Review by Lesley Wheeler
LILLIE WAS A GODDESS, LILLIE WAS A WHORE
by Penelope Scambly Schott
362 Chestnut Hill Rd.
Woodstock, NY 12498
2013, 90 pgs., $15.95
My mother-in-law is a twice-divorced epidemiologist who lost her research grant and therefore her employment a decade ago. She lived an increasingly isolated existence until this year, when isolation just became too dangerous. After her hospitalization for injury and delirium, she and my husband agreed she needed to move to assisted living—although he had to re-explain this mutual decision every morning for weeks until, under stable care, his mother regained some ability to remember new information. I read Penelope Scambly Schott’s new collection, and I am writing this review, at home with the kids in muggy Virginia while my spouse cleans out his mother’s Pittsburgh condominium. I’m not lonely, because parents with school-age kids and full-time jobs appreciate quiet hours when they miraculously occur, but I’m thinking hard about marriage, intimacy, and isolation—major subjects in Lillie Was a Goddess, Lillie Was a Whore, although initially they seem peripheral to the book.
Schott’s Lillie, a sex worker incarnated in a series of different cultures and epochs, is a lonely creature. The collection begins and ends in homage to her archetype: the first poem is “In the Beginning, Prostitutes Were Sacred” and the last is entitled “Deathless Aphrodite of the Spangled Mind.” Most of the book, though, while witty and even buoyant in parts, emphasizes the second half of the title, particularly Lillie’s suffering, poverty, and lack of choice. Lillie Was a Goddess, Lillie Was a Whore covers an enormous amount of intellectual, emotional, and political ground. List poems sling slang names for sexual organs; others present dialogues with saints and sexperts; the central sequence offers a first-person history of prostitution in the nineteenth-century “Wild West.” Schott, in short, transmutes research into voice. One of Schott’s most memorable devices is her counterpoint of longer poems with little rhymes in italics: “Lillie was holy, Lillie was haunted./ When I called at Lillie’s house,/ she gave me what I wanted” or “Lillie was a banjo, Lillie was a gourd./ When I came to Lillie’s house,/ I sang out Praise the Lord.” These verses transcend doggerel; beautiful and crude, they manifest folk traditions surrounding the realities of prostitution. I wish they were formatted differently—they hardly have enough white space to breathe—but these rhymes snag in your mental fabric like vicious little hooks.
So snagged, I walked around with the book for a couple of days. My son eyed its breasty cover when he approached me with homework questions, and I saw him decide: do not engage. It lurked in my purse when I picked up my daughter from driving lessons, but she lives in a vortex of teenage concerns and can’t quite see me, much less my reading material. It dozed on my lap when my spouse called in despair about the stashes of paper, books, and photographs he had to process.
What I contemplated as I motored around town and chopped broccoli: neither the dedication “For the sisterhood,” nor the extensive final bibliography (including “Anonymous, personal interviews”), reveal why Schott felt compelled to write this book. I don’t know the author. She offered to send review copies to members of a women’s poetry email list and because I had a rare moment free of review obligations, I said, “Sure.” A partial explanation: Schott’s poetry always has a feminist bent. And every literary woman has at some point compared her own life to the fallen woman plot, or at least recognized its outline in the lives of her friends and sisters and ancestors. But people’s obsessive research topics always root in autobiography, and by not explaining her motives in any clear way, Schott has made the question why even more interesting.
The Lillie poems in which the veil between poet and persona seems thinnest, and the poems that haunt me most, concern contractual copulation in the contemporary world, either at the edges of familiar institutions or squarely in the middle of them. It’s perverse to single out contemporary poems in a historically oriented book, and marriage poems in a book about prostitution. However, while I’m interested in how 19th century Lillie chases her market across the west, I’m more challenged by 21st century Lilliana in “craiglist,” a student struggling to make rent. Pursuing the oldest profession through a new technology, she earns enough to skip her Starbucks shift and write her term paper on “Women and Social Welfare.” For me, this is among the most powerful poems in Schott’s book, although I don’t know if I’m responding to a quality inherent in the work or whether this reaction just reflects privilege. As a professor and a mother of a teenager, I feel responsible for fictional Lilliana and raised to a new alertness in real life.
My response to the marriage poems is similar: Schott drives home how this institution can shame and disempower women right now. “My First Divorce,” for instance, offers a plainspoken little scrap of narrative, but it bites. Here’s the core:
All night I dreamed about money
and what our children ate.
I climbed on top of him
with the desperate vigor
of an amateur whore.
My mother tells me she resisted divorce for decades because she feared poverty. Likewise, “My Friend’s Story” about a young husband who “required sex every night” delivers a sickeningly familiar shock: even a privileged 21st century woman in an egalitarian partnership recognizes the implicit rules of heterosexual fidelity. Towards the end of the collection, “In which this wife tells her husband the truth about sex in marriage” wonderfully combines frankness with obliquity:
Often my breasts are annoyed
by the tedious fact that every penis
is an antenna.
These breasts are happy as owls
to dwell in a tree.
Even when it’s not an economic transaction, the author implies, sex involves power and even predation. I appreciate this book’s empathy for sex workers, whatever Schott’s inspirations may be, but I learn most from Schott’s gestures of cagey self-exposure.
Meanwhile, I think of my mother-in-law, who opted out of marital contracts and is a defiantly sexual person with few boundaries—a woman who refused implicit rules, although within a context of far better choices than most of Schott’s personae. (I am carefully not asking my spouse what he plans to do with the nude photographs his mother commissioned of herself then hung around the condo.) Her children are helping her, but in a fundamental way dementia means shipping out solo. Her life might be better now if she had a partner who wanted to accompany her as far as possible. It might be worse if she, like my own mother, had ceded financial control to a husband who then spent all their savings on bad investments. These meditations frame my fundamental response to Lillie Was a Goddess, Lillie Was a Whore: the historical sections of Schott’s book are smart, interesting, compassionate, and worth reading, but the contemporary poems are truly urgent and compelling.
Lesley Wheeler‘s new book, The Receptionist and Other Tales, was recently named to the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her other poetry collections are Heterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, and Heathen. She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and blogs about poetry at her website. (lesleywheeler.org)