by George Longenecker
When I interviewed Scudder Parker of Middlesex about his new book, “Safe as Lightning,” the conversation ranged far and wide. That’s appropriate, for his poetry covers such a breadth of topics. It’s writing rooted in the soil of Vermont, rich in imagery, for Parker is a careful observer. Illustrations by Adelaide Tyrol enhance the poetry.
He’s been a minister, state senator, gubernatorial candidate, and renewable energy consultant. He’s a devoted father and grandfather. He’s proud of the gardens he and his wife Susan Sussman have cultivated. All of this comes out in his poetry. As we spoke, it was clear that he writes with purpose and revises with a clear sense of craft. His poems take us from his childhood in the 1950s, back when his parents farmed in North Danville, to the present.
In our interview, Parker said how he “Became a farm boy” and “fell in love with the land.” He likes his poetry to be “A conversation with the spirit and creatures.” Both family reminiscence and his keen observation of Vermont are clear in the poem “Moose Bog.” “The blue-headed vireo pokes its thread of song/ in and out among balsam buds erupting like/ green caterpillars, and the first red maple leaves.” His father was not very successful at farming and became a minister. “We stopped in Island Pond for coffee…This is where my father started preaching/ sixty years ago…The once thriving village was collapsing like a pumpkin in November.”
Like his father, Scudder Parker became a minister. He served churches in East St. Johnsbury and lower Waterford for 20 years. I asked him to compare prayer and poetry. “Poetry works well when it has the honesty of good prayer…that takes the time to let the spirit reflect back to you.” In “The Poem of the World” he says “The poem of the world wants me to wake/ in my own body; it is astonished I might let these supple bones grow brittle. / It is the sudden thing I trust.” In “Chamois Shirt” the poet is both pragmatic and contemplative. “But infinity is always there/ beneath, between shirt after/ shirt, the wheat we wear, the wheat/ that will sustain us. Down on my knees scrubbing today’s soil from the floor, / that cloth I use is soft, so thin, / almost gone. Parker says poetry should be “A dialogue with the world around you.”
“The Voice He Grew Up With” is a touching reminiscence on aging. “She lives in a landscape without courtesy./ It’s not a terrifying place for her./ She knows her husband’s voice is gone./ Her grandson visits, talks summers at the farm/…She has not spoken in weeks./
As he walks out the door she says ‘thankyou’/ in the voice he grew up with.”
About the title poem, he says: “Lightning is what’s real. We pay more attention to the thunder.” He goes on to say that the poet’s “… job is not to hide from reality.” He spoke of the many funerals he’s conducted. “If we don’t deal with sadness, we miss the wonder and beauty of life.” In “Elms” he speaks of the death of trees and of personal loss. “Or should I just admit:/how much I miss them.”
I asked him if there were similarities between crafting legislation as a senator and committee chair and writing poetry. “Being responsive…making it an investigative forum.” In “Art of the Poem” he says “I imagine myself a cook.”
In 2006 Parker won the Democratic gubernatorial primary but lost the general election. I asked if he’d rather have been governor or have been a published poet. He would only say he has no regrets. “I’ll take the way things happen.” To read his poems it’s clear he’s happy with the way things have happened, but does not avoid life’s sadness and irony. This is skillfully crafted verse, worthy of comparison with the best poets.
The Poem of the World
like a doe’s hoof tapping ice
till she can drink.
Startles like the rust of purple on this fall’s
forsythia leaves, though it may have used that small voice
every year, unheard…
“Safe as Lightning,” by Scudder H. Parker. Rootstock Publishing ($15.95), ISBN 978-1-57869-031-2.