By Brad Richard
(Sibling Rivalry Press)
Reviewed by Taylor Murrow
The title poem in Butcher’s Sugar is one that wrecked me. If you read the book from front to back, it appears about a third of the way through. By the time you reach that poem—the one that begins “Beyond the candied peristyle / and sticky portals of the body”—you should realize what you’re in for, how dark and formidable these poems are, how the speaker intends to unzip himself for all to see. A voice commands you: “eat: / too late to say you’re hungry / but not for this.”
We gain knowledge of the body—our own and others’—through blind, sweaty fumbling. A nebulous echo of sexuality lingers years after the adrenaline has faded. In Butcher’s Sugar, Brad Richard retreats to these moments and seeks out the hidden pockets of the inner self, all through the queer perspective.
Richard’s speaker self-excavates, a “scrape of a blade honed in the heart.” He is a confessed changeling, haunted by monsters and men in the dark who have followed him into adulthood. Guilty, naked, and exposed, he confronts the deepest, most sacred myths within himself—and by extension, within the reader as well.
Tightly structured stanzas cage lines that unearth self-loathing embedded in desire. In “My Jesus Poster,” a disturbingly sensual image of Jesus gets juxtaposed later with a brutal description of crucifixion. In “Hermetic Nocturne,” the repetition of the line “and I don’t know who I am” at the end of all but one of the stanzas becomes a prayer that escalates to a frenzied climax: “star’s last spasm.”
When the internal gets muddled and confused, perhaps the first instinct is to reach outward into the natural world, a place that is simultaneously terrifying and alluring. The nature motif in Butcher’s Sugar—embodied in oak and elm, poinsettias, Japanese plums, cicadas, cat, thrush, sparrow, dragonfly—becomes a place of refuge. In “First Love,” the speaker recalls being fourteen and sunbathing. Three tight tercets trap the speaker in a landscape that responds to his exhilaration and apprehension. “I’m pinned in a moment that hasn’t happened / yet for me. Sweat prickles in my crotch. / The canal stinks. Reeds click and hiss in the breeze.” The powerful sounds of these lines make the scene practically tactile.
Richard leads us into the caves, the dense sticky portals, perhaps with the goal “to write himself whole again, a self / wholly written beyond himself, the words” and no task seems more daunting. By the book’s end, one callous point is made clear: The boy is gone: I’m all that’s left of him.