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Betsy Sholl

The Mercy

Late night stun and no need to speak after the hospice call was the mercy. Morning sun like a fat raccoon in the tree, the moon grown flimsy as a nightgown, and the sky holding. That your suffering was over. Tulips opening all the way, and the jay or the mockingbird doing the jay. Morning was always a mercy, it owed us nothing and still woke us happy to live on a street with a firehouse and three schools, the mercy of taxes to pay for them. That there was not a slave ship called The Mercy is a mercy. That between us we knew all the verses to “Maggie’s Farm,” and could sing them out when talking heads talked war. Rainbow flags in windows, James Baldwin quoted on lawns, marches through town to city hall—we owed that to the mercy. Students who said they couldn’t, who couldn’t see they already had, that I could show them was the mercy. That I learned mercy from you, your smile, your hand on my shoulder, the way you could listen and speak calm to trouble. That your words come back. The knuckle you broke playing ball, the hair on your arms turning blond in summer, your gentle tug at the hem of my nightgown. Our children and their children are the mercy. That I saw the mercy you poured into me. That when you were empty, I could pour it back all over you. That I loved you to the end is the mercy. That there is no end.

The Starling

It must have been young, must not have known a shut window is a wall. My landlady and I were talking in little circles around the matter of her raising the rent when we heard a thud and found on the patio a small bird not trying to flit away or hide. Seeing the thin stripe running down its face, red like the cellophane strip around a pack of cigarettes or gum, my landlady pronounced it no longer a tenant of this world. But I thought I saw its beak move, its eyelids flutter, and because I’ve watched starlings tear into a neighbor’s insulation to nest under her eaves, and have seen them crowd out other birds at the suet, I didn’t think one could die that easily, or maybe at all. My landlady said it might carry disease, so I got a dustpan to scoop it up, then held it, hoping that talky breed of bird, brash destroyer of anything built to keep it out, would stir and join its constellation, one of those flocks almost uncountable as stars, that gathers over highways and fields swerving like metal shavings drawn by a magnet, each bird sensing the vectors of the whole, when to soar as one body, when to settle down and feed on a farmer’s field. Thus they are also called an affliction, a scourge. Easy to disparage a whole group—say, the homeless building tent cities in the park. But a lone soul? I looked and it could have been me rain-drenched standing with my sign on the median strip, me in the dustpan, then tossed on a leaf pile. Which is why I visited the bird each day until it was gone. It was a small death I could bear, could prod with a stick and learn that its wings weren’t solid as I assumed, but made of panels like a hand of cards it could fan out and close, a magical deck, each black card spackled with white dots that shimmered like stars, or the fringe of a fortune teller’s shawl as she lays out the future of us all— the whether and when, and how much flight before fall. Those brittle grape stem feet, the voiceless beak half open, as if stuck between wonder and dread— mine I thought. And on the last day, before something dragged it away or it otherwise took off—there, alighted on its eye, the bright iridescent blue of a sunstruck blowfly.

Like a Wounded Dog

In this neighborhood night, any jostle could make you beggar, griever, kicked animal

if you don’t swallow your sob, bury it with some bog woman in her little cap

and noose, the flesh of her sunken cheek preserved under a millennium of tannins.

Go ahead, nod to the town’s retired judge catching hold of a lamppost, flask in hand,

as if drink’s how he drowns out the sound of his gavel coming down hard, too hard

it seems now in this dusk hour when passersby disperse and traffic’s erratic.

If the church is still open, is empty enough, cleansed of opinion and threat,

then standing in the doorway, you might hear the flicker of a prayer, how it wants

to be alone, be loved, wants to lose itself in the flare of the candle an old woman

tips to another, wants to be the buzz

at her lips, believing God hears everything—

the slow drip of wax, dust falling

on a stone shoulder, the sob under the sneer

of a desultory boy smoking on the steps,

the slam of bars echoing down corridors

in the judge’s head—hears and answers

tonight with one whole and numinous moon

rising between houses. And all right,

this doesn’t solve a thing,

it changes nothing, except you stop

and let whatever’s been dogging you catch up,

all of you quiet now, as if you’ve been heard, whatever it was under what you were saying.


Betsy Sholl’s ninth collection is House of Sparrows: New & Selected Poems (University of Wisconsin, 2019), winner of the Four Lakes Prize. Her eighth collection, Otherwise Unseeable won the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Poetry. She was Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011, and currently teaches in the MFA Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.


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