New Milford's poet laureate speaks of resiliency in challenging times

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
James Scrimgeour

James Scrimgeour

Contributed photo

NEW MILFORD — Poet laureate James Scrimgeour said he believes strongly in the resiliency of human beings, and said the experience of COVID-19 has shown this to be the case — both with himself and with those around him.

Scrimgeour, who has been reappointed by Mayor Pete Bass as the town’s poet laureate for a third, two-year term, said he has not only continued to be active with his poetry over the past few years — but has remained so even while “hunkered down” in his home since last March.

He leads a virtual monthly poetry workshop at the New Milford Library, which had previously been held in person.

“COVID has thrown a little bit of a monkey wrench into the whole situation. It made things more difficult,” said Scrimgeour, 82, a professor emeritus at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and a published author of 10 poetry books.

At the workshop, participants critique each other’s poems. When teaching the class, he said he doesn’t believe in giving students writing prompts or specific topics for which to write. Instead, he encourages them to write about their own lives and the things that are important and interesting to them.

Scrimgoeour has also been promoting his book, “Voices of Dogtown: Poems Arising Out of a Ghost Town Landscape,” published by Loom Press in Massachusetts. The book is a compilation of historical research and original poetry about the lives of the last inhabitants of what are now ghost towns in Rockport and Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Scrimgeour said the book is based upon his own experiences — pre-pandemic — wandering the terrain in those two towns, and reading about the lives of people who lived there at that time period. Currently, no one lives in those areas, he said, since they’re watersheds.

Additionally, Scrimgeour said he’s looking forward to soon returning to work with Gallery 25 & Creative Arts Studio in New Milford, a cooperative-style fine art gallery sponsored by the New Milford Commission on the Arts.

“We have had a little cross fertilization going on where I would write poems about some of their paintings that I had seen in the gallery, and they made paintings illustrating my poems,” he said. “This has been really cool and exciting.”

In May, Scrimgeour will be serving as a judge for Danbury Cultural Commission’s High School Poetry Contest. Additionally, Scrimgeour has been working on poems about the pandemic.

“I ended up with a series about 30 poems,” he said. He’s collecting his strongest poems to date and plans to compile them into one book.

Scrimgeour said his current poetry reflects the resiliency of people during these challenging times.

“What’s uplifting is how human beings survive,” he said. “We show that life goes on and still has value and significance in spite of the COVID cloud hovering over us.”

Scrimgeour said he has personally been enjoying life and making the best of his situation, despite the pandemic.

“I’m still writing poems and having my salmon dinners on my front lawn and going for walks with my wife in the neighborhood,” said Scrimgeour, who along with his wife, Christine Xanthakos, 78 — a retired ESL teacher — has three children and eight grandchildren. “We’re inching our way back into the outside. We’re taking it slow and taking it easy.”

He said in some ways, the pandemic “actually adds a dimension” to life.

“It makes it more intense, and we value it more when we know that it may end at any minute.”

He said he was very moved by the nation’s National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, whose poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden made history.

“Her poem is an especially strong and important poem, and one that the country needed to hear,” he said. “People needed to see that Black Lives Matter and that they are important and that they are significant, and her poem illustrated that as clearly as any protest could have done.”

According to Scrimgeour, poetry should play a larger role in schools. Prior to the pandemic, he said he spent a lot of time visiting many of the local schools to give poetry readings and working with students.

Scrimgeour credits more than his own efforts for his success at poetry.

“Some things are gifts from higher powers that I don’t understand,” he said. Every once in a while you do write a poem, and you look at it and you say ‘Yes, yes, my God, yes, this works.’ It doesn’t happen all the time but it does happen occasionally.”

