-Reviewed by Alex Campbell-
You have to wonder what cage Kate Scott is escaping from with her new collection of poems from HappenStance, since what the poetry seems to demonstrate most of all is a kind of lyrical freedom that banishes all sense of contrivance or pretension.
The poem which bears the collection’s title, ‘Escaping the Cage’, would suggest that the cage is one of convention and propriety – one which the poem bursts out of delightfully. The image of swearwords, held in the mouth like “some hard-boiled sweet” before being spat out into polite company where no-one really knows how to react, is one guaranteed to make you smile. But it is alone in construing the cage thus.
A more likely cage to bind together the collection is, perhaps, family. Not so far away from ‘convention’ as all that, since in most cases we are talking about the traditional nuclear family; something that fewer of us are growing up in now, but which is still prevalent enough that it will never be a stretch to empathise with Scott’s poems. This is not a question of alienating, or presenting the familiar in an unfamiliar light. The poems of Escaping the Cage feel much more like articulations of something that was on the tip of the tongue – the familiar presented in such a way as to be instantly recognisable, provoking a gut-feeling of instinctive identification.
So many of the situations strike a chord – whether as parent or child: who hasn’t been in that car, driving home late after a family visit with the kids “singing buggerbugger in the back”? (‘Relief’) or been on that family picnic, where the kids are just too old for it, but the parents “don’t know enough / to stop trying.” (‘Outing’), and all too many of us are likely to be familiar with the scenario of ‘Sometimes’; and the mental weight of the knowledge of “cancerous cells / doing addition in the blood, / in the veins of someone you love.”
In fact, the thread that seems to run through the pamphlet is one of inescapability. The poem ‘Some Afternoons’ is reminiscent of Tony Hoagland’s ‘Perpetual Motion’, in its sense of not-quite-wanderlust, but Scott’s version, though capturing just as much of the romance of travelling as Hoagland’s, manages also to portray the realist’s eye view; “the weight of a life” that holds you back, and all the reasons why you can’t give in to the pull of wanting to be anywhere but here. Perhaps the ties that bind hold more strongly for a woman, but the emotional content of ‘Some Afternoons’ is pitched more vividly than ‘Perpetual Motion’, leaving more of a sense of frustration and longing than merely dissatisfaction.
Some of the poems seem to be about not wanting to escape; of being content to live with your decisions. Similar to Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, Scott’s ‘All the men I’ve never slept with’, does not linger on the expected regret. The choice made seems to be enough to scatter the other possibilities “to the walls, rattled like dry rice”, and that the “brand” of that choice is described as “warmth” suggests comfort and security, rather than emptiness or disappointment. Going one further is ‘Blind’. The poems have a similar structure – one stanza of regrets; or rather the things now given up; described in tantalising detail, “their apple tight buttocks, their courgette thighs” “the language of wide eyes and teasing fingers”, followed by a stanza of what has replaced them, “you lay your hand upon my head”, “seeing you folded next to my heart / I am blind, blind, blind.”. Neither of the second stanzas seem less inviting: though something has been given up, what it has been exchanged for seems both smaller and yet more substantial than any of the imagined possibilities. It’s not a question of size, but of weight. It is that substance, that sense of reality and permanence, that seems to be the key.
‘Relief’, possibly my favourite poem of the collection, conjures such a sense of comfort distilled from the everyday annoyances of life, simply because of the people surrounding you. It’s not a cage if they’re in there with you. Or perhaps they are the cage, but when “he begins to whistle a tune she loves” you realise you don’t want to leave. Scott encapsulates it neatly; ‘Barometer’, on the facing page ends with: “when his granddaughter asks him/ What makes the silver rise? And he answers Pressure, / he means love.” That phrase could possibly sum up the mood of the whole collection.
The poems are deceptive in their simplicity of language. Scott has a real facility for conveying meaning, depth and emotion, without waffle or indulging in sentimentality. Families are portrayed honestly, but sympathetically – a balance that is often difficult to strike. Whatever cage Scott feels she has escaped, this collection is definitely flying free.