Mudfog Press, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by Gill Andrews, James Roderick Burns and D A Prince
Scott’s ‘The Pancake Woman: 1st, 2nd and 3rd State’ imagines Rembrandt making an etching of a woman cooking pancakes. The poem is in the voice of the woman, watching herself being created. “[C]ould I have the nose of a goddess?”, she wonders, and then, “am I becoming a witch?” In the end, she is ugly and burns the pancakes:
and the responsibility is no longer mine;
everyone goes hungry and I feel
better than ever.
I enjoyed the quirkiness of this idea. But I want more than just quirkiness from a poem, so I started looking for meaning. This poem seems to engage with the relationships between beauty, responsibilities, and happiness. But I found it difficult to delve any deeper than this. I wondered, for example, if Scott was suggesting that ugly women are happier because of the fewer expectations placed on them. At this point, I decided I was probably over-reading, and also that I was doing far too much work to turn this into a poem that really spoke to me.
Which is not to say Scott’s poems do not contain interesting images. Sticking with ‘The Pancake Woman: 1st, 2nd and 3rd State’: “The acid washes over me like lemonade” is good, suggesting fizzing, unhealthiness, and yellowness. I also liked the “spaghetti/ water ripples” in ‘Peter from David Hockney’s Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool’ and, in ‘Victorine’, gossip wavering “like candlelight drowning in its own wax”. But I found the ending of ‘A Businesswoman Wearing Snakeskin Stiletto Boots’ rather corny—the poem deals with solitariness, and ends with the businesswoman leaving a café
and driv[ing] past the swans,
late for her conference on loneliness.
I enjoyed the playful lineation in ‘Curiosity Killed the Cliché’, in which a cat:
. . . wove an invisible thread
........around my legs
the gear stick
........then your legs
This has a quiet sexiness that characterises much of Brushed. But I couldn’t make the title work with the poem: is the cat the cliché? Is the dark night ‘the cliché’ dispelled by the cat (in which case the cat is ‘curiosity’), etc. I was similarly frustrated by other poems in which the surface-level attractiveness of words didn’t withstand deeper scrutiny (at least, not by me). For example, ‘Compromise’ contrasts the two halves of a washing line:
Your side all holes
and odd socks;
It ends with the socks meeting at the middle, “. . . expectant/ of combustion”. I can see that “combustion” applies to the relationship for which the washing is a metaphor. But I wanted the words to work on the literal level, as well as the metaphorical, and I’m afraid I was unconvinced by the idea of combusting washing.
James Roderick Burns:
This is a bold pamphlet, and especially bold for a first collection—twenty poems, of which seven in a row are poetic responses to paintings, to represented rather than lived experience. Ekphrasis can be hard on the reader in the absence of illustrations, and in consequence is hard to do well as standalone work. In these poems, though, Natalie Scott succeeds admirably.
‘Victorine’ deftly paints in the background to Manet’s dinner on the grass before peeling away the layers of complacency and chauvinism which lie behind its surface:
The men sweated and talked politics.
I felt their guilty eyes burning my skin.I laughed inside, as their serious gossip
wavered like candlelight drowning in its own wax
and tried to guess which one of them would be first
to awkwardly adjust his trousers.
Scott charts similar unexpected territory in a response to MC Escher’s ‘Waterfall’. At its most successful, her work first seeks out then confidently inhabits new women’s voices—here a revolt against both traditionalism (subverting low expectations of the washerwoman) and modernism (humanising the abstract, mathematical conundrums of Escher’s work):
There’s a man to whom I sometimes talk . . .
He often tells me I’m beautiful
but he can’t see beyond my head and shoulders.
He’s in love with a logic problem
and the angle’s all wrong.
One day soon
I will throw my toned body
over the balcony wall and see
if he can work out
how to catch me.
The poet is not afraid to try out different nuances—the light, glancing humour of ‘head and shoulders’ in a poem about washing, for instance—and to make them blend into a cohesive tone, an individual voice. She achieves this in ‘The Pancake Woman’ and ‘The Governess’.
But when the painting poems are over, Scott seems to lose her way. ‘Curiosity Killed the Cliché’ sets out to explode a range of hackneyed images, but dissolves into feline schmaltz; ‘Encounter’ captures numbers of electric images—the poet stopping “in my tracks/ to watch a baby lizard/ twist and shimmy over the pavement”, this punning on dance imagery deliberate, affectionate—then runs aground on a sudden impulse to explain:
. . . we forgot whatever it was
we were fighting about and I thought
there had to be poetry in that.
The last two thirds of the book is very uneven, with flashes of its earlier achievement but more often hit and miss poems that fail to cohere. Perhaps Natalie Scott was trying for a gallery of related poems exploring the idea of ‘the brush’, so nicely developed in the painting poems. Editing would have brought this out more clearly, and achieved work throughout broadened it to a lasting theme. As it stands, Brushed has moments of excellence let down by passages of disappointment, for this reader, at least.
D A Prince:
Is it fair to the poet to read the biography before the poems? Natalie Scott’s biographical details tell of her interest in “the subjects of paintings who are eager to tell their stories” and my heart sinks. Apart from taking for granted that the reader knows the painting well (not always the case) too many poems taking this approach get stuck at the level of cosy narrative and never escape the frame. With the three poems opening this collection, Scott appears to confirm my fears, and there’s a level of prosey-ness I found dispiriting—but then, quietly, things change. It may be that ‘Peter from David Hockney’s Peter getting out of Nick’s pool’’ called for more imaginative energy, or that something in this delicately simple painting touched a nerve but the subject takes on his own life:
I just liked how I felt that day
—the simplicity of it all
It’s as though the painting has been ingested, has lost its surface, and we can forget Hockney as creator and look instead at how Scott is responding to and reconfiguring the emotion within the painting. And after that the poems wake up, look around in a new way, and share a sense of surprise in what they see.
Then ‘The Pancake woman: 1st, 2nd and 3rd state’, where it’s the pancakes that catche the eye: they “bubble and fuss/ and dance/ in the pan” in the first state of Rembrandt’s etching, “catch the bottom of the pan” in the second state as the acid bites deeper, and finally “are plates of charcoal/ crumbling to ash that blows away/ and the responsibility is no longer mine”. Scott is doing more than telling the story of the etchings: she’s inside, feeling the acid, and also outside, observing the process.
Her unsentimental way with detail grows on me. She pares back her poems, as though she is discovering how to do it with each page. In ‘Missing’ she doesn’t name the loss, just gives eight lines outlining what has gone—
the splashes round the food bowl
the hairs fluffing the duvet . . .
the soft indent in the basket
now gradually flattening out
In the final poem, ‘Path’, she sees a funeral where
. . . they stand in a blurred
line watching the coffin
with watercolour faces.
Exactly right: observation matched with precision in the telling. Scott doesn’t need to look to painters for her inspiration.