Review by Julie L. Moore
by Penelope Scambly Schott
408 N. Lincoln
Bay City, MI 48708
2009, 79 pp., $15.95
Penelope Scambly Schott’s most recent book of poems, Six Lips, is both poetry of the body and poetry of the body’s shadow, otherworldly and wildly imaginative. In three cohesive parts, Schott writes about the body’s awakenings and decay, including her mother’s last days. She explores remorse and the release of resentment—and the death that is sure to separate her from her mother, especially when “The Generations Die in the Right Order,” as the title of Schott’s previous book requests. Covering a mother lode of themes—love, sexuality, forgiveness, and loss—is no coincidence in Six Lips, for its purpose is to explore the complex and complicated relationships between mother and daughter, woman and world.
In Scott’s opening poem, “Compass,” the speaker says that she has “lost in the Past [her] ability to remember,” so she must “rummage the Now for the gift to forget.” Such lostness seems to hinge on the fact that her “scant mother is old and shriveling,” a brutal reality she both wants to escape and wants to accept. Not only does this first poem admirably set the stage for the rest of the book but also it entices the reader to discover what “damn pebble” Schott’s narrator keeps “hoarding for Truth / in the wet cupboard of [her] mouth.”
Schott also investigates her place “Among the Other Animals,” revealing that she has “been at sea a long time and [is] sniffing / [her] way home,” an apt extension of the compass metaphor. She also lets us know that when she
answer[s] the screech owl, music vibrates
the back of [her] throat,
a language half known: a Spanish speaker almost
until [she] become[s] one in the clan of beasts,
the animal itself, akin to kin.
Schott’s language, indeed, vibrates and resonates with her readers, for it speaks of both lyric and story—song of herself, song of her mother’s dying, song of every animal in this world.
As section one unfolds, so also do those songs. “My Obituary” reveals both Schott’s sarcastic sense of humor, telling us, “As for the funeral, I don’t plan to attend,” and her intentions: “Biography makes for honest work.” She likewise includes poems like “Self-Portrait as a Horse” and “Outline for a Sexual Biography” that show why the “red mare gallops / in [her] raiment of flesh.” We learn, too, that as a child, she longed to hear her mother, through “her dry lips,” say, “Child, . . . /You delight me,” a longing that apparently went unfulfilled, at least in childhood (“Can’t You Do Anything Right?”). And so, when we read in “How I Scare Myself” that she “arose from the rubble a dangerous woman,” we are both relieved and forewarned.
And by rubble, Schott means bones, skulls, and skeletons, all of which litter the collection as much as her fingers and flesh, lips and legs. For instance, bones boil in “How We All Came to Survive,” and skulls are “nailed to the newel posts” in the “The Shadow Life.” Schott is also the “Skeleton Girl,” whom she tells us we can call, “She-who-once-believed-in-justice. Or this: // Owl-without-hands-to-save-us.”
Always this sense of loss pervades Schott’s collection and is deepened by yet another evocative, unifying motif: shadows. We’re told in “The Shadow” that the leaf’s shadow “is more engrossing than the leaf: moment after a kiss, moment before a murder.” Indeed, Schott spends a good part of her book in such moments as she explores figurative out-of-body experiences, like she does in “The Shadow Life,” where those skulls are. That poem describes “dream[ing] in the house of stairs,” where “birds chime the chord of your spine.” The assonance of “chime” and “spine” not only epitomizes Schott’s mastery of internal rhyme but also is haunting, reminding us we are not in a purely physical realm. Such is the case again with “Inside a house of dying,” which foreshadows her mother’s death. Schott’s omission of punctuation in this poem enhances the images of the “blue cloud / indistinguishable from sky” within the house as well as the “old woman in the bed / . . . [who] watches the cloud” that is warmer and closer than her own children, who are likewise there, but in the kitchen. They are like the shadows—perceptible but unable to be grasped.
Despite these strengths, there’s no doubt that Schott works best when she’s exploring the mother-daughter relationship, using otherworldly imagery, and situating herself among natural elements. Just like the leaf’s shadow “is more engrossing than the leaf” itself, her poems about her own body and sexuality sometimes lack the verbal dexterity displayed elsewhere and thus are less interesting, although even those poems have some memorable lines. In addition, the two poems that conclude section one have weaker endings than the others. Most of Schott’s poems have stunning conclusions, such as this one from “The Shawl Store”: “Only I // am naked. Today I am wearing / the glamorous air.” But flat endings encumber “Behind the Waterfall, I Become Invisible Again” and “The Eyes of Fever.” The former has the potential to end with the probing question, “How far in can you go // and still come back?” Instead, it continues, “As if I have seen Being / become Is,” lines both vague and flat in terms of language and imagery. Similarly, the latter poem, with its engaging opening lines, “Sometimes I crave the eyes of fever, / every color sharp, the lines distinct,” could end with the breathtaking, rhetorical question, “How to live in this state of rawness?” Instead, however, another, less compelling question follows, along with these two lines: “Or maybe it happens only in your final illness / as you convalesce from being alive.” As luminous and musical as Schott is nearly everywhere else in the book, section one ends with this language that fails to evoke any concrete, or stirring, images.
