Review by Gail Fishman Gerwin
by Nancy Scott
March Street Press,
3413 Wilshire Dr.
Greensboro, NC 27408
2011, 34 pp., $9.00
I first heard Nancy Scott read about two years ago; her on-target, narrative dissection of life experiences in societal context impressed me. As so many poets do, we swapped books. Fast-forward to 2011: I wrote a review of her chapbook Detours & Diversions, soon to appear in a journal.
A talented artist with collages winning numerous awards in juried exhibits, the poet now has written the ekphrastic poetry chapbook On Location. I asked for an advance copy and took a trip to a museum in Scott’s mind. The poems run a gamut of almost two centuries, with title paintings from 1820 to the near present. What remains steady in her poetic treatment of these disparate works is her willingness to suspend the factual face of the art with a trip to fantasy beyond the population on the canvas. She draws the reader into these fantasies and by doing so, the paintings become alive, merging the truth of what is contained within the frame with the possibility of what may have been or what can be.
This is evident from the start in the first poem, Yuli Yulievich Klever’s “Along the Riverbank,” with only three people—miniscule, almost afterthoughts in context of the expansive natural scene—depicted in the actual painting: a man and boy seen from behind in straw hats and a distant young girl in a white dress. That isn’t enough for Scott so she writes about the girl’s mother (nowhere to be seen)—
who, pregnant with a fifth child, stirs boiling linens
over a wood-fired stove . . . desperate fish flopping . . .their eyes wide open.
A bucolic field turns into a family dynamic; the mother instructs her daughter to tell her father (Where is he? What does he look like?) to:
gut those fish outside and throw the heads to the cats.
“ . . . Riverbank” is one of several in the book’s introductory segment “Russian Poems.” She dedicates the book (the other section simply named “Beyond Russia”) to her grandfather Harry Ollswang, whose U.S. citizenship became final in 1914, and we travel with her to his native country, where poems allow the paintings to reflect on the people in her own life. In Vladimir Krantz’s “Last Snow Before Spring,” she connects the peaceful wintry vista with her grandfather’s emigration as she imagines it—the cost of his visa, his homesickness as he traveled through the countryside not unlike that the frigid scene on the artist’s canvas, and his reticence about his early life, perhaps too painful to recall but allowing him the joy to relish his granddaughter:
yet he wanted to please me. Have you been good?
Then he’d flick silver dollars from behind my ears.
Scott pays this familial love forward, allows the art to reveal her devotion to her granddaughter Leah. An 1891 pencil and gouache work by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, “By the Shore in a Stormy Sea,” brings to mind “God . . . having had a really bad temper tantrum.” This evokes a scene from the poet’s own life a century and a quarter later, as Leah creates an art storm during a peaceful afternoon; while they made potato prints in “swirling magentas, greens, and blues,” the child suddenly takes black marker to paper, scribbling until the storm is over–my hand’s tired, she says. As a grandmother, I was struck with the universality of this young child’s vibrancy, attention span (and ensuing lack thereof) and guileless honesty; when we told our own grandson that he had a new sister, his response was “Can I color now?” Leah reappears in a later poem, based on Ernst Spuehler’s “The Chicken Coop.” Scott tells us that her father bought the 1951 watercolor as an investment which remains on her living room wall, without knowing how the purchase would pay off:
Six-year-old Leah and I stare at the painting, consider
the colors and the fate of those chickens . . .
his great-granddaughter’s curiosity is a more favorable return
than Dad could ever have hoped for.
As poets, we find prompts in overheard conversations, city or country scenes, pain and joy. Scott uses artwork in the book as personal prompts that welcome visits to her interior. An unknown artist’s “Tuscan Farmhouse,” a painting her father bought when they were together at the popular Washington Square (Greenwich Village) Outdoor Art Exhibit, comes to mind years later in Tuscany’s Fiesole, when she comes upon a scene like the painting, yet:
Not my father’s painted farmyard,
the angle of the roofs was wrong . . .
but when she observes a white-haired man tending rabbit cages:
For a moment, I was spying on my father.
Nowhere am I more in awe of Scott’s creative power than in Carl Holsoe’s “A Lady in an Interior.” When I googled the painting, I saw a reproduction that simply shows the back of a seated woman, solitary, reading next to a window, a mirror on the wall. Is this enough for Scott? No, she takes her readers to a festering story populated by the woman, her maid, her husband, the gardener—each with a point of view, all relaying tales of lust, tragedy, maternity, cuckoldry, and abandonment. Like small-town gossips well schooled in Schadenfreude, we are fascinated to follow these characters into a convoluted plot; we become parties to deception and we cannot wait to spread the lurid news.
Scott is intuitive enough to place herself in Van Gogh’s psyche (“Bedroom at Arles”): “I am overcome . . .Tomorrow, I will look/to rent a small studio, where I can finally begin to paint.” She is wise enough to recognize the importance of relationships, using a gypsy and lion as a metaphor for interdependence (Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy”): “So it is with survival: one stands guard, one sleeps.” With the curiosity and skill of a forensic detective, she examines Oda Peters’ “Woman in Blue,” and wonders about what she “can’t see in a small jewel box” that has captured the subject’s attention: “Perhaps a silver barrette/set with turquoise he bought for her on their trip/to New Mexico . . . Perhaps he died in a war or left her/for somebody else . . .” Scott, the investigator, lets the reader know there are clues yet untouched, while the woman on the edge of the bed seeks comfort—or pain—in relics of the past. Don’t we all?
Nancy Scott guides us through these artworks as if we are in a museum without hours of operation, without security guards. Her words allow us to step over the ropes, to touch the art on her poetry wall. As for me, On Location guarantees that I will not move through future exhibits without the wonder of what is beyond the canvas.
Gail Fishman Gerwin’s poetry and reviews appear in journals including Paterson Literary Review, Lips, Caduceus, Pirene’s Fountain, Journal of New Jersey Poets, Edison Literary Review, and The American Voice in Poetry. Her memoir Sugar and Sand was named a 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize finalist, and she earned four consecutive Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards honorable mentions. She is an associate poetry editor of Tiferet. A Paterson, NJ, native she lives in Morristown, NJ, and is principal of the communications firm inedit.