Safe as Lightning — moving and tough to categorize

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Safe as Lightning, Poems by Scudder H. Parker, with illustrations by Adelaide Tyrol.  Rootstock Publishing, 115 pages, $15.95 in paperback.


Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

Scudder Parker’s poems are as difficult to categorize as the man himself.  I’ve had more than a few encounters with Mr. Parker over the past four or five decades and never knew what to expect — only that it was something to look forward to.

“I was a Protestant minister for over 20 years,” he writes in the introduction to his collection of poems, “and a Vermont State Senator for four terms.  In 2006, I ran for Governor of Vermont.  I am a longtime activist and organizer (anti-war, community housing, food security, recycling).  After working in state government on energy issues for 13 years, I was a policy consultant in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and utility policy for the decade prior to my retirement.”

I knew most of that about him.  What I didn’t know was that he’s also a poet.

But what sort of poet?  The reader who delves into Safe as Lightning may encounter pure description, as in the longest poem in the book, “The Old Home Day Parade.”  Mr. Parker pretty much watches the parade go by, and passes it on.  The result will be familiar to anyone who has watched a parade down any Main Street in the Kingdom, except that it’s Roland Parenteau, not Bob Kinsey, on the old John Deere 50, and Tart LaBounty, not Bill Clark, behind the wheel of his black Model A.  Mr. Parker has a gift for detail:


Ralph Chase Sr. sits in an aluminum folding chair.

The cold of ninety Vermont winters

hides in his afghan-covered knees;

his hands are heavy on his lap.


Mr. Parker writes about the natural world in fine and loving detail, but with a refreshing lack of cloying reverence.  A great blue heron appears in “Lake Elmore, October First” as a “scarecrow taking flight” and:


The beaver — dogged Calvinists — seem to insist

it’s effort, not the dam, that’s permanent.


In describing things as common as the fall migration of birds in “The Poem of the World,” Mr. Parker puts the English language through its paces:


It is even — now I begin to see them — the subtraction

of birds, taking summer with them, too busy

to announce their leaving.


But in “Elms,” he offers striking proof that language, even at its most poetic, has its limitations:


If I want to say, for instance,

That I miss the elm trees,

I should tell you:


They held up the sky

over our North Danville farm,

domed and rustling

alive with orioles

soaring on raised arms

perfectly trained to lift

the daily weight of blue.


Or should I just admit:


I can’t tell you

how much I miss them.


Mr. Parker can be gently humorous, as in “Nature Pee,” a celebration of fertilizing one’s own lawn, even if it makes it look a little patchy:


I tell myself and all my grandsons

I don’t want this place

mistaken for the suburbs.

As I look around I think:

“At least I got that done.”


The book offers up some ruminations on aging, as in “Today”:


I used to understand so many things.

Now everything surprises me:

anger shows up on my doorstep


like an orphan.

Sadness is a thread of light

I try to pick off the carpet.


With old age comes a long list of memories, and these are not, for this poet, always a source of pride.  In “Barn Swallow” he recalls killing one with his new BB gun, then being “amazed at its sudden emptiness.”

And in “Talent Show” he recalls how cruelly he and his school friends mocked a young trumpet player, and imagines finding her, now, to apologize:


I suspect she’d forgive easily,

if I had the courage to ask.


Or, she might barely remember.

For her it was just another bunch

of stupid boys acting like they did.

Probably much worse happened, yet

here she is, listening to an old man

explain what she’s long understood.


I was particularly moved by two poems, “Davy Road” and ‘Recognition,” that more or less bracket the collection.  They deal with a distressed man who grew up on the land Mr. Parker lives on.  He shows up one day on his battered bicycle “in clothes the shape of sleep.”  His family was poor, and left few traces:


The house and barn were “down there,

Where you have your woodpile now.

The house was small and cold as hell.

The barn was built better.”


Later, in “Recognition”:


He stands by the rock well and roses,

stares across the valley at Northfield hills.

Sometimes, it seems, he just comes to cry.


The poems convince me that Mr. Parker understands, as newcomers to Vermont don’t always understand, that the landscape we love so much is not the product of some grand ecological design but of neglect.  And that neglect, however benign, was in turn the product of grinding poverty, rocky soil and winters lived in small houses, “cold as hell.”


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