by Kathy Nelson
Aldrich Press, 2013
There is not a shred of self-pity in the very difficult material Nancy Scott (www.nancyscott.net) deals with in her latest book Midwestern Memories. Instead, whether she is dealing with the memory of her parents’ divorce, the death of a cousin, or being a child during a time of war, there is humor and wry understanding. For a reader, it is an absorbing, fascinating read.
Ms. Scott has collected a series of vignettes that accumulate to capture a childhood. She offers reflections on family, such as the artist aunt who favored her (“Canvas”), and traces her Russian lineage with deft strokes (“Family Photos”). The brief lines of “How My Brother Got Religion” offer a glimpse not only of her brother’s character but of her relationship with him as he is forced by their mother to return items stolen from a church. She recalls the drama of childhood friendships: skating on thin ice with Peter (“Wilder Lake”) and, against the backdrop of playing “good guys” and “Nazis,” watching Tommy being ostracized as he dreams of “shooting/a real gun, real bullets” (“Child’s Play, circa 1944”). Many of the phrases describe so well. In “The Outside Rear Steps,” the great-grandmothers’ hands are “thin bones wrapped in/speckled skin.” There is economy but also tenderness in these descriptions.
The most poignant poems of this book convey the complexities of the poet’s relationship with her parents. In “Blackout,” the poet conveys her fondness for her father, the safety he provided “on long scary nights when bombs never fell.” She skillfully portrays the complicated dynamics of a family in which the parents demand good manners of their child while they battle fiercely with each other (“When Good Manners were not Enough”). And with amazing understatement, she reveals the impossible situation the child is in when her parents are at war (“Waiting for Her”). The groaning of the car at the end of this poem is eloquent. But the most memorable poem of the book is “Battle,” which cleanly gives the whole brutal story of the parents’ conflicted marriage, its unraveling, the father’s death, and, after his funeral, the mother’s counting the “spoils of a lifetime at war.”
War, geopolitical and interpersonal, is a motif of Midwestern Memories and, even though the tone of many of the poems is wry and restrained, one is left after reading this captivating volume with sympathy for the child who witnessed it.