Review: Lillie was a goddess, Lillie was a whore by Penelope Scambly Schott

Therése Halscheid

Lillie was a goddess, Lillie was a whore
Penelope Scambly Schott
Mayapple Press, 2013
Perfect bound, 85 pages
ISBN: 978-1-936419-25-8
Purchase: Mayapple Press

From a prone prostitute to a flower of purity—Penelope Scambly Schott examines all manner of Lillie’s in this witty, cleverly spun, erotic poetry collection. The author begins with a disclaimer that shares how she has drawn upon historical accounts to create fictionalized composites. It is true. The sexual gals that come to life on each page are representations of mythical goddesses or biblical figures or heroic whores of America’s Wild West, as well as modern-day women, real and imaginative. Collectively, the female body becomes a lyrical song, as stated in the opening poem:

I am singing the vulva, source of creation,
the genital waters, the harlot-place,
the holy place, the permanent Mother.

Schott’s own Eros does not reside outside her multi-faceted women. Throughout, here and there, she interjects her own bedroom scenes. She writes of other modern-day women, their interchanges, marital contracts, and she sometimes questions the difference between love and lust, between lust and duty, between duty and avoidance.

We see this clearly in “Within the Standard Marital Contract” when the poet writes:

As he circled uncalloused fingertips
around and around her chilled nipples,
she thought of swirls in cinnamon bread.
They were going to do this thing again.
She checked it off the calendar of her mind.    

The collection uses two voices. Mostly, the poet narrates. Other times a particular poem will speak in the voice of a female figure. Collectively these voices rise with a mission. They objectively – and often times humorously – examine the sexual roles of women throughout centuries. Witty, gritty, no holds barred – Schott’s poems are far from reserved. She openly portrays all manner of females and their sexual situations. Her aim is not to judge the roles women play, as much as to open our awareness. Her bold language and playful poetic forms, offer a stance that is not often found in poetry collections.

As with many books of poetry, there are sections. Schott’s has three. The first draws upon the history of prostitutes, beginning with the mythical goddess Inanna, to the daughters of Lilith, biblical figures, among others. In the second section, poems are representative of pioneer women in the 1800s. It is in this section that Lillie is a metaphor for frontier females who were, how should we say, very available, during the 1849 gold rush. This spurred what the writer refers to as “the prostitute rush.” In this section poems travel geographically up the west coast beginning in California, where the Gold Rush started; then by boat from San Francisco up to Astoria, Oregon — taking readers through regions such as Portland, where the poet herself, now resides. One can sense how Schott may have been captivated by the folk histories she discovered, after blazing her own trail from the east to west coast some years ago. I imagine her inspired by old photographs and lore, enough to combine these long ago females into one metaphorical hooker-hero, Miss Lillie. This is confirmed by a two-page bibliography at the back of her book, which shows that Schott was not only inspired by daring women of America’s Wild West, but like any serious writer, she did extensive research to bring her Miss Lillie alive.

The last section is a compilation of women in the 1900s, and is titled “Nothing New Under the Sun” as if to suggest that not much has changed. While our American landscape has certainly morphed, the female body carries itself across familiar terrain, where polar themes of sexual expression versus exploitation, pleasure versus stagnation, still reside. In the poem “(In the middle of a long, happy marriage:) In which this wife tells her husband / the truth about sex in marriage,” Schott writes:

Often my breasts are annoyed
by the tedious fact that every penis
is an antenna


Your bow is a lightning streak.
Sometimes, though rarely, my body
is struck by lightning.

Although the organization of Schott’s book takes readers through a lively and imaginative chronology, what I also like about this collection are the playful forms that are threaded through.  

For example, there are comical poems that explore the names given to … well … male privates … and what happens with them. Here are terms starting with B from the poem: “What 27% of the male population is doing right now:”

bashing the candle
bleeding the weasel
buffing the banana
bopping the baloney
burping the worm

There is another creative element that appears at the bottom of certain poems, as footnotes often do. These italicized rhymes are like commentary in a slightly different tone, sometimes snide, sometimes sympathetic. They might also work like cartoons between the longer poems. Each is of Lillie:

Lillie was redemption, Lillie was my sin.
When I came to Lillie’s house,
she always let me in.                                    

Here’s another:

Lillie was a thistle seed, Lillie was a burr.
Of all the girls at Lillie’s house,
I was stuck on her.
In Latin, the name Lillie comes from lily, the flower, and means pure. The ancient name Lilith means “night creature” or “night hag.” No doubt about it. This Lillie runs the gamut. This collection is as playful and varied as sex.