Two Citizens of a Gone World
She with her long hair held by bandanas,
pulling her children in a red wagon
past the vacant lot, the boarded up storefronts,
graffitied windows, Day St. to Minden
and the glass-strewn school playground,
just outside the projects. Her serene smile.
The neighborhood 1970s Boston, hard times
and arson, triple-deckers going up in smoke,
big flakes of ash soaring across blocks.
Not her name, but her story remains:
how God, she said, stopped her ears for days,
made her deaf to her mother’s funeral,
to comforters and their pious consolations.
Sixteen, alone in her room, she watched stars
like fireflies, she said, stars behind stars,
and every pulse of light was her mother.
Among the lessons of that neighborhood:
her trust in the long silence, its mothering dark,
the night married to its stars, as if loss
always weds something opposite,
and walking with her it was almost possible
to believe, to see beyond piled trash,
shot-out streetlights, the world’s glowing core,
its shine in all of us, our rough mix
of artists, organizers, junkies and retirees
feeling trapped on their rundown steps.
Years ago. The block’s been gentrified⎯
I want to say ruined⎯now.
And now, half-floating beside me
she brings back our neighbor Lenny
on the sidewalk again, sweeping up the glass
he hurled the night before, as if to say,
when his two sons come sullen down the steps
with book bags and violin, that little soft shoe
he does, the sad shuffle and shadow jab in air?
It’s the only way he knows.
Thinking of Richard Avedon’s Portrait of Isak Dinesen
Of course part of me wanted the tulips
I just bought to stay in closed-up potential,
and my own face to remain young, untouched
by grief and worry. But watching the slow-
motion explosion each day, as they unfold,
stems weakening, heads bent, each petal’s wilt
and fall, I think of Isak Dinesen’s face,
how Avedon’s camera emphasized crack
and sag. Perverse, she thought⎯his spotlight
on her edge of decay, crushed and glorious.
Perverse? Or perhaps he was finally sickened
by all those models slicked up for the glossies,
and needed instead a sunken cheek, a face
that had been through the press of heartache,
gravity of time, ruined enough to show
a different beauty, a face that let itself
be written on, as if that’s how she came
to write of others⎯to imagine Babette,
fleeing Paris after the Revolution,
that once high chef exiled to a dreary
Norwegian town, her cause lost, husband
and son gone. Then the lottery ticket’s
sudden windfall she pours into one
evening’s brilliance for townsfolk who won’t
grasp what’s been given. But for Babette⎯
to be chef again, to practice her art
once more in that extravagant meal,
with its many wines and delicacies!
Then in the aftermath, to stand among
the picked bones, stacked dishes,
bare stems and fallen petals, her eyes bright
and fierce, having spared nothing,
having spent it all.
How you’d bike to work, briefcase strapped on back,
the steep hill, the rush down,
and how, necktie loose, you’d toss our daughter
in the air, as she called out, again, again,⎯
remember? And our first city garden
where you pulled out beets brittle as charred lace
from the spent coal buried in that rented earth.
So quick to grasp innuendoes and jokes,
able to fix bicycles, radios, troubled souls⎯
the words remained solid and did not dissolve,
your inner compass was firm, so even
in the dark you could move through our rooms.
Even now you stir to my smallest cry,
as if kindness is the deep self lodged within you,
the seed from which you grew.
And you fret for the lost cat on the poster,
chuckle at the penguin-wobble of children
stuffed into their snow suits and boots.
You can put your hand in the dog’s mouth
to make sure the pill goes down,
and you still know the tunes as you sing
falsetto to radio blues,
washing dishes as a form of devotion,
small prayer for order⎯ Here, in this new realm,
where we enter the fellowship of suffering,
as if we wandered among the lost
we see each evening on the news, those who drift
through shattered cities, walking dazed
in a world they once could name, a world
familiar and firm, but now no longer.
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2
Falling down in a clatter of time lapse,
continuous collapse like a line
of folding chairs folded over
or a pretty slick card trick: one flip
and they all follow⎯this is Nude
as a rally of sandwich boards,
not Nude in a field surrounded
by well-dressed men, or plump Nude
stuck among potted plants….
No more reclining on a chaise lounge:
art’s not stopping time any more,
but watching it fly
through a stack of slats, as the painter
shuffles planks into motion.
At least no live body tumbles down
these steps. And he gets credit for
getting the after-image he was after,
angles of continuous spill.
Maybe Nude was an after-thought,
not a “she,” but a kind of irony
for this heap of pickets pulled off
a fence--nude oak, nude pine,
their plummet barely contained
by paint, such a steep pitch forward,
you can’t help reaching out
to grasp a rail before the balusters
break, and your life flashes
domino quick through a world without
treads, where every minute’s
falling out from under.
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.