More MS news articles for July 2000

His poems are fashioned like stain glass, but they 'open windows' to human grief

Thursday, July 20, 2000

IN OLYMPIA, where so many official words and undigested ideas gush as though from a broken sewer main, there works a writer whose words are slowly and carefully crafted together like a stained-glass window.

Writing for less than half his 60 years, James Scofield has seen fewer than that many poems published. Although his work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has destroyed many more of his works than ever have seen print.

A full-time poet, James Scofield balances occasional hikes and trips with his writing. His wife, Joan, says he carries a notebook everywhere -- even while gardening -- when "he has a poem cooking." Loren Callahan/P-I And he only recently, somewhat reluctantly, would speak of himself -- Jim the house-husband, Jim the cook, Jim the gardener, Jim the foster child from the fragmented Bainbridge family -- because he felt a poet, or any writer, should stand behind . . . far, far behind the body of his or her work.

Sitting alongside one of the sunbathed flower beds in his colorfully eclectic Pear Street home, James Scofield is a warm, engaging conversationalist, as easy with the whys and what-nots of his writing as he is discussing his preference for a particular brand of single-row malt Scotch or a good cigar. And more eager, still, to know another person's thoughts.

Many in Olympia know him through their local newspaper as the irrepressible Letters-to-the-Editor guy whose frequent broadsides are just that, 40-pounders of well-aimed perspective aimed frequently at the religious right. Not grapeshot of scattered thoughts, but shots attacking the main masts of the so-called Moral Majority.

"I'm considered -- judging by the amount of unsigned hate mail and anonymous phone calls I get -- if not the Antichrist, at least his right-hand man," he said with an amused smile.

And of one Texas newspaper's calling his book of poems "a complex meditation on grief and death," he states: "I suppose that is true, but . . . the primary belief that motivated the book was that all repression is dangerous and harmful. And this society does keep the reality of our mortality and above all the suffering of the innocents as far away as possible."

Which is why, when he writes, James Scofield evokes either utter disdain or awed comments such as "powerful." This ain't your sunshine-and-hearts poetry. He labored several years over a blank verse piece about a father and his children taken from the Warsaw ghetto to a Nazi death camp.

"The notion of writing about the death camps without having had the experience, as a survivor, was something I anguished over for several years," he said. "It's as though the entire episode is really as much beyond language as it is beyond reason."

But this is the same guy who wrote that "all art is a window through which we can see something bigger than ourselves."

And his imagining the loss of a wife and child under death-camp circumstances became his window -- a poem without punctuation, to capture the suspended existence in the camps. A poem with ciphers instead of written numbers and all lower-case, symbolic of the humanity taken from the poem's subjects.

After about two months of writing, it went into a locked desk drawer -- where most of his work gestates -- and it was reworked and reworked until he felt he could show it to people whose opinions he trusted. Rabbi Marna Sapsowitz of Olympia was so impressed that she took the poem with her last month during a visit to Europe and presented it to officials at the Auschwitz death camp museum, where it now is on display.

Scofield's ability to empathize with the suffering of others also helped give birth to his poem "Anne," so strong in its imagery that most are mistakenly convinced it is about his own daughter's drowning.

"On thin mist mornings she would sit here
hoping to hear the river's undersong,
(blessed the meek; they shall inherit the wrath.)
She could not know how terrible
quiet can be, how swollen the earth,
how withered and rude is a child's grave . . .

What a playground! Granite crosses
rearing up around her, old graves
collapsed and wheezing dust, and shadows,
I never heard the splash. But I heard
her scream, she screamed like a rabbit, it's foot
caught in a snake's mouth! Oh my God!

I ran and ran, 'I AM,' He says,
harder, faster, I could see a rainbow
tangled in the river, harder, harder,
men from the field running ahead of me,
the river raging, diving, swimming,
twisting, crying out, but she was gone.

