The Derelict Daughter
by Brittney Scott
New American Press, 2018
Review by Meg Eden
In her collection, The Derelict Daughter, Brittney Scott dissects grief into digestible, powerful poems, confessionally portraying how the past never fully leaves us. The motifs of her brother’s suicide, her father’s death, and her mother’s suicide attempts fill the speaker’s present, always pulling her toward the past. The poems don’t shy away from raw, narrative details, but also aren’t afraid to open up into surprising, surreal moments, leaving the reader with images that linger even after finishing the collection. To fully explore the dimensions of the speaker’s grief, the collection divides into sections, each centered around a family member and the speaker’s complex and turbulent relationship with them: first the brother, then the mother, and finally the father.
The first section introduces us to the speaker’s brother, who is incarcerated, then four years later, shoots himself. The poems delve less into the brother’s motives or his perspective, but instead focus on the speaker’s response to this experience, and how it incites her relationship with grief. The image of the brother shooting himself becomes a refrain in The Derelict Daughter’s poems. The brother lingers both through physical reminders of his presence—as the poem “What Ran in the Paper:” “If you come over the bullet still dines in the kitchen linoleum”—but also mental reminders, a stamp that has imprinted itself on the speaker’s memory. In the poem “Schema” she explains: “I live inside my brother’s death...I am awake inside the space he left.” In many ways, the brother is still alive to the speaker. Despite his death, his persistent presence and actions in relation to the speaker equip him with a sort of agency, his “ghost” functioning as an antagonist against the speaker until she is able to reconcile her grief with him. In the poem “Signs,” the speaker says “he dies / as often as day lilies,” making his death active, continually inflicting the speaker. In “Faith and Love in Quantum Physics,” an infinite number of possibilities for her brother and herself exist: some where he is alive, some where he shot her as well as himself, and others where she despises him and lives separated from him.
The way the speaker carries her brother’s ghost is both relatable and heartbreaking. No matter where the speaker is, the brother’s death interrupts her thoughts, even at the laundromat as “that old story / I never shut up about” (“Things I Did After the Rejection”). The speaker’s thoughts, like a villanelle, keep returning to the same refrain. Even as the speaker moves forward, she’s always drawn back to this familiar place.
In the second section, the speaker explores her relationship with the mother. While the speaker navigates a range of seasons in the relationship--before and after the son’s suicide and husband’s death--the mother’s portrayal remains relatively stagnant. While the brother is defined by a constant presence, the mother is defined through absence.
The first grief the speaker mourns regarding the mother is the absence of her mothering. In “Daughter of Wild Lettuce,” the speaker says of her mother: “In her memory I am an almost abortion.” This is a critical moment in the collection, as it pinpoints the heartbeat of the speaker’s grief. All three relationships the speaker focuses on ultimately center around acts of violence against the speaker, and their inability to respect the speaker for her inherent value. This image of an almost abortion well captures the ghost-like role the speaker has in relation to the other family members, as well as the mother’s inability to express love toward her daughter.
This image also gestures to the larger motif of childbearing, death and abortion throughout this section: of life that almost-is, an image that contains an infinite number of possibilities. In “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” childbearing is intrinsically connected to both life and death: a desire for life, but also the inevitable reality of loss. The speaker describes a doll she had as a girl and called “my daughter,” but forgot outside one day. When she revisited in the morning, she describes the morbid image of the doll in mud, a “centipede hooked like jewelry / around her neck.” This doll effectively embodies a familiar theme in this collection: the simultaneous desire to love and nurture (in part to compensate for the absence of the mother’s nurturing) colliding with the speaker’s familiarity with loss and grief.
The mother’s absence is not only defined in an absence of mothering, but also of personal agency and spirit. In “Still Life with Misgivings,” the mother becomes part of a still life scene, as if her spirit has been raptured out of her. The mother’s life, aborted through grief, leaves her only able to hear her own “small voice asking permission”—no longer carrying any sense of agency. There is no “before” for the speaker to remember of her mother’s spirit being full of life: “I don’t remember who my mother was before / this unhappiness...” Toward the end of this section in the poem “Resin, Linen, Salt,” the speaker poses the question: “Tell me, / how do you preserve what is already gone?”
In “Day Lilies,” the mother is further immobilized: “the curtains were stained yellow, / in the way you are stained with this recollection / of someone who cared about you deeply / who doesn’t anymore. She won’t get out of bed; / you try to call her, just now, / but she doesn’t pick up.” There is an inevitability to how the mother is described in these poems. There is no longing for a griefless mother, and likewise there is no sense that the mother can be resuscitated from her lifelessness. The speaker describes: “Your memory tells you that most things you try to save / cannot be saved.”
As time progresses, this still life becomes even clearer as not only affecting the mother, but her landscape as well. “Daughter of Wild Hedges” heartbreakingly portrays the mother immovable from her house, surrounded by filth: “The floor is so black around her bed, / it is as if a million spiders praise her.”
As with the brother, the mother haunts the speaker. In “The Measuring of Time Using Roses, Using Trees,” she says: “I am married to my mother’s dying.” Even in dreams, the speaker is “tied to [her] mother’s waist / with red twine” (“The Weather of Dreams”).
That said, the speaker’s relationship with the mother is nuanced. In “Resin, Linen, Salt,” she opens with a surprising yet tender analogy of a mummy that “abruptly rose / and strolled across a room before collapsing, / cloth like a coat of trailing ribbon. Love is strange in that way.” In “Party People,” the speaker relates her struggle with body image to “all the time I’ve wasted / trying to get them to love me.” While the speaker has perhaps conceded to the idea of receiving love from her family, there is still love that haunts the speaker, love that is “collapsing.”
Even so, there is hope for healing. In “Letter to Myself in Moments of Misery,” the speaker’s familiar anxiety overwhelms with its “fear of panic in places you can’t escape / peacefully.” For the speaker, there is no way to peacefully escape the past. However, she finds solace in the act of writing, concluding: “The fact that you’re reading this calms me.” While the mother remains frozen in her grief, the speaker persists, seeking a reprieve, or as she describes in “Nighttime Hymnal”: to be carried through “an echoing tunnel, /onto the other side, /which is tomorrow.”
In the final section, the speaker turns to her relationship with her father. The violence of the gun in section one is contextualized as the speaker shows violence and love conflated in “In the Farthest Fields of Kentucky.” In “Great Expectations,” she portrays generational violence through the image of a music box that “Dad, Pop, Paw kicked against the wall.” The gun then not only carries the trauma of her brother’s death, but also the speaker’s struggle to reconcile and navigate her own familial and personal relationships with violence and the self.
In the final poem “Landfall,” the speaker describes her family lawn “filled[ed] with shit, used condoms and tampons...unable to leave unless we waded...The whole house, surrendered to rot run riot.” The house acts as a metaphor for the family: a familial inheritance of depression, grief and violence that the speaker is seeking to escape and reconcile. The imagery of rot and trash gestures toward how the speaker has been treated by the other family members. As with the other poems in this collection, there is no quick resolve or solution for this trauma, only at the end a turn from the speaker’s past anxiety-driven dreams to a future where: “no one strikes me….Those that tried to shot me are dead now; at last, I can love them / from a safe distance.” The speaker acknowledges that this conclusion is in the future; she hasn’t fully come to this place in the moment. However, each poem is a beautiful, relatable human step towards this future.