By Charles Rammelkamp
Perhaps because so much of her poetry involves dreams and death and anthropomorphized animals, Nancy Scott’s new collection has the force of fable, subtle moral insight and a long view of existence, lessons for living. “My mind lives in a neighborhood I don’t want to visit,” she writes in “Some Things Never Change,” a poem that, like so many others, takes stock of some of the frightening elements of life and ends with an image of longing and regret.
The modest claim in the title is reflected over and over again in the 41 poems in A Little Excitement. Take the poem, “Gone Fishing,” which begins in an erotic dream but moves on quickly to frustration and remorse.
I was deep into this dream
where our tangled bodies
were naked in the wet grass,
stars overhead, suddenly
a neon sign flashed
Vegan Cocktail Guaranteed to…,
no matter, the magic was gone.
I floundered around for
a new dream and found myself
standing in front of your grave,
but you weren’t there.
Gone Fishing was staked
next to your headstone.
The whimsical term means checking out from reality, and it applies here in more ways than one, from the brief, interrupted, sensual dream – the magic gone as instantaneously as the neon flash – to the stark reality of her lover no longer living.
As in ancient fables, Death is a real character in several of the poems. There’s “Death Attends a Poetry Reading”; Death is not really a welcome guest! “Mixed Greens” begins-
After a spate of relatives dying, funeral wreaths, heels
sticking in mud on the way to the gravesite,
I decided to dine with Death to discuss the situation.
I love what you’re wearing, said Death to jump-start
It’s an amusing poem; Death seems to have the narrator’s best interests in mind, for the sake of her longevity (though one is reminded of Saul Bellow’s observation in Herzog, “Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping lightbulb.”). Similarly, in “The Old Woman at the End of the Block” (Aesop couldn’t have come up with a better, more portentous title!), she brings a measuring cup over to the 103-year-old woman to borrow a year or two.
If you still need more time,
come see me again,
because after I’m dead,
what good is it then?
I thanked her profusely,
and, with cup filled to the brim,
I took my sweet time home.
Like Death, animals have human features, too. Poems such as “The Bear,” “The Birds,” “Dumping the Emu,” “The Elephant in England” (fifth cousin of Babar’s wife, Celeste), “Playing Chess with the Muskrat” and “Rabbit Diva” (“She was the warm-up for Wayne Newton / in Vegas. She had a million-dollar fur coat / and pink ears to kill for.”) could be straight out of French fabliaux, as anthropomorphized as any Reynard the Fox. In the title poem, “A Little Excitement,” which begins with a bemused observation about “cloverleafs,” those complex highway constructions, being so unlike the plants we find on lawns, a traffic accident occurs.
A bewildered coyote with an injured paw
was snarling traffic. Cars honked.
The coyote kept zigzagging across lanes.
Another coyote joined the first.
They walked upright now, slapping
each other’s back before suddenly vanishing.
Wow, you can see them becoming human before your eyes, a couple of dudes in modern America!
Just as fables sort of “bend” reality, so do dreams, and so we circle back to regret and its opposite, wish-fulfillment. “Gone Fishing,” which confronts the reality of the death of a lover, ends:
If I scroll to the part where we
were throbbing with passion,
would you forget all
this craziness and come back?
“Some Things Never Change” similarly concludes:
No matter, I can do without until the tracks of my mind
finally unwind: I’ll answer the doorbell
dressed in bridal white,
a gardenia in my ear, and you’ll be waiting to lead me
down the garden path the way you always have.
And the poem “What Is Meant to Be,” a title that confronts “reality” head on like no other, likewise sums up:
Heart pounding, I hesitate to approach your car
only to find you’re still a dream.
Instead, I slip my key into the front door lock.
When the wind suddenly kicks up,
I feel someone behind me, whispering
my name. I can’t move. What if…
These fabulist themes of the potency of dreams, the malleability of death, so potent in Scott’s poetry, ultimately make me think of the famous Taoist tale of Chuang Tzu, dreaming he was a butterfly, and upon awakening, wondering if he wasn’t really a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. Who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t? The poems in A Little Excitement are sad, clever, and thoughtful all at once, whimsically playing with the gratification of desires, the moral implications profound and moving.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.