Transmissions is a series in which I offer notes on the creative work of small press publishers of poetry. I’ve decided to start in Bristol, with the editors of Hesterglock Press, Paul Hawkins and Sarer Scotthorne. In this post, I offer some thoughts on Scotthorne’s, The Blood House (Bristol: Hesterglock Press, 2015). Notes on Hawkin’s collection, Contumacy, can be found here.
Bodies to Live in: Notes on Sarer Scotthorne’s Blood House
Task 1. Picture a collection of poems as a house; each page a different room. Picture a collection of poems as a body; each page a separate organ.
the house screams
(from ‘David’s Game’)
Task 2. Place your memories inside larger histories of nature and war. The picture of the body is pressed into the picture of the house. The light leaks in, colours merge, and a single picture meets your eye.
of his heart
(from ‘Poison: Scene 2. Hunger’)
Task 3. Inside this picture read the poems of The Blood House, their visceral correspondences of architecture, bones, circulation, memory, and the death cackle of a fade.
I have been breached
by the living,
who become the dead.
(from ‘Any Persons Arms’)
In opening this way I hope to capture something of the viscerality of Scotthorne’s lyric structures, where the most confessional of poems exceed what could willingly be disclosed, and where the confessions seem aware of what they can’t express. Indeed, across the collection’s opening the speaker points to either the lack or the limits of speech:
‘I wanted to scream and shout/…I remained silent’ (from ‘The Way Seagulls Fly’)
‘There are no words’ (from ‘Any Persons Arms’)
‘What could I say?’ (from ‘Daddy’s Dance’).
Rather than words, what comes out of the mouth is liquid: ‘it sprays from my mouth’ (in ‘Any Persons Arms’), ‘I kneeled and kissed his temple/…Blood sprayed out,/ covering/ his yellow bed/ of flowers’ (in ‘Poison: Scene 1. Alone’).
Blood is a sign of disturbance of the interior and exterior limits of the body. Like all liquids it assumes the form of the container into which it is poured. While the poem as a container for language is an established metaphor, rather than investigating form’s capacity to shape and contain, these poems are like life giving wounds. The poems are open channels for unvoiced feelings — grief, anger, love — to seep into language, its rhythms, words and laws.
If feelings are experienced as somehow prior to language, then it’s significant that it’s not until the end of ‘Repeating Patterns’, the ninth poem of a twenty-six poem collection, that the ‘I’ records its own speech. When it does the words are directed inwards, ‘I say to myself’, the speaker remarks, uttering the sounds ‘chk chk chk’ from an ambiguous subject position: the body first becomes the wallpaper and then it fights against this transformation, ‘I try to come down from the wall’ the speaker says, attempting to escape the fate of the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, vestigially present in the line ‘he traces the lines with his yellow fingers’.
Even though the speaker often refrains from recording their own speech, Scotthorne’s poems have things to say about bodies. The bodies of The Blood House move to their own laws or are violently lawless. There are the crazy, loose bodied bones of a seagull that ‘flee their centre, distorting themselves’ in the opening poem, and then there are a series of poems which constitute the collection’s heart that explore the relationship between a daughter and her dead father, some of which make use of the third person: ‘she should never have eaten his rotten heart./ She should never have killed him’ (lines from ‘Blood Head’).
This idea that one body consumes or becomes another in violence is developed in ‘Soldier’s Dinner’ where the half-day rations of a US soldier in Afghanistan (2013) provide source text for a poem which exchanges the haunting but real power of a father for that of the military:
I moulded my sweat to your national eye,
a fifty-calibre song
spitting your dark trench radar
Rations are the minimal amount of food necessary to sustain a soldier’s body in their work of killing that is often performed in the name of securing a national body. In this poem it is the lubrication of ‘sweat’, rather than blood, that reveals and implicates the flesh in a set of mutually dependent relations: rations sustain the soldier, the soldier sustains the nation, and both sustain the speaker. In this national, militaristic and consuming body the lyric becomes ‘a fifty-calibre song’, singing the violence of its living desires and of its own desire to live.
I particularly value the many other poems in The Blood House that also test out the possibilities and politics of mutual dependency. Here is the last stanza from the poem ‘Sunday Morning Words’:
Inhaled by you, I no longer exist,
my empty nightshirt lies on the bed
and as you absorb me, you become
thinner and thinner.
The ‘you’ in this poem is not a kind host. In the preceding stanza it manipulates, controls and fixes the speaker: ‘And then your cold machinery presses into me,/ you move my arms into position and clamp me tight.’ The ‘you’ here is an enemy, you are the enemy, and the body in its presence does not seep with liquid but is inhaled as gas. After inhalation, the ‘I’ now as a gas inside the ‘you’, reduces the shared body to thinness.
I’m excited and perplexed by the power relations this poetry creates, as well as the agency it locates. The poems are doing important work. I also feel that even the most painful of poems in The Blood House are acts of generosity. They create new and difficult bodies that we are invited to live in. Whether we can or not is another matter entirely.