Scrimgeour’s poetry:

Who's Blind Round This House Anyway

Hey, honey, I can't find it. Are you

sure there's a can of soup left? Yes,

I've looked in the diagonal cupboard, checked

every single can. There's a lot of peas

and string beans, some tomato paste, but

no chicken noodle soup. Are you sure

we're not out of it? I've felt around

in all the corners, especially that dark

little pocket to the back and the left of the opening

where fingers slide in. Yes, I'm sure,

absolutely sure, it's not behind the string beans

or the tuna fish, especially the tuna fish.

I can see, you know.

So we gotta stop buying tuna fish, but

what's how many dolphins they kill

to make one can of tuna fish to do

with the missing soup, which I don't really need

anyway. I'll just munch some saltines. No,

I'm not playing hero, and I don't need your hand

to guide me, that is, unless

you really want to . . . Well,

well, what do you know? There it is —

behind the tuna fish, right where

you said it was — feels kinda good,

your hand on my hand on the last can

of chicken noodle soup, don't it?

Rocking with Quinn

at 6:30 am — everyone else, my wife,

my daughter, her husband, resting after

the creation, after the first six days

of my grandson's life, rocking

in the chair we bought as a baby

present, rocking in the same basic,

elemental rhythm as the sea, the strands

of grey beard on my bowed chin mingling

with Quinn's wispy newborn locks —

the slight shudder that shakes

his entire body — goes through

me also — the warmth of his small

6 day old head seeps through his new

outfit, his blanket, my rainbow trout

T shirt to my chest, just as

my warmth seeps through to him —

so peaceful, so quiet, so serene

as the swaddling cloth, our clothes,

the newborn and aging skin dissolve

in the stream of spirit travelling

both ways — like the warmth

mingling together — as if we were

not already, would not always be

merged, as if any combination of cloth

and flesh could ever keep us apart.

Lilac Tree

in mid may — just starting

to bloom — over two hundred

purple cones — each one part bud

part blossom — the whole tree

nodding in the slight breeze,

exuding aroma — the top branches

nodding more firmly, for emphasis,

the blooms saying, “Hello world,

hello poet sitting so still on

the picnic bench, breathing in

and breathing out,” blooms

and poet saying in unison,

“Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Five Men on Treadmills

(Cardiac Rehab, New Milford Hospital)

A line of soldiers, no leaders, each

a private marching, marching, step

after step, after step, but not going

anywhere, not into the parking lot,

nor (at least not yet) across the road

and down into the cemetery.

One with eyes wide open staring

stoically straight ahead, seeing all

too clearly what is before him;

one white haired, head bowed,

as if in prayer;

one on his cell phone, complaining

about the stock market, the Dow Jones

falling under twenty-four thousand;

one with eyes closed, thinking of his

childhood, and the five cent Hershey bar

he would eat one square at a time on his

mile long walk home from school, and

last but not least, one thinking only

how good it feels to be alive, how good

it feels to put one foot down in front

of the other - plunk, plunk,

plunk!

Walking in the Neighborhood

Looking at the cute cuddly cloud

creatures drifting across clear blue sky

above the lime green willow tresses

weaving in the spring breeze — only

the lack of cars and the lack of people

remind us that we are sheltering our

eighty year old bodies in place not far

from an epicenter of the coronavirus —

such a beautiful spring day, such a

contrast between the surface beauty

of the natural world and the danger

lying unseen inside and on top of it.

The last time we had this clear a view

of heaven — it was nine eleven.

Photo Taken

On our first walk on the River Trail since

the onset of COVID-19 — orange day lilies

(and one bud for tomorrow) in the lower left

hand corner — four stalks of mullein stand

erect in the center, the yellow tip of the tallest

tickles, lights up the dark swath of current that

divides the rippling green, the inverted trees,

the gloomy brooding heads on the other side

that contrast so sharply with the mullein and its

healing blooms appearing one after another as

they climb their steps to the sun, make medicine

to relieve fever, cough, etc. — you can boil them

into a tea, rub them into your skin, or just sit still

and look — there, now don’t you feel better?

sfox@milfordmirror.com