Earth Colours: Selected Poems
L E Scott
Declamatory and full of urgent desire to thrust the reader into different realities, L E Scott’s poems stride across big subjects. Earth Colours reflects 30 years of Scott’s poems and, as his publishers point out, this is the first time a substantial selection of his work has appeared in New Zealand. A good proportion seems to have been published in US or Australian outlets and he has not yet appeared in a New Zealand anthology, despite being resident in this country for some years.
Subject matter, rather than chronology or individual publications, is the organising principle of this book. Each section is introduced by a different “earth” colour: Black for work about racial injustice; Red for the poet’s response to Vietnam; Grey for spirituality and questions of life and death; and Blue for poems about love and loss. The largest section of the work is “Black”, and here Scott articulates his rage against United States and world racism and sings about growing up as an African-American.
Reading this often didactic work made me want to take a bearing from other political or socially aware writing – Apirana Taylor, Hone Tuwhare and the Irish poet Eavan Boland. Here were some of the ways to make a statement about social or cultural conditions immediate for the reader: the intense personal experience that moves outwards; a character who tells a loaded story; a charged address about a subject.
What makes Scott’s work different is not so much that he doesn’t use some of these techniques but that he puts aside some of the expected tools of poetry and picks up others. For a start, there’s little evocation of surroundings, either landscape or urban, and his characters tend to be people named “child”, “girl”, “woman” or “white man”. This has the effect of removing the personal and giving his work an epic, abstract quality. Even in poems about family experience “my father” and “my mother” are part of telling the story about Black experience.
In “My Father – the Great Poet”, Scott contrasts family pride in children with social attitude:
Oh my God
My teacher said –
15 nigger children your mama had?
When I went home
From my first day of school
My mother asked me all about it
And how did I like my teacher
I told her that my teacher
Must be from Coredale too
My mother looked sad
And tried to smile.
At times Scott is less concerned with the resonance of language than making a statement you can’t miss. In “My Father”, his father sits in the living room before the moment of Scott’s conception:
He thinks about his father, his hand strikes out in the
darkness, trying to destroy what he has become. I am a
man, I am a man, I am not like you, I am a man, I will
not let the white man make of me what he made of you.
If Scott is not so concerned with surroundings, he is a storyteller who focuses on emotional exchanges between people, and between people and the social and economic forces that govern their lives. This is especially apparent in the poems about families, where he charts the course of childhood and records exchanges between children and their mother or grandmother.
At times, especially in the short, chiselled poems, his desire to testify about experience or make a point can make the work feel predictable. But in longer poems other strengths, such as exuberant rhythms and a song-like use of repetition, extend the emotional impact of the work.
His publisher points out that his writing stems from the New Black poetry of the 1960s and its influences from an oral-based style incorporating Black jazz and blues, folk, gospel rhythms, African chants and the spirituality of the Black church. In a poem like “Disciples of the Black Church”, Scott calls the names of noted black singers and musicians, building a rhythm like a hot gospel preacher:
Miss Sarah Vaughan
We miss you
I just want to stand here
Until the flowers bloom
Come rain or shine
The Black Church
Ella Ella Ella Fitzgerald
Scatting all across your hurt
Scatting all across your pain
Scott’s use of songlike choruses to structure a poem is one of his most attractive techniques. The repetition of phases such as “Please let it be known / the Witch-Doctor is watching you” allows him to travel long distances with his commentaries. One of the most haunting of these poems is “What Should Be Is Remembered”, from the “Grey” section. Here, the repeated words are “rain” and “can’t remember the rest”:
How many times have you loved?
Two dress rehearsals
Dreams walking backwards
Looking for darkness
Words don’t die when they sleep
Shadows dancing on a flame
Can’t remember the rest.
The poems of “Blue”, where Scott contemplates women, loss and sex are the furthest from the polemics of the first sections. With images of water and sand or desert, he sketches the emotional spaces of relationships with economical clarity. In longer works, he evokes women in his family through images of dance and song, and in an ambitious poem, “Offspring of Anarchy”, he contemplates birth and destiny.
Often epic or polemic in their focus, rather than lyric or intimate, L E Scott’s poems require the reader to imagine what they might be like in performance, and to take an interest in other forms of writing. While I felt that Scott could have done himself a favour by selecting his work more tightly, especially in the large first section, Earth Colours proved itself a thought-provoking and challenging collection.
Mary Macpherson is a Wellington poet and photographer.