Crisp air, press of ladder rung on instep,
iiiitree sway and dappled light, then stem twist
iiiiiiand the weight of apple in hand—
reaching through that leafy light, did we ask
iiiiwhat else we were after? Some desire
iiiiiito possess the whole splendid day, sun glint
on grass, September’s slow withdrawal,
iiiithe drying leaves sparse now, so the apples
iiiiiiwere little flames. Strange that we make
one fruit both medicine and poison,
iiiiprescribed and forbidden, as if everything’s
iiiiiimixed, and there’s no forgetting that darker
hunger at work, blind to the damage it does,
iiiiego’s bad apple, poison in the star
iiiiiiand gravity, gravity, gravity.
But then wind-falls in wet grass—paradox
iiiiof fortune—how sweet for the bees and wasps
iiiiiiwho find the cores warmed by the sun
into a heady liquor, and sip. Once
iiiiwe had a wooden apple made with such skill,
iiiiiimore than one person picked it up
thinking to bite, until our dog finally did.
iiiiWe found it under the couch, splintered
iiiiiiand pocked, and with stern voices banished him
to the yard. As if once down the stairs
iiiihe wouldn’t happily enter that bright world
iiiiiiof rock and dirt, nuthatch, beetle, squirrel.
Say you’re out jogging in New Hampshire
and come across one feeding on berries
and too busy with those sweet juices,
with fattening up for winter, to bother with you,
who just wants to move along country roads
on your own two legs, between meadow and wood,
not too fast, not too slow, out for a run
before porridge. Innocent enough,
but still an intruder, still something a bear
might sniff as trouble, bothersome
for a creature intent on moving through
her world unharmed eating berries
with her cub on an August morning—
and so a creature much like you.
But there’s that cub, and you’ve been warned:
sing, make a racket, till they shamble off.
A barroom ditty comes to mind,
all those bottles of beer on the wall, so you sing
as if a song could save you.
You wave your arms overhead to make yourself bigger—
or boorish, you begin to think,
as mother nudges cub off into the woods.
After all what did you see?
Just a glimpse of bear body through roadside scrub,
and nothing, nothing of its beauty.
The Jersey shoreline where I grew up
was hardly a cliff, but it was an edge
where we kids clamped our feet in sand
and felt the tide crisscross our ankles
pulling the ground out from under. Before us
stretched the whole blue-gray beyond
drawing us toward the horizon’s flickering line.
Distance and dazzling surface filled our eyes,
then made me cringe at the thought of swimmers
caught in riptides. When one caught me,
the girl I was probably could have stood
if the storm surf hadn’t kept knocking her legs
out from under, rolling her, closing over,
the slamming her breathless into black out.
Beyond shore, the great watery meadows
cared nothing for her, crabs crawling along
the stirred-up bottom couldn’t tell girl from
broken off tackle, and gulls cruising
overhead weren’t crying for her either.
Whoever pulled me out didn’t look back,
just walked off, as if angry at having to haul out
a kid who should have known better—
red caution flags out all along the shore.
Or maybe I just needed to wake up
alone in the sudden clarity of
wind-swept beach, stove-in storm fence,
one low slung wire against a quilted sky—
alive in a way I wasn’t before
the sea swallowed then coughed me back out,
before I woke on that rain-pocked beach,
sand thick in my scalp, seaweed clinging,
and sat up, and started to crawl.
meant pricey when Grandmother said it
in the grocery store, clucking over asparagus
in winter, raspberries in March.
But in Mother’s voice it meant something more
like adoration—until later,
the word turned into worried “oh dears”
as I composed my adolescent dramas,
those rough drafts of destiny. I hardly noticed
the derelicts lined up in the doctor’s hallway
getting jabbed through their clothes
as I walked in, anemic from dieting.
I hadn’t yet taught the guys in prison
for drugs, for doing what others just dream,
hadn’t heard stories of childhood damage,
so could almost think drunks deserved their fate.
As if dogs deserve to be kicked, to be under
another’s boot, the way our neighbor
jabbed a broomstick into his great Dane
trying to turn her from sweet to vicious.
No one on our street was deaf to those cries,
her whimper and shriek as the man snarled.
Each afternoon as I read Bible stories
into my grandmother’s hearing aid box,
stories that thrive on reversals—last, first,
poor, rich, those who give, those who hold back—
I thought I knew which ones God would love.
I was young. I thought I knew.
On the musical scale of vowels, E
is up there at the level of shriek.
Eeek, a mouse! Seek is one thing,
Eureka! another. So much searching
for ecstasy, endless satisfaction,
as if you could stay on Everest forever.
“Third heaven,” St. Paul talks about
in one epistle, though how he got there
he can’t say, and he can’t stay there, either.
The thorn in his flesh, whatever it was,
made sure of that. As my love says, you can
be so heavenly, you’re no earthly good.
