Six Lips by Penelope Scambly Schott. Bay City, MI: Mayapple Press, 2010.
Reviewed by Moira Richards
Six Lips opens with poetry of a dying mother and of a resentful adult daughter who, in her letting go, ‘rummage[s] the Now for the gift to forget’ that her whole life, in her mother’s eyes, she could never do a thing right. By way of beginning, the narrator daughter imagines a magical, re-invented birth—one at which her mother will greet her gladly:
In my next birth,
I shall arrive with a golden garden snail
over each miniature thumb.
She will say:
Thank you, Sweetheart. I shall sleep softly
in my breakable shell.
Child, she will whisper,
you delight me.
That is how Daughter re-imagines a birth that will be so unlike her rather left-footed entrance into the world and first meeting with her mother in which…
Can’t you do anything right?
she asks me.
My thumbs grasp my twisted purple umbilicus,
“Can’t you do anything right?”
For me, the fascinating aspect of this collection is that it is narrated in the first person—at first glance all by the same person but, as the poetry distills through my mind, the mother/daughter personae begin to blur their boundaries. It may be the daughter narrator who salutes her own life at the time of her mother’s dying, but perhaps it is her dying mother who narrates poems of her farewell to this life?
As the mother’s approaching death threads through the poems, so, too, does surreal imagery that blends plants and animals of all types—merging, shape-shifting with humans and, subtly, shifting shape between daughter and mother, mother, daughter… and after all, why not, for are we not our mothers’ daughters? Are we not mothers to our own daughters?
Nights when I answer the screech owl, music vibrates
the back of my throat,
until I become one in the common clan of beasts,
the animal itself, akin to kin.
(“Among the Other Animals”)
I have bright green fingertips
like ten live spirits in ten forest robes.
… my children have grown tall as trees…
We are raising our thumbs to summon
babies and beasts in their variegated stripes:
fang, claw, hawk in the peach tree, each rising
in the thicket of its kind.
I am kissing my painterly thumb
to salute this life.
(“How We All Came to Survive” )
And then, on the next page, right after this poem celebrating life, is one that blurs the personae of the women and their lives a little more as the narrator speaks of “My Obituary” that,
will be Chapter One in my second life.
As for the funeral, I don’t plan to attend.
First I get born on a mountain summit.
For a last life, I will hatch in a lake.
My name may be Polliwog, Duffel
of Mysteries. Or Smoothed Rock.
Biography makes for honest work.
Are these mother’s biographies, or daughter’s biographies I’m reading, I wonder? Not that it matters because, surely, daughters and mothers are so very inextricably inter-twined? The poetry continues with daughters in the house of their mother’s dying and with images of shadowy dreams of a childhood home in which…
you can creep down to the cellar
where the pale mother of moths
is powdering her silver wings
… but also, in stark understated lines of text, a childhood home where, eerily, when you wake from those dreams,
there are skulls nailed to the newel posts,
golden birds perched on the banisters;
birds chime the chord of your spine.
(“The Shadow Life”)
Some of the poems follow recollections of a lonely, sad little girl in a home where…
… nobody in the world knew I was there,
how the warm inner crook of my elbow
tasted like honeysuckle,
how I held myself in my own arms.
(“Here’s How I Used to Make Myself Cry”)
This is a child who, when grown up, imagines, re-imagines (rebirths herself perhaps?) until, wistfully…
At last I have become completely exquisite.
I hope you are watching;
I hope you will tell my mother.
(“Preparing for the Tea Party”)
And then there are pages and pages of poems of love—of love for one’s own body, love for a sister, for lovers, for a father, a grandson. These are poems of acceptance and celebration, of coming to terms with whatever life is and again, there is the poetic blurring of mother-narrator and daughter-narrator... will the mother’s death mean a re-invention of the daughter’s life? Does the mother regret her life as she reaches its end?
I love the ambivalence, the circularity (echoing the circularity of life, perhaps?) this poetry generates…
If I were newly returned to my life,
I would love each tendon of my wrists,
How to live in this state of rawness?
Somewhere directions scratched on a wall?
Or maybe it happens only in your final illness
as you convalesce from being alive
( “The Eyes of Fever”)
… and again towards the end of the collection:
This is the year I would like to find pity. I would like
to hurt for my mother the way I ache for my children
whenever anything major goes wrong in their lives.
I would like to gasp for breath whenever she grabs
for her oxygen tube and jiggles the prongs into sore
nostrils. I want to tremble and feel confused
I want to be sad that she’s eighty-seven and fading.
I want to invent memories of how she encouraged me
when I was a child, how understanding she was
This is the year I intend to excavate my terror,
melt down my resentment, blow it into molten
orange glass, shape it into a shining sculpture
of one enormous woman and cool it and smash it.
It is said by some that your whole life flashes before you at the moment of your death, and I’ve noticed how death can bring to those whom it has touched, but not taken, a sense of rebirth/revitalisation/reassessment: some sense of rebirth in their lives. Look how the poet evokes this circularity with images of birth, death, rebirth in the poem entitled, “I am pregnant with my mother’s death”:
I grow great with her decline. When shall I be delivered?
I’ll be there tomorrow, I say on the phone. She’s amazed
when I arrive. Have you met my aide? she asks politely,
the same kind aide she’s had for months.
She remembers to worry, Do you need more blankets?
Her radio loud in the airless house, the oxygen machine
humming and spitting as she curls on a waterproof pad.
Oooh, she moans in her sleep, Ooh, I’m sorry, Ooooh,
thank you. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you. Ooooh.
I wake her. A gradual smile blooms. I’m embarrassed,
she laughs, to be such a bag of bones. Her shrunken
skeleton kicks at my heart and inside my belly.
I’m the luckiest woman in the world, she tells me again,
I’m the luckiest woman in the world. Or else she says,
I’m the loveliest woman in the world, and doesn’t notice
any difference. She touches my cheek.
This is something new in our shared lives, how she turns
so gentle. I labor hard with her. Forgiveness loosens
my stubborn bones. I am swollen with her love for me.
When shall I be delivered?