01 January 2010

Six Lips by Penelope Scambly Schott

Six Lips
Mayapple Press
ISBN: 978-0932412843
Paperback, 79 pages

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Kerri Buckley

There are poems that must wait to be written. A poet must cross a specific bridge in life in order to write the words. This requires patience within the illusion of time for listening. 
 
Penelope Scambly Schott’s newest book Six Lips is such a book. 
 
It could only be started when her mother was dying, and finished only after her death. These are hard words to write, about the sorrow of another poet, but the subject matter in Scambly Schott’s latest book is a dedication to her two daughters, and a tribute to herself, I believe, for surviving her mother’s death. A journey none of us are certain at the beginning of the trip over this kind of footbridge, that we are capable of making. 
 
Ms. Scambly Schott is no stranger to hard topics. She’s split open the most taboo subjects, abuse of mentally ill women, for instance, maybe not for herself, but to tell another’s story. There are hard truths in this latest book, too. Unresolved issues with
her mother create internal struggles as her mother grows weaker and unable to care for herself. 
 
It is this that I think shocks Ms. Scambly Schott most. 
 
The person who has held the most power in her life, an unyielding power, formidable, the kind one runs away from, at last does dissolve. The poet’s mother literally disappears—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and finally, physically. The poet has captured this process so delicately and intricately, it leaves the reader recognizing the flags of the painful trail and the energy for such trailblazing. The poet becomes a pioneer. A map-maker. Doctor, nurse, mourner, cook, and grateful mother. Losing a person who holds such power leaves the one imprisoned by that power without direction. The iron bars fall away completely. Without this familiar restraint and confinement, where do you go? What do you do? Which way is forward? Then, the book begins with a poem entitled “Compass.”
I left in the East a canal full of turtles,
hedgerows of roses and Osage orange;
I hid in the West a cardboard box:
ashes of a dog who crossed her paws;
I mislaid in the South the black balaclava
that made me look like a stick-up man;
up in the North I forever abandoned
the hooded anorak of innocent fur.
I lost in the Past my ability to remember;
I rummage the Now for the gift to forget.
My scant mother is old and shriveling;
soon earth & sky will belong to the Future:
the day she dies I’ll get drunk as a duck,
and I’ll mark the night with a white stone—
this one, the same damn pebble
I keep hoarding for Truth
in the wet cupboard of my mouth. 
In the midst of grief and confusion, she has populated her world with nature. There are horses, dogs, rocks, snakes, insects, earth, sky, fur, the ancient’s six directions, and especially butterflies and moths. Moths fly everywhere in this book. 
 
It is a symbol of Ms. Scambly Schott’s metamorphosis. 
 
And she has blessed the reader like a shaman, by providing the tools and flags and maps to survive such loss. All these have prepared the recipient to inherit a power he or she has waited an entire lifetime to receive. Consider this passage in “How We All Came to Survive”....
1. 
Now, in my house of one thousand paintings,
I salt my soup with the dust of colored chalk.
I have bright green fingertips
like ten live spirits in ten forest robes.
My fingers are flowing with green
like a woman who suckles ten children.
Now my children have grown tall as trees.
Here, the natural world is the only world one can live in. It is here that the transformation unfolds. The journey weakens the shaman; the shaman must find the means to go forward over that bridge—become stronger or die. Shaman can help no other until they have gone through their own metamorphosis. Weakness before strength is a certainty. Here, an excerpt from “After the Yellow Jackets:”
1.
I stepped into a nest. Thirty angry yellow jackets
stung. I burned in bed for a week. My face swelled
into hot lumps. The room turned dark, light, dark.
and this, from the lovely “Bouquet”
2.
The rose remembers the bud,
the bottle remembers the cork,
the cookbook, its red silk cord—
the cord too short to hang myself,
bottle too empty to poison myself,
the rose with black-spot mildew.
or, these couplets of “Eclipse.”
Earth’s shadow sliding over the moon:
supposed I hadn’t understood?
The great dragon sipping the light? Or just
the end of the world?
This is the world that ends over and over and then
goes on without us, our tiny smudge of time.
Then, there is her form. Free verse with one prose poem. Perfect free verse, like silk thread, sewing the torn parts together to make something new. In this book, each line, couplet, stanza is precise. Nothing out of place,though the words tell us everything is out of place. The roadmaps have not yet been published. The roads are just being discovered. From “Among the Other Animals:”
I have been at sea a long time and am sniffing
my way home. This is the estuary
where the test of selfhood is not words or tools
nor any ability to anticipate death.
Punctuation, perfect. Imagery, yes—we have “soup tureens” with “insurmountable grief.” There is “bobeche for catching candle drips, pianoforte, shame....pincushions, darning egg.....williwaw, that terrible polar squall.” It is a delight to wander through the book. It feels like a vintage shop, a tea room, a fairy ring in the forest, a wide open, unprotected cliff in the middle of a wild storm. We can hear screeching of a sough in the background, women within her keening. There are flowers everywhere, tea, fabrics, silks and lace; lichen, pebbles, a mother who contemplates clouds as a doorway. There is death.
From “The Shadow Life.”
When you dream in the house of stairs,
you can creep down to the cellar
where the pale mother of moths
is powdering her silver wings.
And finally this one, with its defining finality from “Inside a house of dying”
there hides a blue cloud
indistinguishable from sky
The old woman in the bed
is neither rushed nor slow
Her children in the kitchen
tell stories over tea
The voices needn’t be so
hushed
because the dying woman
is no longer listening
Through unmoving eyes
she watches the cloud:
nothing else in the room
is that warm
                    or that close
Penelope Scambly Schott is an award-winning poet. She won the Oregon Book Award in 2008 for A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, and has won numerous awards (Orphic Prize, 2005), (Violet Reed Hass Prize, 1994). There is a pristine quality that begs you to sit with the poems, and return. There is chaos, here, as well, and it is the fire that sweeps the forest floor so the forest can regenerate. I’m excited to see how this book will make its way in the world. It is both wild and painful, comforting and domesticated. Mostly, it is brave and magical.
 
You could read Six Lips solely for the moths. They may lead you somewhere you’ve never been before.
 
You might recognize the trail. You may change. 

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