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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

whole.

"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

Penelope Scambly Schott, Micawber Books, 114 Nassau

Street, 609-921-8454. The Rocky Hill author reads from "Penelope:

The Story of the Half-Scalped Woman." Free. Friday, March 12,

7 p.m.


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