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Betsy Sholl


For the final exam on hope somebody

will write the answer with a fine stylus

on a beetle’s shiny red back. Another

will put her hope on a magnified grain

of rice. But that will not be me. I am

going to smudge and scrawl across page

after page, dumping the contents of

my mind like a purse. A cloud’s hope

is all wisp and rain. A clown’s is that

ridicule can turn into applause. Is it

hope when the dog’s belly clock calls

and he wags at the kitchen door?

Professor, I am already failing, flailing.

You elucidate page after page of text

while I watch the seminar table’s grain

swirl toward some invisible drain.

Did Freud have a theory? Did Simone

de Beauvoir tear it to shreds? What did

Martin Buber say to Martin Heidegger

as they walked through the woods, each

barely two inches over five feet, wanting

something the other could not quite give.

Repentance or forgiveness—which comes

first? I’m sorry. That’s not the question.

Do you have to survive to have hope,

or do you need hope in order to survive?

Buber might say we have to look at a beetle

and see more than a bug. He had hope

in Jerusalem when he kept paying rent

in secret to the exiled Arabs whose house

the government had seized. He must have

believed, Professor, we are all tenants

in a house belonging to somebody else.

Last night I poured rice into boiling water

and wondered, Professor, if you were

a grain of rice what would you hope?

Among the Ruins

Through the long end of the telescope

war is far away and just watching leaves

us unscathed and culpable, as cities burn

and bodies pile up in the rubble. But turn

the scope, and it could be my neighbor

torching his house, its frame engulfed,

roof plummeting in brilliant shards,

windows curtained in flames, our roof

beginning to smolder, while we stand

on the winter street in pajamas and coats.

How to weigh one house, one night

against a month or a seven-year siege?

Is there a box big enough for them all—

Actium, Aleppo, Mariupol, Saigon,

Leningrad, Hiroshima, Kandahar. I put in

my neighbor headed to jail, the arson

obvious and his life in ruins. I put in

my mother with her stroke-addled brain,

and the old man in Aleppo who stood

in a shattered room and picked up

his fiddle and bow. I put in the buttons

still being found in the fields where

Napoleon passed. I put in my beloved

and ask that the vacuum of his absence

be filled with the voices of others¾

the woman in Kharkiv with no door left

for her key, the man shoveling earth

over his wife and son, the soldier whose

comrade was beside him minutes ago

lighting a smoke and telling a dumb joke.

I put in my neighbor’s orange jumpsuit,

the voices calling out from their cells.

I ask to hear and remain silent in their midst,

for only the bereaved should tell stories.

After the wake, only they should be

allowed a dark laugh among the ruins.


Remember how you loved being a girl, loved

recording on a yellow pad your red shoes,

pet turtle, the ten things you might forget

if you ever became a grownup. You loved

dawdling on the way to school, the weather

always new, those bright October mornings

when the wind could almost whisk you away¾

first chill, puffy clouds scudding across the sky.

You could have been anyone then and the wind

would love you, even if your homework

wasn’t done and you botched your blue map

of Ohio, capital city Columbus.

Milk money in your pocket, cod liver oil

on your breath, you’d step out of your house

and the day would be waiting. The tall grass,

the cindery side of the road, the sky

flying its bright clouds¾they didn’t want

you skinnier than you were, or smarter

or better at kick ball. Wind in the yellow

trees and in your hair, sparrows in the branches,

everything alive! Without trying it seems,

without even paper or pencil or words,

you have recorded this, so it still exists

in the library of your soul, in the drawer

marked Happy. Beside it, the other drawer

you’ve opened many times where nightmares

are kept, and the dead birds your cat left

on the doorstep, the little prongs glaring up

from the sweater whose rhinestones you pried out

as your mother chatted with the salesclerk.

Reading Moby Dick at 35,000 Feet

I’m holding a storm in my lap, page

after page, American Lit. 201,

a good distraction for my flight.

Some chapters have been a slow growl,

but now on the runway the wind’s picked up,

rain’s small scatter shifts to bigger spillage,

then, turning one more page¾ a flash.

