It would be easy to label Scraped Knees as a collection on growing up. It would be easy to see its poetry and prose about someone finding their voice, then connect it to your own upbringing and drift back into personal moments of discovering the world. Yet for me Scraped Knees is much more; it is a book of contrasts. A collection of poetry and prose which can speak from the perspective of the young, but do it with a more mature voice. Wonder is mixed with rationality and realism. Expectation mingles with disappointment. We experience some lighter moments, but there is a weight to carry with us both before and after that lightness.
Anemic Disappointment would be an example of that weight as the speaker’s uncoordinated efforts are further highlighted by her Mother’s reminder of her own athletic exploits. Yet it’s not the rebukes or even the nature of them which leave their mark on the reader, it’s the speaker’s lack of surprise at being on the sharp end which tells the story within the story.
It’d be misleading to say the parental relationship is all-smothering though; The Smart Mouth brought me one of those all-too-rare laugh-out-loud moments I cherish in my reading, when the speaker mis-hears the word ‘prostitute’ and assumes her mother is talking about a lawyer (“No. But I thought you said prosecute! Pros. Uh. CUH-YUTE!”) – some might say our speaker was demonstrating wisdom beyond her tender years!
Although that could be written up as innocent misunderstanding, you begin to sense a rebellious voice at work. How Babies are Made gives us the cognitive dissonance of someone forced to ingest mythology and doctrine, then responds with the first real taste of ferocity experienced in the book. There’s no mistaking the passion and certainty of that voice, even when it reappears in different contexts, such as in (To Be Read in Rapid Orbit) – an appropriately instructive title, because if you can’t find your own rapid orbit then it’ll take you there:
“You were my encyclopedia,
the tome on first-time kisses
that could get you great big deals
like movies, and mags, and perfume ads
in which girls wear knee socks
and sweatshirts in the rain.”
Appropriately, there is a clear feel of a maturing voice throughout this collection. Even when it seems to be railing against those who would control and contain it, even when there is an identifiable petulance, it is coupled with reason and measure. The raw energy of Lethargy, Abridged mixes emotional response with poetic technique and confidence in a piece which is anything but lethargic.
The prose pieces within this collection are not to be underestimated, and while they occasionally serve as a break to the pace of the more energetic poems they still spin phrases which show poetry at their core. Trance contains one of my favourite examples of this; “Your hat is a wooly gray hyperbole”. What is even more distinctive about Trance is how it could be a microcosm of many of the contrasts and features of the collection as a whole. We have a narrator and a subject, to whom the words are addressed, yet we feel included as readers. Perhaps even more included than the narrator herself, who seems to be fighting differences and indifference alone.
Buoyed by the growing strength of the speaker’s voice, you might be lulled into the idea that Scraped Knees has evolved into a collection of a poet who accepts life circumstances like a warrior; I Love You, but It’s a Lie, version 289756.0 is the antithesis to that assumption, captured with a raw vulnerability which made me believe that when “the frame is breaking” it isn’t a reference to an inanimate object but a moment of re-evaluation in the greater scheme of life.
As we near the end of Scraped Knees the prevailing energy and vulnerability lingers, now mixed with an uncertainty we have yet to experience; no more so than in the questioning and challenging Hippocampal Sighs. It is now that the speaker’s consciousness of the world around her becomes even more explicit. Rusted Assurance demonstrates this in a dialogue-heavy prose piece where the contrasts are distinctive: between narrator and subject, even between the narrator’s cool professionalism and indignant anger.
It is perhaps more striking how the view of the world becomes even sharper and more attentive; one which sees the periphery as much as that which is centre-stage. In close succession, June, Advice Left in Cursive and It is All Okay are all testament to that.
Although Brown’s pretext to this book includes the disclaimer “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” I am sure of two important things: that you will find resemblance to lives you have known, and that you will agree it isn’t really coincidental to have found that resemblance, it is the hallmark of a talented writer who is able to create a collection which makes things you have never experienced seem universal.