Pulled down by a vast, dark innocence,
enfolded into a deeper dark. Soon
they found her, still sunburnt. Struggling
to the bank they slipped and dropped her
on the hardened earth. All I could see
was etching on an old stone: 'It is broken,
and will be mended no more.' There she lay,
leaven now for the earth and my thoughts. ...'

(Excerpted from "Anne" in "30 Poems" by James Scofield, Sulphur River Literary Review Press, Austin, Texas, 1998, 40 pages, $10.) Scofield was, he confesses, "at best, a C-minus student" while growing up in a foster family on Bainbridge Island. His mother died young of a liver disease he has inherited, and his father abandoned Scofield and his several siblings. It was not until he was serving as a clerk-typist in the Air Force and isolated in the boredom of a Grand Forks, N.D., air base that he read his first poetry, "18 Poems" by Dylan Thomas.

"You can imagine my perplexity; I couldn't understand it," said this man who never went to college or had to labor through a pedantic dissection of something like W.B. Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium." Scofield had picked up a paperback book of poetry out of sheer boredom "and I sensed that I was reading something true, real and beautiful for the first time in my life," he said. "In that spark, I began reading, and I quickly began enjoying the really best of our literature, the older novels and poetry."

It wasn't for many years, yet, that James Scofield would begin his own serious writing. Much of it he scrapped after it had aged for years in desk drawers, not at all the fine vintage he'd hoped for when he purposely put it away for later appraisal.

"If he has a poem cooking, it's going to get written, no matter what," said Joan Scofield, his wife of 14 years. "If he's into his writing, it takes priority. He carries a notebook with him everywhere, even in the garden or when shopping, and he might stop and write down something and then go back to his vacuuming or weeding. It sort of writes itself in his mind, and his job is to get it out, refine it, look at the language and edit it."

Joan Scofield, who seems quite pleased that now she is occasionally recognized as "Oh, the poet's wife!" says that her poet "is merciless with himself and others about crossing the line between describing something and bathos.

"I've been to readings where he's read something powerful, and there are gasps, and shoulders sink as though to say 'This isn't at ALL what I expected!' Poetry isn't all 'nice' eternal truths . . . his writing makes you bring your nose right down to the gritty part, and many people don't want to have to do that."

Joan said that she and Jim met when they both worked in the commercial insurance industry. "We talked a lot, and it was obvious our minds were so similar. It was like there was an empty chair in my mind I didn't know I had, and he came in and sat down in it. It's not empty anymore."

Ah, the insurance lady who no longer is the principal sounding board for works-in-progress has her own way of creating word windows.

"It's always fun to read a poem that comes out of an experience we've shared," she said (the poem "Anne" about the child drowning was inspired by an old graveyard they visited while hiking along a raging river in North Carolina). "Our minds process things so differently. I can recognize some of the places in his poetry. I can see it and hear it cooking -- the birth of a poem used to be a lot more cataclysmic, like an earthquake. He'd be ecstatic for 12 hours. He does that less now, but there is still a coming-down when he finishes it."

Although a combination of inherited liver disease, multiple sclerosis and depression removed James Scofield from the daily work force, he is able to balance his home and garden chores and his writing with occasional, albeit shorter, hikes and travels with Joan and their two adopted greyhounds, Pete, 12, and Max, 6. Their quartet of cats, including one huge 23-pounder, doesn't ride along.

Getting out of the daily routine and away from Olympia occasionally seems to wire James Scofield on a depression-free high.

"I spent some time recently at Cambridge and Boston University, visiting friends and talking to students, and it was for me a peak experience. I was energized by these young people," he said.

In what appears to be one of his related lecture notes, Scofield tells young would-be poets:

"All poets from Chaucer to you are together, you are all linked, as though you lived together in a giant room set in the middle of history. Break-off, walk-out of that organic relationship, and you will sever the very source of life that will permit your poems to sing."

Jon Hahn is a staff columnist who writes three times a week in the P-I. He can be reached at 206-448-8317 or e-mail him at