Review: “Scrofula” by Matt Dennison


According to Wikipedia, Scrofula was a condition that affected the lymph nodes in the neck, causing a painless and growing lump of tissue that turned bluish-purple in colour. Back in its day it was thought that Scrofula could be cured by the touch of royalty, and hence it became known as the “King’s Evil”. Thankfully, it is now quite rare, affecting only five percent of “severely immunocompromised patients”.

Scrofula is also the title of Matt Dennison’s chapbook from Pudding House Publications. It’s an appropriate choice of name; the twenty poems within are dominated by distinctly earthen, dark, ritual themes. Many are heavily surreal in their construction, serving predominantly as mood pieces–take “The Bird” or “The Boy By The River Told” for example. Both of these poems defy summary, but leave behind strong impressions.

On the other hand, several poems are more narrative in nature. It was these that I preferred. While they sustain the mood established by the looser poems in the set, they capture certain and recognisable moments. “Premise” for example, deals with a young boy’s faith in God in a way that is both familiar and challenging.

The titular disease makes an appearance in the poem which gives the collection its name. “Scrofula” tells the story of the discovery and unearthing of a grave site on a small hill. Like many of the other poems it is strange, dark and tribal. There is a sense of old history in many of the lines, thick enough on some occasions that it can almost be tasted:

. . . one family,
from suckling child to father,
had been
Taken By Scrofula
in the winter of 1868, the dark,
earth sound of which I tried again
and again in the thick summer air,
imagining horses in snow, their hot
labored breath warming hands . . .

There is a degree of variety in the collection. “Il Connoisseur Sanguinante” strays close to a kind of black humour, as does “Balboa Egret”. Meanwhile “Memoir”–a short piece covering the narrator’s memories of nursery school–seems to lack the darker aspect that ties the other poems together. These diversions appear to be momentary, however. For the most part the tone is the established dark and edgy fare.

Scrofula is published by Pudding House Publications, here:

Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England.