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April 2014

The Weight of a Poem: The Almost Forgotten Poetry of Myra Scovel

WordsMost people have never heard of medical missionary, author, and poet Myra Scovel. Chalk that up to books long since out of print and the presentism that has hold of culture. I’d like you to know her.

My used copy of Scovel’s 1970 collection of poetry, The Weight of a Leaf, bears her autograph and the words “For Helen, in memory of David, all God’s best for her, as He has given David. Purdue, 1970.” Nothing like place and time and signature to root a book of poems in reality, 44 years ago. So long. I was twelve when she etched those words.

Myra Scovel and her husband, medical doctor Frederick Scovel, met when he was a medical student at Cornell and she a nurse, marrying after his graduation in 1929. The next year they and their newborn son sailed for China as missionaries. After language training in then Peking (Beijing), they were assigned to a hospital in the Shantung province. Pre-war, pre-communist takeover, they were treating opium addicts and every kind of illness until internment for six months by the invading Japanese in 1943. Deported by the Japanese, Myra had her sixth child within hours after their ship docked in he United States. In 1946, after the war, they and their six children returned to China, remaining there until 1951 when, like many other missionaries, they were forced out by the Chinese Communists. After six years service in India, they returned to the United States for good in 1959.

That story you can read in The Chinese Ginger Jars, Scovel’s memoir published in 1962. The narrative moves at a quick clip, like a nurse on duty, and yet her descriptive powers are on display, as in this line about Peking: “The whole city seemed steeped in the culture of its people, mellow as the smooth cream ivory of its curio shops, wise with a wisdom drawn from the deep pools of its clearest jade, relaxed as the curve of a temple roof against the sky.” Oh, how the world has changed. But all of this, interesting as it is, is just the soil for the flowering of Scovel’s poetry which, though faith-rich, is rarely sentimental, preachy, or limited to religious themes. That sets it apart from much other “Christian” poetry of that time, and that’s what makes it so human and readable. That and its economy.

The Weight of a Leaf leads off with a poetic dedication “To Li Po, Poet,” with Scovel dwelling on the timelessness of Li Po’s words 1200 years prior:

Yellow the willow by your mountain pool,
one golden leaf following your skiff
as you painted brush strokes for these words
twelve hundred years ago.
    “Shall goodwill ever be secure?
    I watch the long road
    of the River of Stars.”

As she finds herself in Li Po’s poem, on the eve of yet another world war, so we can find ourselves in Scovel’s careful words.

In the title poem Scovel writes of the bending inward of wills in human love: “We have bent to love/ as a twig bends/ to the weight of a leaf.” In some poems there is naked honesty before God, as in “For You, Lying There,” when she gives voice to her anger at the humiliations of old age, when, being told that “God must have his reasons” she blurts out “Do not speak of such a God to me./ Unless spring comes for you, what blasphemy!/ If seed-break-sod for you has no relation,/ death is but one vast humiliation.” Or there is the fear of a life being laid bare, as in “Why Am I So Afraid”:

Why am I so afraid
to let God speak?
He will want to throw out
the rubbish of my life,
all the dear, accumulated rubbish.

He will clean me out,
down to the bare essentials of my being.
I am afraid,
afraid of that nakedness.

And yet it’s not all so heavy. One of my favorite poems to read out loud is “How Did the World Get So Clean, Mother?” She answers the child-question with

God washed the day
and hung it out to dry,
dripping with dew.

Sun shone,
wind blew.

When evening came,
the cherubs,
pink from play,
folded it with lavender
to put away.

She doesn’t wholly escape sentiment, particularly when writing of family, but neither does the award-winning Mary Oliver when writing of her beloved dogs (in her Dog-Poems). Even a fine poet can lose the universal that makes a poem timeless, that makes it matter to readers she does not know, when writing about those things they hold dearest.  We can forgive.

Myra Scovel’s poems are light. Spare. Full of space. And yet, even a frail and hardly noticed leaf of a poem has weight. In a world of brash narratives and self-important posts, a little poem can shine, quietly whispering Truth.

Find the poetry of Myra Scovel. Whether in the dust and ink of the used bookstore or the low-ranking pages of Amazon, dig it out, take up, and read.