The Truth of Houses by Ann Scowcroft
Reviewed by Anne Burke (Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, January 2012)
This is a first book by a professional writer, editor, and academic. The motif is of building, with an epigraph from The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander (Oxford University Press, 1979). The reference pertains to a recurrent pattern of events which serves to replace inherent chaos by an imposed sense of order. Further, we come back to ourselves, which we have forgotten. The tone, at times, is bittersweet.
She catalogues icons and emblems which evoke the past, including photos and rosary beads. (“Wanted”) Instead of fame, she became a common noun, such as “wife, mother, teacher–” (“Thirty-nine”) She issues a “Letter to my Mother”, with words and clauses, in which she compares emphysema with that which “you would/have said, of what you meant/to say, if only.”
The poet recounts a moving event revealed by her great aunt, this hard-won farm-wife”, during the family’s motor trip. That is, a sister was institutionalized, due to never marrying, as an independent-minded woman “in the pre-feminist millennia.” In contrast with her sympathy in this instance, she shares “a funny story my mother used to tell.”
In correspondence, she seeks to comfort a long-time girlfriend. who has been re-institutionalized. (“Dear Leah”) She recalls her apprenticeship to womanhood (“Kathy”) in “this list compiled for the pleasure of ticking off.” Her son becomes a hunter (“Late chinook”) and, ironically, is himself wounded and bloody (“Poise”)
In the long prose poem “(Palimpsest”) she structures her contemplations and meditations by means of “true or false” statements. One of the many underlying assumptions is that “it is dangerous for a mother to expose the root of a lie.” Another is “whether it is appropriate to claim that an event is only meaningful in context.” Therefore she situates some experience in time, for example, “summer of 1942” and age “fifty/love”. However, other themes are quixotic memory, the brain, as well as the wind. Life is not like a novel but it does unfold like a game of scrabble.
The title poem indicates “five truths”: light, motion, trees, windows, and peace. Houses are personified to approximate the wishes and demands of their inhabitants. For example, the nostalgia for: “Our home was small, square, secure” (“Atakkavacara”). However, the French language is inhospitable to her patios in Quebec and she embraces her foreignness in Ganesh, “with the forgiveness of a stranger.” Her husband views her as foreign (“Foreigner”)
She offers a “rough” translation of Mignonne by Ronsard in a dichotomy or response-driven dialogue. In a take-off from John Keats, she is disappointed by an artist in a Montréal cul-de sac. (“? la belle soeur”). A child conceived but never born haunts her (“Phantom”)
The house is described as square, old, and prim, while she feels fear. Like the house, she “yearns for release” and wants to “fly away towards unknown lands.” (“Quotidian”) She fears hospital life and dying. (“Addendum to Dear Leah”) Meanwhile, she must rely on her body again. (“Forty-two year-old woman takes tennis lessons”)
She comforts another by invoking, “imagine our home in daylight” (“Second storey”) in order to remind him of “what makes us safe, and what makes a home”. She fears her mother’s and her husband’s rage. In domestic matters, there is “only ever a Scene One.” (“Love poem”) Their marriage survives, just one more day, because “now it simply takes too much effort/not to love each other.” (“Dukkha”).
There are violent images; she begins to have “an arsonist’s dreams, the field aflame, [and] the house/poised to combust.” (Atakkavacara”) She is aware of “submarine gun fire” and that a bomb had exploded. (“Observation.”)
There is a multiple choice “Checklist” regarding biology, speech, and gravity. There are precisely six ways to “sublimate rain”, yet there is no rain, simply one’s desire. She seeks consensus with reference to a corollary. Her body is a “mandala”, an Aeolian harp stroked by wind.
In “Learning” she reflects on children learning to read, with this “hand-cranked language” a replacement of Cyrillic by English. Her lower lip, exposing incisors, and clamping down only helps to decode the language, while her son learns independence. Girls learn shame from their fathers and grandfathers, with music from the spheres (“One morning near Boston”) Synapses represent her own learning (“Stillness”)
In “Selected excerpts from the atlas of desire” she enumerates what she calls “the alphabet of the mouth”, namely palatal, glottal, dental, bilabial, alveolar, velar, uvular, which may have been drawn from her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics. However, I recall learning these at Teacher’s College, by using a mirror, before teaching children to read by means of phonetics.
She concludes “There are certain rooms currently closed” (“Residuum”) and her primary relationship of “Us” is “a perpetual renovation.” The individual “I” is described as possessing “mellifluous arcana” and “rococo flabbergast”, so it remains necessarily secondary.
A child remains in “the ordinary room” (“First birth”) until it is time (“First child leaves home”). Even the metal screws are orphaned (“What remains”).
In keeping with the recurring motif, the illustrations for this collection were documentary evidence prepared by draughtsmen (draughtswomen).