Book Review: Running Down Broken Cement (Nancy Scott)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Disability is not everywhere the same. In September of 2008, Wordgathering reviewed The Unfold Pinnacle, a book of poetry by Indian sociologist Basanta Kar. The poems in that book described the lives of young girls in rural India whose circumstances demonstrated the relationship between poverty and disability. The recent publication of another collection of poetry Running Down Broken Cement (Main Street Rag, 2014) is very reminiscent of Kar's poetry. The difference is that Scott's poems concern themselves with urban people in the United States.

In the ongoing battle between whether poetry should come down harder on the side of art or on making a difference in the lives of others, Scott comes down squarely on the latter side, stating in her preface, "I have written these poems to bear witness." It is no surprise that her latest book is published by Main Street Rag, which has promoted the work of writers with disabilities perhaps longer than any other small press.

From the first page, Running Down Broken Cement will remind readers of Edward Arlington Robinson's elegiac cataloguing of the lives of a town's past residents, except that the subjects of Scott's poems are living —If barely. Scott's philosophy — her mission statement, really — is straightforward: "I believe that the overarching problems of racism, homelessness, drugs, child abuse and neglect, AIDS, and mental illness are best illustrated in the narratives of those trapped . It is through the piling on of such stories through poetic vignettes that Scott hopes to make her case. There are "Isabel and Angel"

Isabel was fourteen, Jose sixteen, when Angel was born.
         The judge ordered them to get married,
                  so Jose could avoid rape charges.
His mother, a drug dealer, got custody of the baby
                  and Isabel returned to foster care.

Georgie, in "The Shearling":

Georgie's mom turned him out, a skinny five-year-old,
to steal. The welfare check and what men paid her went
for angel dust. At first he lifted bread, cigarettes, gummy bears,
packs of franks.

Tomas, with a different story:

When Tomas boarded the rickety craft
in Mariel, deck swarming with strangers,
No life jackets, sun flirting
with incoming clouds, the teenager
already missed his girlfriend
who'd stayed behind, pregnant with his child.
I'll bring you to America, he'd said

And perhaps, most familiarly, Marisol:

At welfare, Marisol signs in to be certified, fumbles with
paystubs, receipts, prays food stamps won't be cut any more.
At WIC her six-month-old son and three-year-old twins
are measured and weighed, so she can claim formula,
orange juice, Cheerios, peanut butter, hardly enough
to float her from paycheck to paycheck.

It is these individuals and many more that make up the culture of poverty as portrayed in Running Down Broken Cement. As a witness bearer, Scott surely succeeds. The pictures she paints of those she advocates for are detailed, clear and vivid. However, a New Jersey caseworker and foster parent herself, the author has a larger purpose in mind, arguing that entrapment in poverty is caused, "not only by the lack of decent jobs, housing, food, education, access to medical care, and the like, but more importantly by the conduct of many of our leaders, who, having abdicated responsibility for solutions, blame the victims." It is arguable whether in this radically conservative political era Scott's portraits can prick any consciences, whether those in power accept the metaphor of entrapment or that, even if they do, that they accept the premise that it is they who hold the keys to springing the trap. Quite possibly, Scott's poems continue to preach to the choir.

There is, however, the interesting question of how Scott's witnessing bears on the question of disability. Like Scott, most of those involved in disabilities studies, whether activist or scholar, agree with the distinction between impairment and disability. While it may be a physical or cognitive impairment that dictates the ways that a person is able to respond physically or mentally to a situation, disability itself is a social construction. As a result, while few with congenital or long-standing disabilities would want to characterize themselves as victims, the idea that they are to blame for the circumstances in which they are forced to function is as repugnant to them as it is to Scott. It is the social and cultural circumstances that surround disability where Scott's portraits are of most consonant with and of most interest to disability literature. As disability scholars like Douglas Baynton have pointed out, there is a long history in the United States among poverty, political disenfranchisement, and disability. Read in this context, some of Scott's portraits provide fodder for lively discussion.

There are a few inhabitants of Scott's pages that seem to managing well. Four-foot-two Lily, whom her landlord calls, "the midget," leads an active life with its typical problems, though getting a first floor apartment would make her life easier. In "Cherry Cheesecake," one of the few poems in the collection imbued with a sense of hope, Roger, whose retinitis pigmentosa is worsening, is using a new voice-activated cell phone and making cheesecake. In most poems, however, the circumstances are less than optimal.

