November Quilt, by Penelope Scambly Schott (The Poetry Box, 2018)
When I was in Vietnam, I wrote my wife every day. Some letters were long, some short, all filled with the events of the day. The thirty daily poems in Penelope Scambly Schott’s November Quilt (Winner of Second Place in the 2018 Poetry Box Chapbook Prize) are much like those letters, exploring the small things we all share or know of. Following the author’s first-day invitation to think of stitching (“I offer you my fingers / this pieced together quilt.”), these daily offerings are the rich and varied fabrics.
And varied they are. On the 2nd, we consider our parents and how we mis-see them:
Did you mistake your parents for grown-ups?
I did. I believed each untruth they told me.
I also thought married people talked only
about boring stuff like calling the plumber.”
For November 4th, the poet bids us,
Let’s jump back to fifth grade in New York City
where the Russians would bomb first
how can I save us all?”
while on the 15th we remember, “The dog Laika in her tiny Russian space capsule. // For years we were told / how she was euthanized — not that she fried.”
The importance of these scraps of fabric we share, things my great-granddaughter surely sees as the detritus of ancient history, is made clear on the 9th:
We need to tell each other
all these small details because after we’re gone,
who’ll care? In this life, I care about you.“
This pattern formed by Life is explicit on the 13th and 14th, where
What will anyone remember about me?
Does my sister know how I eat an apple?
The entire apple, core and all the seeds.”
is joined to
What do you know about apples?
I was pulled over for eating an apple —
the officer thought I was on my cell phone.”
Just past midway, on the 18th, Scambly Schott cautions us, “You might ask if my writing has a plot. No, none . . .” Perhaps, but there are subtly continuous threads holding the pieces of November together. For example, the 7th ends,
I reheat my coffee before I walk the dog.
When we get back from the walk, the coffee is cold.
All day I reheat my same cup.”,
and the 8th picks up the conversation with, “Day after day, sip after sip, we piece together / our lives.” The 15th’s thoughts about Laika and Sputnik begin the epistle for the 16th (“After Sputnik, we were all supposed to study math.”), while the 16th ends, “For a smart girl, / said my mom, how can you be so dumb?”), as the 17th opens by partially explaining, “They taught us long division in May / and I forgot it over summer vacation.”
Somewhere in the third reading, refining my poem-by-poem notes, I realize the bobbin thread anchoring these stitches and pieces is a different commonality: how unknown by, and unknowing of, each other we are. This epiphanal moment, crowning fine, carefully chosen and blended words, is what makes November Quilt so marvelous, so poetic. A tap on the forehead, a pulling aside of a stage curtain, and what is obviously obvious appears. Once seen, it’s impossible to unsee, leading us to a final charge to readers in the last lines of the last poem:
“Please don’t hang this one on a wall or store it
safe from moths in a zippered plastic bag.
Spread this quilt to keep another reader warm.”
Penelope Scambly Schott, author of a novel and several books of poetry, was awarded four New Jersey arts fellowships before moving to Oregon, where her verse biography, A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, received an Oregon Book Award for Poetry. Several of Penelope’s books and individual poems have won other prizes. Her individual poems have appeared in APR, Georgia Review, Nimrod, and elsewhere. Her most recent books are HOUSE OF THE CARDAMOM SEED and NOVEMBER QUILT.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018).