I count, don’t get past two. Still, we take off.

And is it words making all this racket?¾

windows shaking in their sockets,

the plane swamped by high seas, the boat

whale-rammed, the book both inside and out

rattling through turbulence, flying blind

into a thick spume of clouds.

Seat belt sign, tray tables up. On the ground,

my new love in his father’s car

may be stalled in traffic, asking if I’m the one.

Up here, it’s all heave and heel,

plane dip, stomach plunge, and Pip leaping

into fathoms of heartless immensity,

his mind undone. I’m reading fast now

to get to the last page, the coffin bobbing up

from shipwreck suction, small raft floating

in the vast expanse, reading this plane

into that sign of survival, safe landing,

gangplank walk past the pilot’s routine thanks,

into ordinary rain, Cleveland’s local time,

and I in my love’s arms once again.

Baby What You Want Me to Do

September, and beauty’s coming in for the kill

Season of cyclists bent over handlebars,

one pant leg rolled, yellow windbreakers

Yours gone to Goodwill

Jimmy Reed CD still in the player

I’m goin up down down up

Anyway you wanna let it roll

In my dresser now your wallet, your keys,

the credit card still in your name

And cherries gone bad before I can eat them,

Noises in the car and coming from the fridge

Baby why you wanna let go

Forget those big heroes pouring wine on dirt,

cutting up bulls with their vats of blood

till the dead come flickering, speaking inscrutable

You said Reed could be so drunk

his wife sat beside him on stage feeding lyrics

Enough with Orpheus making every tree

from trunk to breakable twig sob

But those three kisses you left on my phone

Your falsetto in the kitchen doing dishes¾

If I could just turn fast enough

Widow’s Prayer

I watched a dandelion shatter in wind,

scatter like spittle from a sneeze.

What is a seed but something that flies,

then falls, a little germ, dirt diver.

Let it dive into me. Don‘t leave me

stranded on the ground, rootless,

washed away by any trickle of rain.

I watched him close his eyes and go

so far inside hands could not reach.

I whispered his name, but he was

earless to that. He was a breath ready

to slip through the window’s mesh.

Lord, I watched wind take the shape

of a scarf, saw a small dervish of sand,

saw light catch in a sparrow’s fanned wing,

which folded like a bad hand of cards.

What held the dandelion together let loose.

He who was once radiant and bright

is now whatever comes next. Have mercy.

Vox Humana

I always think treble should name

a low sound, not high, and diapason

should be the bassoon, not the flute pipes,

though I see it also means, “the principal

foundation stop extending through

the organ’s complete range”¾

including those chest-rattling low notes

when the musician’s feet press the pedals

and her arms extend, fingers splayed,

half shaking as she holds down the keys

to make one enormous, shattering swell.

What a monstrous magical contraption,

more combine than tractor,

taking four limbs and how much

body torque to build that cathedral

of sound, meant to reach the highest ceiling

and flicker every flame on its wick.

Yes, there are treble stops, flutelike,

where a lone cry seems to tremble,

approaching the divine.

Then a great tuba voice might answer,

rumbling the rafters, shaking pigeons

from their roosts. Messiaen

filled his organ with birds, Bach

filled his with so much latticework

listeners still can rise up into

a bigger heart, more capacious mind.

Wah-wah pedal and feedback screech

are nothing new. Here the bellowing cow

has a voice as well as the vicar,

saint and sinner and finch, the woman in labor

and her child’s first cry––this instrument,

when it opens all its stops, its principal

foundation and range, proclaims the world

is holy, from the billowing clouds

down to the manure stuck on our boots.


Betsy Sholl’s tenth collection of poetry is As If a Song Could Save You (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). Her ninth collection of poetry is House of Sparrows: New and Selected Poems (University of Wisconsin, 2019), winner of the Four Lakes Prize. Other awards include a Maine Book Award for Poetry, The Felix Pollak Prize, the AWP Prize for Poetry. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011. She was awarded the 2020 Distinguished Achievement Award from Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.


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