconstructing the appeal of a modern pop-culture icon in her Khaleesi poems:
I am no ordinary woman, she says, My dreams come true. and she says and she is and I say, yes, give me that. (‘KHALEESI SAYS’)
I can relate. Elsewhere, Jon Hamm’s turn as ad executive Don Draper, in Matthew Wieners’s Mad Men, becomes an implacable surface against which Umansky hammers out the grievances of thwarted womankind. I like the refusal of the distinctions between high art and mass culture in evidence here, much as I like the messy urgency with which she strives for new ways of saying the old things that women know. The next century, it seems, might be ours.
A K Blakemore lives and works in London. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Humbert Summer (Eyewear, 2015) and Fondue (Offord Road Books, 2018).