Review by Daphne Astor
Ilka Scobie’s new book, Any Island, published by Spuyten Press, is a powerful collection of lyric poems and free verse contemporary elegies that are delivered with wit and courage. Scobie is a lifelong New Yorker, born in Brooklyn in the 1950s. She writes in deceptively plain language about daily life at its most universal. Her clarity of perception is laser sharp as she asks questions while chronicling moments of interior perception. These poems are always anchored in real time experiences while also exploring deeper implications.
Scobie’s volume opens with the poem, “All,” and the first line asks: “Actually, do you know how to draw?” (11). As readers, we are immediately taken aback, scrambling internally to respond to that direct address of an unexpected, personal question. In the penultimate line of “All,” she writes, “Veracity was never my quest” (11).
Scobie then proceeds to offer “All” again on the first page, but this time in italics and in Italian: “Tutti.” And with those two same-but-different reflecting, translated opening poems we enter an urban world of sensuality, feminism, violation, relationships, environmental concerns, and art. When veracity and Italy are presented, highlighted, and questioned, so have the cornerstones of the civilization that make up Scobie’s poetic world.
Any Island is not relaxing. It demands close attention from readers because Scobie’s compass indicates the tipping points between public and private, political and personal, then and now, each delivered with razor sharp control and tiny scenes of social tension that have timeless global resonance.
She writes almost as an anthropologist would, parsing and analyzing her own culture without condescending. Instead she employs critical perceptions earned by living an extraordinarily alert life. Scobie’s poetic forms are not slavishly academic nor strict, but instead versions of naturalist free verse connected by the distinctive interconnectedness of the poems themselves and the communication between them.
“Syren” provides a slice of Scobie’s focus on being female in NYC:
Carefully listen to her tantalizing tale.
No tragedy lies behind her hazel-eyed gaze.
She’s a freelance fantasy.
A woman of purpose.
A goddess of passion. (42)
Then Scobie reinforces that concept of female power with lines from “What to Wear to the Demonstration”:
Black, of course.
Honorable black of righteous anger Black, of proletarian elegance.
We’ll all be in black, the women who want to change the world and return our world to one of honor. (21)
Scobie also engages with yet another facet of current female icons in “Kardashian Konfidential”:
A sisterhood of surgical enhancement Three non-muses
The surgically enhanced sisters
Kim’s alabaster perfection Kourtney’s foreshortened nose
Khloe’s persuasive chin
Of course, the matriarch, Kris, is my actual peer
But her winsome charms elude me (24)
The ordering of the poems within Any Island is shaped like an interwoven spiral. Scobie writes about trees, the Twin Towers, the Kardashians, subway etiquette, then circles back to trees, art, and urban culture adding a very clever Brooklyn word play recipe and map titled “2B” that telescopes change and time passing without nostalgia, yet includes an underbelly of lament. There are some poems about the vicissitudes of holidays, a lover’s mustache, and quick visits to places away from NYC, but Scobie is at her strongest and most deft when writing about her own cityscapes. This historic slant is revealed in the concluding lines from her poem “2B”:
B’s inundate conspicuous consumerism Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf’s, Barneys, Bonwit’s
The dearly departed B. Altman and Best & Co. Other urbane B’s; intimidating Bloods
Desperate Botox seekers
On a lucky late night stroll down Avenue B, it is still possible, in a good bodega,
to purchase a bagel plus a beer.
Blessed Be. (25)
In Virginia Woolf’s 1920-1924 Diary she wrote, “one always sees the soul through words,” a phrase that is especially appropriate to Scobie’s poems for despite the lively embrace and wry observations on contemporary life we read, feel, and encounter Scobie’s poetic subject matter as non-fiction, not exactly autobiographical or confessional, but these are poems about the vitality and challenges of navigating and interrogating daily life in all its imperfection.
Scobie began writing poetry as a child and workshopped her poems from her late teens through her twenties when she studied with Edward Field and participated in writing groups in NYC and Woodstock. She was mentored by Janine Pommy Vega and her early work was especially inspired by Diane de Prima, Gregory Corso, Li Po, Anne Sexton, Marge Piercy, Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda.
From the beginning Scobie has always preferred the process of writing and being a poet of the page rather than the stage or screen, although for the past decades she has given many live readings at the Bowery Poetry Club and La Mama. To this day she makes a clear distinction between “performing” poetry and “reading” her poems in public; it is the latter that best characterizes Scobie’s style.
As a downtown NYC resident and art critic, Scobie is an active museum and gallery visitor whose vast range of knowledge about visual art includes an eclectic collection of friends who are mostly artists. Her husband Luigi Cazzaniga is a photographer and film maker, her close friend and neighbour is Ugo Rondonine. Those connections provide Any Island with four evocative black and white illustrations—in order of presentation by Ugo Rondonine, Elizabeth Kley, Walter Robinson, and Martha Diamond—and an electric blue Cazzaniga photograph for the cover. The pages of art dovetail gracefully with the content and book design to provide visually satisfying breathing spaces between written sections.
“Invocation” is as close as readers get to a mission statement poem in Scobie’s collection. This fourteen-line poem is a call for consideration and compassion in day to day contemporary life and benefits from being presented in its entirely here for it encapsulates the essence of Scobie’s narrative sensibility, direct address style and can be seen as a free verse unrhymed Petrarchan sonnet, including the traditional turn in the last lines:
Think about something other than your career (or lack thereof) your romance, your health, your finances, your past,
and your future
Observe and empathize with another sentient being
Nurture your body — anyway you can
Expand your mind, except with superstitions
Give up one vice
or cultivate another, which you will drop as soon as possible
Walk more, either on concrete, or preferably earth
Get a landline and unplug your devices for one entire day
Help someone; it can be easy as listening or carrying a grocery bag Contemplate a mercy fuck, the benefits might surprise you
Seek community for sustenance
From morning to night, consume no food that is white (32)
“Invocation” appears in the middle section of Any Island and cleverly reminds us of Scobie’s philosophical positioning about life and its responsibilities with directives and statements that are impossible to shirk. This is pure whiplash Scobie poetry, apparently simple, but all the while delivering skill and poetic wordplay on many levels.
The final poem in Any Island is titled “dear diary” entirely in lower case type, and attempts to slip under poetic radar masquerading as something else. From Scobie, a poet who early on claimed that “Veracity is not my quest,” we are offered a poignant farewell defence of NYC that is redolent with enduring bravado and one of poetry’s wisest and most powerful weapons: a truer truth.
True citizens cherish these struggling streets
So please, abandon our overcrowded island
to those who will reinvent New York,
tattered as it may momentarily seem
My hometown survived Spanish flu, polio, AIDS
Revolutionary, Civil, two World Wars, and terrorist attack
The one direction that New York City never goes —is back (55)
Daphne Astor is a publisher and environmental farmer who has lived in England since 1977. She works as an artist in various mediums and is involved as a collaborative and individual maker, curator, writer, publisher and arts organiser with museums, galleries and festivals in the UK and internationally. She is the owner and director of www.hazelpress.co.uk and chairperson of The Centre 4 Recent Drawing in London.