HappenStance, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Emma Lee and Sue Butler
Sometimes it weighs you down:
the things it carries.
With this starkly moving closing stanza, Kate Scott highlights one of the core functions of this often emotively charged and mercurial collection—poems as deposits of tender and occasionally bitter experience, shot through with lyrical cadences and startling imagery. It is a work of uneasy births tied into the creative process, and of alienated characters occupying domestic limbos.
For instance, there is the school underachiever in 'Coasting' who lets "the damp mats" of the bar soak "through to his elbow". Even the death of his mother and the departure of a lover is not "enough to make him put his arms out/ and swim".
Similarly in 'Caged', which taps into the central motif of the collection (people caged in their domestic ruts and finding ways of escape), the mother puts a toddler "behind the rails of his cot" and a daughter "behind the rails of her bed" and no longer knows "who in this house/ is behind bars".
However, it would be wrong to see this as an overridingly bleak treatment of small-scale existential concerns. Poems such as 'Outing' show a dryly humorous streak, leading to a touching image of familial dysfunction: a moody teenage son on a family outing considering "all the bends in the road/ they followed to get here" as he "almost smiles".
Other poems are extremely energetic. 'First Proposal' and 'All the men I've never slept with' employ phrases ("swoop-hearted secret", "my skin handgliding alive") that carry an almost voltaic frisson.
It is in pieces like 'Escaping the Cage', 'Jealousy' and 'Some Afternoons', however, where Kate Scott seems to offer poems as practical advice or manifestos of defiance against the straightjackets of workaday 'cages'. Here she offers little eruptions of domestic unrest that carry dangerous and exciting antidotes to the boredom of parental life—adulteries and joy-rides in fast cars, for example.
This is a restless, challenging and sometimes elegiac collection, which often strikes a high-note of self-affirmation:
It was something to be reckoned with—my sense of self—
coming back to home.
('When you pressed your palms')
The ‘cage’ here is often the domestic one with bars of social etiquette which discourage belching, expletives, belching expletives (which the title poem explores), mentioning mum’s boyfriend at a family picnic or that chain parents to children, allowing people to creative a veneer of respectability over otherwise unrespectable situations. In Outing
It is the perfect day for it.
His mother is all smiles and sandwiches
while his dad looms over the blanket
because they don’t know enough
to stop trying.
The son later “leans against the nearest gate,/ feels the top bar give” as his mother’s smiles and sandwiches aren’t enough to stop to inevitable awkwardness.
The thinness of family connections is also picked up in ‘Jealousy’ where a husband writes love poems to his mistress about his wife,
And I am another woman torn,
between the girl who feels the ghost
of his lips at her throat
and the wife who watches with slanted eyes
his silent count of longing.
And there are children,
of course there are children
waiting backstage in this,
their hurt waiting its cue
for a main part in this play of lies.
Children pop up a lot, the stress of a family car journey as a wife struggles not to nag the children while her husband sighs, and the effect of children’s lack of cooperation on parents. In ‘Not Eating’ a sixteen-month-old daughter refuses the food her mother tries to feed her:
What is this need to see her mouth open and close?
To see her lengthen her limbs as she
lengthens the distance between us?
This town is too big, she seems to say,
and even though each inch
is another inch away from us,
I fill the spoon,
I play the fool,
I ache to see that dust
settle on her growth.
The poem catches that cleaving, pulling a dependent child towards you whilst also nurturing her to independence. You suspect that whilst despairing at the child’s lack of conformity, the narrator secretly admires the child’s independent streak.
The tone of the poems is conversational and confiding. They reach out and share their experience with the reader. And they do so quietly, gradually growing and pulling you back after another reading.
In the poem ‘When you pressed my palms’ Kate Scott says, “I wanted to hit you./ Against my will, I kept crying. . . “ On and on she cries until at last, the wad of pride at the back of her clenched jaw gets swallowed and unfurls like an orchid or the wings of a moth:
It was magnificent, it filled my blood, it was glorious, like fire.
It was something to be reckoned with—my sense of self—
coming back home.
Throughout this pamphlet there is a strong sense of Kate Scott’s self. I felt like the afore-mentioned moth, drawn to the flame of her strength but rather afraid it would burn me. I also felt the acid burn of envy. My sense of self is definitely not the glorious soaring eagle of Kate Scott’s self. I stood fascinated as it circled and swooped. And it’s clear her strength isn’t a new-found thing. In ‘Ghosts’ Kate Scott looks back and longs for
that boy in a blue shirt,
that anger scarred into our hearts,
the passion shaming my own pale life,
those people capable of so much love.
There is ferociousness not just in the event, where she was “twenty-three and on fire” but in the strength of the memory. But this doesn’t mean she’s not still trying to find out about herself. In ‘Introduction’
Every day I try a different self,
none feeling quite right;
a snake in the wrong skin . . .
And it’s when her baby daughter grasps her fingers that she begins to find herself, begins to realise
Something else is being born here.
My daughter is giving back life,
a tooth for a tooth,
an I for an I.
Ancient, Old Testament strength fills these poems, even when Kate Scott is describing someone else. I particularly liked ‘Barometer’ when the old man stood
in the narrow vein of the hall
flicking the light switch on, off, on, off,
on the night she died—an aneurysm,
some blockage of light . . .
Kate Scott writes from the heart. . . ? shoots from the hip. . . ? goes for the jugular. . . ? I’m struggling to find an original way to say what these clichés nail down. But this is indeed what Kate Scott does, and does so well. She has no need for clichés. In ‘Jealousy’, she talks about a man who sends her love poems and poems about his wife. She decides that whatever action she takes, it will be “for the sake of those words,/ the beautiful, beautiful words.” And this is exactly what her own poems are full of—no cliché intended at all.