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Betsy Sholl

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.

Dear One

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.

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