Speaking unspoken truths
Reviewed by Sonnet L’Abbé (Globe and Mail, April 27, 2011)
“Pour it now, the world entire:/ The frightened police,/ the men intoxicated by mayhem/ … pour it into the sieve of these jugged ears/ and I will return it real as the ocean calling through/ the pine scrub at new moon.” This is Ann Scowcroft's promise and a taste of the lullaby-tender voice of her first collection of poems, The Truth of Houses. In poems that rarely lift their gaze from the domestic, Scowcroft focuses on the stalwart optimism it takes to maintain a nurturing home environment. In poems written at age 39, or 42, Scowcroft reveals that she “never quite had a plan for life” and now finds herself fighting a disappearance into the “common nouns” of “wife, mother, teacher.”
If this book is her fight, it feels at points Pollyanna in its exclusion of, rather than perspective on, the world of traffic jams and “schools gone to prisons.” But over all, The Truth of Houses unfolds, in subtle layers of meditation and observation, a rustic brand of maternal wisdom and grit.
As much as Scowcroft describes her family space as one where political debate equals boys' squabbles over Lego territory, or where the summit of devastation and loss is a broken bird's egg, she is compelled to speak of the ways that worldly indifference or harshness finds its ways of encroaching. Here is a relative who can't get off the lithium; there is the realization that the comforts of a considerable salary don't stem urges to risk and escape. The expanding waistlines of her father and her husband are evidence of outside tensions bearing down on the home, their swelling bellies betrayals of where “men deposit their rage/ so they might walk through a room/ and not shatter everything/ every day.”
Most compelling is Scowcroft's vision of all the quiet ways that “what protects can also maim.” The second section of her collection carefully lifts generations of women's silence around the predatory sexual behaviour of close relatives that for many women has been an inexcisable part of the domestic landscape. Reflecting on the truths that go unspoken in the name of protecting children's innocence, Scowcroft realizes: “I could not tell my son what he most needed to hear” – that is, that she can guarantee his safety. Ultimately, The Truth of Houses is a poignant illustration of our impossible longings to find total security, whether that be in comfortable homes or in each other's arms.
Sonnet L'Abbé was recently short-listed for the 2011 CBC Literary Award for poetry.