Yet, all books have weak spots, and if those are Schott’s, they are few and forgivable. Thus, as Six Lips moves into its second section—one long poem entitled, “Counting the Body”—Schott constructs creative metaphors with and surprising functions for the body parts she devises: one tail, two vaginas, three ears, four tongues, five arms, six lips, seven eyes, eight eggs, nine knees, and ten thumbs. For instance, her six lips, whence the title comes, are meant to “sip the sublime, / two for the mouth and four for the vulva,” tying back to the memorable lines in “Outline of a Sexual Biography,” which tells us “The Best News”: “That body and mind are one. / That one and one are sometimes one.” In Schott’s book, synergy is at work—and at play. In addition, the speaker writes that her nine knees “bow down” in pairs to a separate season each, until, on her ninth knee, her “very last leg, [she] balance[s] / in snow, begging each girl or woman / [she] ever tried to be” for a blessing she will not give. Schott, so adept at steering clear of sentimentality, can also pull off showing her seven eyes observing “sunrise and sunset,” “beaver scarring the pond / at dusk,” and “she-bear licking her twins / as their lumpen muzzles nuzzle her teats.” Here, as elsewhere, Schott displays a mastery of lyricism as well as a hard-earned tenderness.
As the third section opens, the reader is wowed by some of the richest, most moving poems in the entire collection, beginning with “Heart Failure,” where the speaker struggles to forgive her mother for grace her mother withheld from her. Reminding us of “Can’t You Do Anything Right?,” the speaker confesses,
I want to be sad that she’s eighty-seven and fading.
I want to invent memories of how she encouraged me
when I was a child, how she helped me when I
was a young mother, how understanding she was
when I got divorced . .
She also desires to “excavate [her] terror, / melt down [her] resentment.” Why? Her “mother has become tiny and pathetic and brave.”
On the heels of “Heart Failure,” comes “Spring Housecleaning,” where the bones return. Here, the speaker is “sorting through a cupboard of skeletons,” as she chooses what items to sell in a garage sale, perhaps, after her mother’s death. In the next poem, “What I Got,” she shakes out separate bags of hats, heads, hands, knees, shoes, loam, skies, and planets—as if all the contents in the collection are spilling out before us. The imagery is both unifying and original.
Several pages later, the reader lands upon “Moral Accounting: A Song Cycle.” Once again uniting the motifs of music, sex, death, and ghosts, Schott walks the reader through the narrator’s life in eight sections. In “Ghost,” the poem’s second part, we’re reminded what the speaker has survived: “There’s no going back to veiled grandmothers / or the seal-fur mother who left me with the maid / or even the daughter I dragged under the waves.” The poem’s third part, “Penance,” however, exacts her Dantesque punishment upon herself, not upon the mother, and in so doing breaks the reader’s heart. Here, the speaker is “sin-stricken,” a “gilded spider dawdling from a rafter who falls / forever on [her] own silken cord into a pit.” As the poem progresses, she also harkens back to her own sexuality, letting us know in her ever-wise voice, “The Décor of Eroticism / is not what you think . . . ” and is instead, “moss on a twig, / an orange light rising at the coast range . . . ” In “Survival,” furthermore, as she describes the “creping of skin [on her] hands,” she recognizes that her aging has become the bond between mother and daughter, the common destiny that unites them. And finally, the poem ends with “The Song I May Be Called Upon to Write,” singing, indeed, as Schott is so apt to do, “Gloria, gloria, gloria . . . The one song.” How does one say this poem is gorgeous without gushing?
As the book draws to a close, Schott takes the reader through several more poems about her dying mother. “Daily Phone Call to My Mother” repeats her mother’s pitiable wish, “I should hurry up and die and get out of the way.” In addition, “How Do I Grieve for You?” recounts the speaker’s sweeping, a chore she could do “for years, / and your absence would still be here,” a reminder that sometimes, time doesn’t diminish loss. All this grief seems to culminate in “I am pregnant with my mother’s death,” where the metaphor is extended to perfection. Schott writes, “I grow great with her decline. When shall I be delivered?” And when her mother says, “I’m embarrassed / . . . to be such a bag of bones,” she writes,
. . . Her shrunken
skeleton kicks at my heart and inside my belly. . . .
This is something new in our shared lives, how she turns
so gentle. I labor hard with her. Forgiveness loosens
my stubborn bones. I am swollen with her love for me.
When shall I be delivered?
Here, all the bones and skeletons, ghosts and shadows—all the past abandonment and resentment—merge together into forgiveness and love. Maybe this is the “key” Schott refers to in the poem by the same name, the one she “buried,” then spent the night on the lawn by. The one by sunrise she “no longer care[s]” about. “All my life,” Schott writes, “people have been telling me / how a woman is meant to unlock her body.” She no longer listens. For she has discovered the secret for herself, and with great generosity and creativity, she has somehow managed both to preserve it and share it with us. She no longer hoards that pebble in her mouth.
Julie L. Moore is the author of Slipping Out of Bloom (WordTech Editions, 2010) and the chapbook, Election Day (Finishing Line Press, 2006). Her poetry also appears in the anthology, Seasons of Change (Outrider Press, 2010). A Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of the Rosine Offen Memorial Award from the Free Lunch Arts Alliance in Illinois, Moore has won the Judson Jerome Poetry Scholarship from the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize from Ruminate: Faith in Literature and Art. Moore has contributed poetry to Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, CALYX, Cimarron Review, Dogwood, The MacGuffin, New Madrid, The Southern Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and many others. She lives in Ohio, where she directs the writing center at Cedarville University. You can learn more about her work at www.julielmoore.com.