Easy to imagine enlightenment
belonging to just the few who scale the top,
or those high flyers who thrive on extremes,
and not the little guy down below,
not the monk walking home from the river
with his bundle of reeds, but the devil
who stops him to brag, “I do all the things
you do. You watch and I never sleep.
You fast, and I eat nothing at all.”
Dante says she’s a kind of heavenly worker,
not quite an angel but more than a force
as she turns the wheel from famine to feast,
making failure last no longer than fame.
But failure, that big red F at the top of the page,
stops me in my tracks. Once I thought I could
just take it, not write the paper on Freud
and Buber. But the thought so frightened me,
my whole body felt an electric fizz.
“F— that,” I must have muttered, then sat down
to write, living on muffins and coffee
a whole week, dropping a small fortune,
in the pay phone, crying to my boyfriend
about Freud’s money metaphor, his belief that
women spend all our psychic energy
growing up… So that freaking little F
on our birth certificate freezes the wheel?
Our fate’s rigged, and any faith we have
is just infantile delusion, oceanic
feeling with no base in reason or reality?
Tap-water coffee and Buber all night—
how I hoped for some splendid refutation.
Against reason he tells stories: Here is
Rabbi Isaak pacing a bridge in Krakow
because he’s dreamed a treasure hidden there.
Here’s the captain of the guards scoffing, “Ha!
If I believed in dreams I’d have to go
to the house of a Jew named Isaak and dig
under his stove.” Well, the rabbi hurries home
and finds that treasure, as if faith—or fate—
is all detour and surprise, stepping out
to find the way back in. With his fortune,
the rabbi builds a house of prayer—because,
Herr Doktor, what to do with such a gift,
but pour it out into more giving?
says one of Dante’s gluttons, ghost-thin
on Purgatory’s Terrace six— “good,”
because he knows his agony will end.
So, golly, Mr. Golem, you just keep
going round, gazing at what you can’t grab,
growing gaunt on your diet of hope.
Down here it gets pretty grim when I lose
sight of “Let go and let God.” In that void
I still hear my four-year-old sophist son
telling me he can turn on the TV
and see Spiderman each afternoon, but—
significant pause—“I’ve never seen God…”
Well, not in blue tights and a red hood,
not casting webs or scaling walls, either.
Addressing that absence, all the big saints,
those holy goombahs, say faith’s in the gap
between holding on and letting go,
so to find God takes three words: “I give up.”
But they aren’t often said with soft sighs
in a well-appointed parlor, are they?
More likely it’s a groan or plea for help,
when you’re losing your grip on a cliff edge.
That’s where the old joke comes in—guy grasps
a crumbling ledge, feels his fingers slip,
cries out, hears that big tuba voice call down,
“Let go!” Looks around, tightens his grip,
shouts back, “Anybody else up there?”
Happy, Happy, Happy!
Keats calls the figures on the Grecian urn,
never arriving but not dying either—
as if we’re always on the road, between—
truth/beauty, head/heart, heaven and hell—
or what was that recipe we found once?
Himmel und erde, mixing potatoes and apples,
mashed so the two we loved separate were fused
like healing stirred, blended into hurt,
so you can’t tell them apart—the wound,
the crack, the tear that lets in light…
But happy to me always meant arriving
at the goal, then getting to hang at poolside
after hard work, sipping a pastel drink
with its little paper umbrella.
Who wants to be stuck going round and round?
Still, if you’re Keats spitting blood,
or the bull on that urn, then the slower you go
Though it takes more than dragging our heels
to arrive where Catherine of Sienna does,
saying all the way to heaven is heaven,
especially when it looks like hell. The hacked up
ruins of what once was a town, the heavy weight
of the dead loaded onto carts,
the buttons, bones, shoes still in the rubble
when the survivors comb through:
against those scenes, only the smallest gestures
seem to hold—the cup of water
handed to a prisoner on a train, the shawl
wrapped around a shivering child at the border,
the last piece of bread a hungry man
breaks in two.
Betsy Sholl has published eight books of poetry, most recently Otherwise Unseeable (University of Wisconsin, 2014), which won the 2014 Maine Literary Award for Poetry, Rough Cradle (Alice James, 2009) and Late Psalm (Univ. of Wisconsin, 2004).
Other books include Don’t Explain, winner of the Felix Pollak Award (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), and The Red Line, which won the 1991 AWP Prize for Poetry (Univ. of Pittsburgh, 1992). From 2006 to 2011 she was Poet Laureate of Maine. She has had poems published recently or forthcoming in Brilliant Corners, Field, New Ohio Review, and Image. Also, this past spring she performed some of her jazz poems with musicians Gary Wittner and Jim Cameron.
Three earlier collections of poetry came out with Alice James Books, where she was a founding member. A chapbook, Coastal Bop, came out with Oyster River Press in 2001. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, among them Field, Image, The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Missouri Review. In 1991 she won the Maine Arts Commission Chapbook Competition. She is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship and two Maine Artists Fellowships. She has taught in the Writing Program at M.I.T. and until recently taught at the Univ. of Southern Maine.