For example, in "Find Me a Box" Kurt's mental health worker believes that Kurt is able to live in the community and take care of an apartment, but Kurt goes off his meds and punches holes in walls, among other things. He refuses to visit his social worker and says that he just wants to live in a box on the street. It's easy to see "Find Me a Box" as a useful starting point for discussing questions surrounding independent living and the kinds of supports needed. "Lake Carnegie, Late Afternoon" surfaces America's now inescapable need to consider disability caused by war. In this brief poem, a legless man in a wheelchair wears a sign saying, "I'm a homeless Vet." It's a familiar sight to any urban dweller. While Scott's portrayals of disability could hardly be called nuanced, one poem in which she pulls back a bit may owe its effectiveness in pointing out an enormous social and mental health problem to its restraint in discussing it.

Myra, 1992

I stop to have a cup of tea with Myra.
Nearly eighty, she counsels parents of suicides,
shows me a photo of a pony-tailed teen.

My daughter slashed her wrists, she says.
She says her husband, now deceased,
used to cater fancy meals for Broadway stars.

OJ was there once, she says, grinning.
He was something. He could park his shoes
Under my bed anytime

One of the services that Running Down Broken Cement provides is to point out that even in a country where people with disabilities were so long invisible both in media and on the streets, that in actuality, as the poet Ona Gritz writes, "We Are Everywhere." A caseworker, Scott brings out the residents of the homes she visited as proof. There are the truck driver who lost his memory because of an accident, the woman with multiple personalities, the woman who thinks she is Prince Grace, the transgender ship builder, and the man who is losing his hearing. In this unveiling, Scott challenges conventional ideas of normalcy.

As a reviewer, I work on the premise that the success of a work should depend upon the extent to which it accomplishes what the writer was trying to achieve, and not on some criteria external to their intent. It is fair to ask, however, if other means might have helped her to achieve it. Scott is quite clear in her preface about her purpose in writing the book. It is not intended as a display of her artistry or the pursuit of a particular literary aesthetic. Her approach, though, is not without its risks.

One of the dangers of "telling it like it is" is that people—especially those likely to read poetry—have a tendency to dislike being told what to think. It is not that every poet needs to use simile, metaphor, allusion or alliterative language, but when there is no distance between the literal meaning of the lines and what a poem tries to achieve, there is really no room for reflection. Browning's genius at poetic portraiture was the gap he left between what his self-serving narrators said and what was actually going on. Scott, who from her preface we can only assume is an honest painter, often leaves readers no room to think for themselves. That being the case, a reader not previously disposed, has no reason to join the choir.

Whatever one may have to say about Eliot's poetry, he was probably right when he said the real work of poetry is on the emotions and that the literal interpretation of words was merely the poetic bone that the poet throws to the dog of the intellect while the poem sneaks in the back door. Unfortunately, when there is no ambiguity, there is no back door.

I respect the kind of clarity that Scott is trying to bring to her work. In the world of contemporary poetry, it is often difficult even for others who are poets themselves to know what a poem is supposed to be doing. I can just imagine myself addressing some experimental poets with the opening words to Scott's prose poem "You Know What I'm Sayin'" (one of my favorites, by the way):

No, I don't know what you're saying. I've been listening to you for over an hour, jiving and feinting, your words slick as the oiled head of a bald man, and all I'm getting are whites of your eyes.

Even so, one wishes that Scott would have left a little more room in some her poems for the imagination to do its work. One example of where she has done this to a degree is in the shortest and most understated poem of the book, "The Apartment Inspection."

In the hall ceiling
a two-foot square-cut, edged with molding.
our eye traveled to that molding
unprepared for what we saw: dark stains
missed by the painter's brush,
Jada crossed herself and said, I knew him.

A blurb on the back of Running Down Broken Cement, begins, "Nancy Scott is truly a voice crying in the Wilderness." Let' hope not. She is, however, one of the relatively small number of poets in this country whose focus is on social action. Without needing to use the word disability even once in her book, she is able to unveil the presence of physical, cognitive and psychological disability in the midst of our society, particularly in those areas that suffer economically. For that reason alone, Running Down Broken Cement is worth reading.


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability.