Oct 102013

Betsy book pics 2013 - 236Author photo by the poet’s daughter, Hannah Tarkinson.

Last May we published a gorgeous Betsy Sholl essay on Osip Mandelstam, “The Dark Speech of Silence Laboring: Osip Mandelstam’s Poems & Translations,” and now we offer the poet’s own work, her own words, and at the same time give our readers a sneak preview of her new book, Otherwise Unseeable, due out in next spring, 2014, from the University of Wisconsin Press. Betsy is an old and dear friend and a colleague from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and partly we are friends just because I admire her poems, because she WILL write lines like: “Ah love, the wind sighs— / doesn’t love always undo the very thing / done up to draw it in?”

Just take an extra moment to meditate upon this poem — “The Wind and the Clock” — because it is marvelous. It’s built on a clash of opposites, a semantic and syntactic confrontation between, yes, wind and clocks, between the wild, scattering forces of nature and the will to control, to order and number, of the domain of clocks (and civilization and man — it’s a romantic poem). But the conflict comes in a series of inflections, beginning with the wind (oh, that wonderful verb “dresses” in the first line — that almost makes the poem all on its own) and backing and forthing with the clock, until, awful to say, the clock wins. And here Sholl magnificently escapes the convention of the poetic confrontation, escapes mere romantic whimsy, and launches the poem into something more sustained and epic. Her amazing final stanza leaves you just hollowed out, haunted by the spectre of death, the final winner of the argument (although the wind is back in the last line — those “little eddies”).

So, its argument won, the clock strikes,
as if it had no second thoughts, never
once wished for wind’s little ruckus

to swirl up old hair, dried wings, dust
from the stars, dust from the dead. The dead,
for whom all ticking has ceased, who come
to mind, and then go, invisible as the—
Oh, the wind, stirring its little eddies.



Latcho Drom
“Safe Journey”—After the Tony Gatlif film

Nowhere to nest, to rest their heads,
like starlings scattered by gunshot—

a flock of gypsies.
When the town runs them out,

tosses scarves and pots into the street,
then sweeps,

they even roost in an old tree—nail up
ladder rungs, then, limb after limb,

add platforms, cook stoves, cradle slings,
hang sheets for loose billowing walls.

But a town wants roofs, wants rent, rules
to keep the rich rich,

keep the poor shame-faced
behind closed doors—

until the flagrant gypsies come,
 until they’re chased out,
chased up,

until their charred throats, their knife-glint eyes
slide under our buttoned shirts

and find that secret place a song lives,
that choked-back sob tucked inside—

call it the soul—it slips out
to sit under their windy rooms,

among parrot-bright skirts, raven coats
and the wings of a violin.

All night it lingers in that throb of song,
hearing how the world poisons

fruit-eating birds, shoots a flock
into drifting feathers,

how the road is rough and dark,
but better than the town’s spit…

At dawn, the town wakes
to wooden wheel clatter, horse hooves,

feel of something missing, snatched—
though we don’t know what.


The Wind and the Clock

The wind dresses itself in trees, handbills,
dust balls, feathers and rags—anything to be seen—
unlike the upright clock in its polished box
sure of the world’s respect for synchronized
numbers, the world’s need for balance and weight.

Oh wait, the wind cries, shaking the window
in its sash, aching to get near the clock,
to knock at its door, unlatch that wooden world
inside. And once there? The clock knows
the wind would toss its weights like halyards

clanging in a stormy boatyard, hurl sand
in its fine-toothed gears, or lick its many
moon faces blank. The clock has seen how
wind strews autumn leaves like clothes tossed
on a lover’s floor. Ah love, the wind sighs—

doesn’t love always undo the very thing
done up to draw it in? But the clock thinks,
Faceless, what would I be, my hands spun
to a dizzy blur, my numbers scattered?
Numbers! the wind cries, does love keep

accounts? Didn’t St. Peter say a day
and a thousand years were one and the same?
To want what you can’t have is a fool’s dream,
the clock tells the wind. To not take what
you want—that is love. And the wind,

which just now was stretching its invisible flag
in long rippling waves, falls limp.
So, its argument won, the clock strikes,
as if it had no second thoughts, never
once wished for wind’s little ruckus

to swirl up old hair, dried wings, dust
from the stars, dust from the dead. The dead,
for whom all ticking has ceased, who come
to mind, and then go, invisible as the—
Oh, the wind, stirring its little eddies.


 Rush Hour

We’d been sipping wine at an outdoor café
in late afternoon light, my friend and I, our words

making light of whatever they touched, two flies
on the rim of a glass, talking as if the sky admired us.

