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Tales of Two Penelopes, One Half Scalped
Poetry and storytelling go back a long way together,
back to a time when stories were told and re-told in easy-to-remember
rhymed couplets. Rocky Hill poet Penelope Scambly Schott revisits
this eminent relationship in her latest poetry book that also has
a gripping story to tell. Schott’s "Penelope: The Story of the
Half-Scalped Woman" is inspired by the true story of a courageous
woman settler in 17th-century New Jersey.
In a 57-page poem that reads like an evocative short story, Schott
tells the story of Penelope, a young bride shipwrecked off Sandy Hook
in 1640. Stranded on the seashore, Penelope and her husband are attacked
by Indians. The husband is murdered, but Penelope survives, grievously
injured, for eight days in a hollow tree. Another pair of Lenape Indians
arrive and take pity on her, carrying her back to their village where
her injuries are treated and she heals. Returned to her uncle, Penelope
is married to John Richard Stout with whom she bears and raises to
adulthood 10 children — three daughters and seven sons, two of
whom founded Hopewell. Years later, when Penelope Stout died of old
age, she left 503 living descendants. "Indeed," says Schott,
"local phone books are still well populated by later members of
the Stout family."
Schott sets the time and place of Penelope’s birth as Sheffield, England,
in 1620. Her father, banned from his church, travels with his daughter
to Holland. Her spare, elegant poems include evocative moments such
Penelope’s request to her grandson: "put your hand in the pocket
of my garment and feel the scars of my wound," and an astonishing
brief encounter with the Dutch painter Judith Leyster that is reprised,
late in the tale, when an itinerant artist visits the Stout farm.
The mother of two adult children, Schott lives along the Delaware
& Raritan Canal between the towns of Rocky Hill and Griggstown, with
her husband, Eric Sweetman, a physicist with Lucent Technologies,
and their dog Sadie. Although she has now spent the majority of her
adult life in New Jersey, she says moving here with her children in
the 1970s came as a shock.
"When I told my kids we were moving here for my new job, my son
asked, `To the smelly part?’ And my tiny daughter took one breath
of turnpike air and started to cry." Her son is now a theater
director in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her daughter, an actress
and sometime waitress in Los Angeles.
"Once we were settled outside Princeton, I decided I had better
make peace with New Jersey, so I started doing historic reading and
sightseeing. That was when I first read about Penelope Stout. The
children and I spent our weekends visiting New Jersey’s colonial villages,
Revolutionary War encampments, and 19th-century industrial remnants."
The poem was written with, or in fact precipitated by, a fellowship
at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, funded
by the Lannan Foundation. Although Schott is the recipient of four
grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, this was the
first residency of her career. "This was one month when they were
going to pay me to write," she recalls, "and I immediately
thought, `I don’t want a poem here and a poem there, I want a project.’
And as soon as I thought project, I thought of Penelope."
Schott spent three or four months of intensive research in preparation
for the retreat. "I collected information until I was bursting.
But I didn’t let myself write a word until I was there. Then I wrote
non-stop. I got to the point where you don’t feel that you’re making
it up, it becomes more like taking dictation."
Her research time was spent in the Hopewell Public Library,
and with Judith Leyster’s painting, "The Gay Cavalier," in
the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her resources included
a children’s book published in 1938, "The Indians of New Jersey,"
that provided the most detailed description she has found of daily
life among the Lenape. Schott also looked at the collections of basketry
and pottery at the New Jersey State Museum.
The book includes a useful glossary and an historical afterword, "Which
Parts Are True?", that helps the modern reader integrate the poem’s
rich and evocative cultural and historical allusions into a coherent
"I took absolutely every fact I could find — of which there
were not very many — and I made up material that was not contradicted
by the facts," she says.
"This was the first time I had a residency," she says. "I
had never had my own schedule before. I didn’t even know what my own
natural schedule would be. But I was allowed total immersion and emergence
in my writing." The time proved productive and the poem completed
there. Once the manuscript was ready, the University Press of Florida
was the first publisher she queried, and it accepted "Penelope"
for publication. It is the newest volume in the University of Central
Florida Contemporary Poetry Series.
The poet says that sharing a name with Penelope Stout was a distinct
element of her attraction. Over the course of her lifetime, she has
not known many Penelopes.
"I grew up reading the Odyssey, with its Penelope, although I
had mixed feelings about patient Penelope," she begins. "And
I identified with Penelope Stout — although no one ever murdered
my husband. But I think I was tired of stories of women who fall apart
and was so happy to find one who survived. Plath and Sexton were the
kind of role models we offered our daughters. But Penelope Stout was
a survivor, someone I really admired.
"The thing that made me connect the most with Penelope Stout was
the way she ended up living between two different worlds. The time
she spent with the Indians clearly affected her and changed her thinking.
She was no longer simply an English Dutch housewife. She became much
more self-reliant. And I felt that the Indians she lived among were
more respectful of women’s work, they knew women’s work was valuable.
"In a way, the women of my generation grew up between worlds also,
because our mothers came out of the post-World War II housewife culture,
and then by the time the women’s movement started some of us had grown
up without ever thinking about making money. I mean I would never
have been an English teacher if I’d have known I was going to be single,
supporting two kids. In a way I felt I got caught between different
sets of expectations."
Schott grew up in and near New York City. Her father was a lawyer
for Pan-Am, "with the advantage that we traveled a lot," she
says. "After I had got the idea that women stayed home, my mother
became one of the first women to start her own market research business."
Schott’s mother had been an anthropology major and spent a year at
Howard University, the historically black college, in the 1940s. "So
my sister and I were brought up to be open to other cultures."
Schott took college courses in Lima, Peru, and Ann Arbor, Michigan,
earned her bachelor’s degree in history, and her Ph.D. in Renaissance
English literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of
New York. She says it was a graduate course on historiography —
the history of how people visualize history — that opened her
eyes to possibilities of interpreting history.
Along with her academic jobs, Schott has done various other kinds
of work. "The most delicious was making donuts at a cider mill;
the chilliest, was working as an artist’s model; and the most satisfying,
being a home health aid for the elderly," she says. Schott has
published a novel, "A Little Ignorance," and four previous
books of poetry, including "The Perfect Mother" (1994) and
"Wave Amplitude in the Mona Passage" (1998) based on her work
with the elderly. She currently teaches modern poetry through the
distance learning center at Trenton’s Thomas Edison State College.
She is already working on another narrative poem based on a box of
letters passed down to her from a relative’s attic. "This is a
more modern, sadder story about a woman, a dancer, who had one of
the last lobotomies in this country," she says, adding the new
poem has led her both to the ghost dancer image in Native American
history and the medieval "dance of death."
— Nicole Plett
Street, 609-921-8454. The Rocky Hill author reads from "Penelope:
The Story of the Half-Scalped Woman." Free. Friday, March 12,
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