I have only just learned from the Bloodaxe Books website that the poet David Scott passed away earlier this year. I take the opportunity here to post a review that I wrote on the appearance of Beyond the Drift, New and Selected Poems. The review was first published in The North in 2015. .Here is a link to the poet’s page on the Blooaxe Books website:
David Scott’s Beyond the Drift, New and Selected Poems reviewed by David Cooke
Beyond the Drift, New and Selected Poems by David Scott. £14.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 9781780371047
David Scott’s Beyond the Drift, New and Selected Poems brings together seventy poems written since Piecing Together (2005) alongside the contents of two earlier collections and the new work he included in his previous Selected Poems (1998). Until his recent retirement, Scott worked as an Anglican vicar in various parishes and, as well his poems, has written several books on religious themes. Identifying with a long line of poet-priests going back to George Herbert and, more recently, R.S. Thomas and Norman Nicholson, Scott’s work is informed by his religious faith and the daily rituals of church life. In an increasingly secular society there will be many who do not share Scott’s beliefs and may feel that his poetry is not for them. This would, however, be a pity, because Scott is a poet of quiet power whose work, self-effacing and meditative, can frequently surprise you with its well observed images and sudden insights. ‘A long Way from Bread’ is a beautifully paced poem about what is important in life and one that might also be interpreted as an understated critique of contemporary values:
We have come so far from bread.
Once the crock said ‘BREAD’
and the bread was what was there,
and the family’s arm went deeper down each day
to find it, and the crust was favoured.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Scott’s poem is also informed by images from the gospels: ‘it was to bread / that Jesus trusted’; even if the poet acknowledges that ‘man cannot live on bread alone’. The poem’s conclusion, however, is finely judged and trenchant: ‘I say, let us get the bread right’. In ‘This Meadow, a soul’ from Piecing Together, Scott’s most spiritually introspective collection, he brings together theology and an affinity with the natural world, as he contemplates a field of grass: ‘Occasionally a secret breath unseen / blows joy across its face’. In ‘The Orchard’, a poem in which some old men remember their childhood days of ‘scrumping’ for apples, he puts his own homely spin on the myth of Eden and Man’s loss of innocence: ‘They will remember / the stalking through the undergrowth, / and the first sweat of guilt, / sweeter than the apple’.
In other poems it is the everyday routines of ecclesiastical life that shape them. In ‘Locking the Church’, the huge key, that ‘on its stiffest days / needs a piece of iron to work it like a capstan,’ not only defines the priest’s working day but becomes a symbol for the responsibility that goes with it: ‘I know the key’s weight in the hand / the day begins and ends with it’. In ‘The Surplice’, another precisely observed poem, a priestly vestment is made to represent both the church’s troubled history and the mundane realities of a life spent serving it:
To think so many battles have been fought
over this four and a half yard circumference
of white linen. Not just by those who ironed it
up to the difficult tucks beneath the yoke
but the Divines wrangling over rubrics.
Yet it is the poet’s role as a pastor that gives him his unique insight into the lives of his parishioners as he supports them through the various stages of their lives: baptism, marriage, death.
Alongside Scott’s religious faith, it is perhaps also his sense of Englishness that most distinguishes his work. This is, of course, a much debated term and one that has become increasingly contentious as our society has evolved, but one with which Scott seems very much at ease. Indeed, one could easily extract from his poems a catalogue of the things that have, traditionally, been associated with it: morris men, cricket, sheepdog trials, gobstoppers, tea, duffle coats. The list could be expanded almost endlessly. In ‘My Bike’ there seems to be a conscious echo of Philip Larkin, another very English poet, but one whose agnosticism and lugubriousness Scott does not share:
I prop it up, steady it,
pull my trousers out of my socks,
and knock to enter into
a death, or any other
of life’s routine shocks’.
In ‘Daffodils’ he has swapped his bike for his car and reworks images that evoke both Larkin and Wordsworth: ‘Today I stop the car, / no errand too important for honouring, with some awkward parking, the sight in sun and wind / of this green and yellow jamboree of daffodils’.
Scott is a poet who knows his limits and plays to his strengths. He always writes well about country life and nature in poems such as his prize-winning ‘Kirkwall Auction Mart’ or his delightful sequence, ‘Pulling Out Weeds’, which is on a par with the best work of Canon Andrew Young, another of his priestly predecessors. Although many of Scott’s poems are quite short, within their brief compass he is, by turns, gently humorous, moving and profound. You will search in vain for indignation or tricks, for this is a poet who, like Duns Scotus, will ‘not settle / for less than the essence of a thing’ and one to whom many readers will find themselves returning, when more fashionable voices have started to lose their lustre.
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His latest collection of poetry is The Metal Exchange (Littoral Press, 2022).