Then out of the skateboards, bass thrum and laid-on horns
of jammed traffic, a woman appeared beside us,

set down her canvas bags, and the way her fingers flew,
it was clear she was deaf, signing a kind of shriek

at the street, at the cars and the awning over us,
which I saw could any minute collapse.

Small cross at her neck, short hair flecked with gray,
smudged glasses sliding down her nose,

the woman leaned in, flicked her hands toward my face,
so I looked up, away, then back, and had to shrug,

“What? I don’t understand.” Staring at me,
she conked her head three times with the heel of her hand,

and who couldn’t understand that?–
bang against the world’s bony ears,

whack to shake something loose,
tell the Furies, “Back off, settle down.”

The light changed, she gathered up her loose
handles and straps, stepped wordless into the glint

of bumpers and hoods. In her wake we watched
light drain from our glasses under the thinning sky,

watched her move through sirens, skate clatter, taxis,
snatches of rap, and what could we say

that wouldn’t leave everything inside her


What I Can Say: To My Sisters

Maybe we will never yank out the old root
of our wounds, and if it begins to die
that’s only because one day we will die too,
our birth certificates moved to another file,
even our shadows removed from earth—
where we once stood: air, dust-flecked light.

And the rocks at the foot of my stairs,
smoothed by eons of sea, the smaller stones
on the sill, striated, speckled, heart-shaped—
each one plucked glistening from the waves,
or salt-crusted rubble line? Someone else
will gather and—I don’t like to imagine—

dispose of them. But at least they can’t be
destroyed, no matter what happens to us,
what happened to Mother, Father, to all
the animals we have buried, who must
be vegetable or mineral by now,
secrets the earth holds and will not release.

But don’t listen to me. So many feelings
are rooted in us we did not plant
but became good soil for. What does a root
know of stem and leaf, of what blossoms
beyond its sight? Perhaps we go down
that others might rise. What do we know

more than this stranger at the next table,
glancing up from his book to see our brief
meeting of here and now, how we’ve appeared,
three sisters, the fact of us insisted on,
against all odds, as if our lives were a gift,
and so, shouldn’t we ask, for whom?


O For a Thousand Tongues
……………—Charles Wesley

Having climbed to the thinnest branch that will
hold, I must be more ponderous to the tree,
and less musical than the birds I’ve scared off,
less supple than the paper lantern I’ve come
to hang, to elaborate on a midsummer night.

I can hear my ancestors, not the leaves,
hissing, “frivolous”—my people of the book,
of trees cut, shaved, pressed into pages of rules
warning against the mind branching out too far—
frivolous, that word easy to stammer,

so if I were on solid ground I’d stomp,
push it out with fricative force, though up here
I’ll just hum to myself, looping a string around
the branch so this paper moon will cast its soft
unreal light, which, yes, the first drops of rain

could easily snuff. Oh my flaw, my friend,
my stammering tongue, how I stumble over
your fff’s and vvvv’s like a drunk, your liquid llll’s
that won’t pour from my lips, as if words were rust,
woodblocks, wet wool, scotch tape, chipped marbles,

and why not? Why should it be easy to speak?
A flaw looked at another way is—I meant to think
“a source,” but it came out “scorch.” So be it,
as my ancestors would say, those for whom
the body always betrays the spirit’s goal,

for whom the soul was a canary sent
into the world’s mine, all mission, no pleasure.
They disdained ornament, as if to decorate
were to insult God. I don’t know what they saw
when they gazed into wind-blown bristling trees.

It’s a miracle that my ancestors actually
conceived, that all those overdressed mothers
gave birth. They wrote our names, weight and length
on one page of the book, our first words, steps,
baptisms on the next. But they were silent

on the matter of delight, so we had to find
our own way through spindrift, dog romp,
dancing in the streets, through one kind of flaw
or another, as branch by thin branch, we teetered,
and swayed, strayed, yes, found ourselves blown away—

frail lanterns hanging on a twig’s tip end
where wood blends with air. But singing there,
adding a little back beat, a little howl
to flesh out the tune, until as the song says,
our stammering tongues fall away.

— Betsy Sholl


Betsy Sholl served as Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.  She is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Rough Cradle (Alice James Books), Late Psalm, Don’t Explain, and The Red Line.  A new book is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press.   Her awards include the AWP Prize for Poetry, the Felix Pollak Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and two Maine Individual Artists Grants. Recent poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Image, Field, Brilliant Corners, Best American Poetry, 2009, Best Spiritual Writing, 2012.  She teaches at the University of Southern Maine and in the MFA Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

  One Response to “The Wind and the Clock: Poems — Betsy Sholl”

  1. Love these new Betsy Sholl poems! And thrilled to hear she has a new book coming out soon.

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