Saturday, December 21, 2019

House of Sparrows: New and Selected Poems - Betsy Sholl (University of Wisconsin Press)

Today's book of poetry:
House of Sparrows: New and Selected Poems.  Betsy Sholl.  University of Wisconsin Press.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2019


cover of book

The first thirty-seven delightful pages of House of Sparrows: New and Selected Poems, are new poems from the desk of Betsy Sholl.  These poems, on their own, are more than worth the price of admission.  House of Sparrows is the latest from Ms. Sholl, the latest in a sizable line-up of killers.  

Today's book of poetry looked at Betsy Sholl's Otherwise Unseeable (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) back in May of 2014.  You can see that blog/review here:

House of Sparrows brings together selected poems from five of Betsy Sholl's previous collections, The Red Line (1992), Don't Explain (1997), Late Psalm (2004), Rough Cradle (2009) and Otherwise Unseeable (2014).  Like the only other Betsy Today's book of poetry is familiar with, Betsy Struthers, Sholl has built a formidable practice one huge brick at a time.  Those of you not familiar with the very fine Canadian poet Betsy Struthers need to brush up on your Betsy's.

Sholl's new poems read like testaments that have already stood the tests of time, they read like needed wisdom.  Sholl's poetry hums honest, wicked shrewd, all hammered out of a giant and tender heart that beats a solemn, sad song.  Then Sholl throws in some hope, some redemption.  It is all so human.

Betsy Sholl creates poetry that echoes like music both longed for and cried to.  Betsy Sholl can burn.

Her Story

     Johnson City, Tennessee

What a ruckus - those fricatives inside
that truck, spitting our roadside grit
digging itself in deeper.

Overhead the sky's one eye looks down.
Near full it rose, rusty as the truck's
undersides and dented with shadows.

Below, out of gas, trapped, that truck
hardly looks like it once jumped red lights,
gunned through town, took hairpins

with a squeal. As to the woman inside
pounding the wheel, she just saw her man
of fourteen years take off with somebody

blond and younger. She's got a fifth
on the seat beside her, a pistol,
a box of ammo already emptied out

into every Slow Curve, Falling Rock,
Soft Shoulder she passed downshifting
on the upgrade. Who you think does that?

she'll ask months later, then grin.
But now, inside that bucket of rust,
it's just her hollowed out, a full bottle

of sleep, and the moon overhead
watching, so she points her pistol,
pulls the trigger and laughs, bitter

as the pills she unscrews and scatters
like buckshot across the road.
The she lean back into liquor's drift.

Come morning, an old man will drive up,
peer in, see all that trouble
and hook up chains to haul her out.

He'll give her gas enough to get to town,
tell her, Now you never mind, Honey,
you just go on - and she will.  She will.


When Sholl is in a corner she has no problem employing one of Today's book of poetry's favourite tricks.  She calls on some giant like Theolonious Monk, crawls into one of his recipes until all the pieces fit.  Betsy Sholl does this better than Today's book of poetry (damn her).  When she was writing these poems we doubt she was worried about their influence on Today's book of poetry or anyone else.  But in this small world you can never tell who is listening, taking notes.  Bowing in appreciation.

Betsy Sholl knows the difficulty caused when two things are true at once.  That life isn't black or white or fifty shades of gray.  Our limitless palette is gaudy with riches and yet we struggle to be kind, knowing, coming correct.  House of Sparrows is ironic and serious as a heart attack, the language nuanced, instantly recognizable as a voice that should be listened to.

House of Sparrows

What if every time we saw the word sorrow
we switched it to sparrow?

     For my life is spent with sparrows...
     With drunkenness and sparrows...

Or if it went the other way, the song would be,
     His eye is on the sorrow...


My eye's on the neighbor's eaves,
and the copper-roofed house we put up in our yard,

its many rooms, multiple nests, generations --
as if we brought this clamor on ourselves,

this hurdy-gurdy, rabble, host and quarrel
of sparrows
      mixed with the morning radio


broadcasting a bombed hospital, bodies
under fallen roof tiles, shards of over-voice and wailing,

while outside birds flare up, knock each other off the feeder,
sparrows the color of rubble, of dust and mud,

burnt cars, blown-out windows, of wreckage
they could roost in, the earth a house of sparrows


on Sparrow Street, hunger house, and woe
to the poor who are spared nothing,

who gather at borders to beg and forage, are sold
     two for a penny, five for two cents.

And yet doesn't it say the Lord God
attends -- bends down to count


each one shot, starved, buried in rubble? --
A man of sparrows and acquainted with grief,

who says, when I bow my head,
     Sparrows are better than laughter.

And to the rabble, the wailing, the how, the when,
who says,
     Your sparrows will turn to joy--


Today's book of poetry will be in Ottawa for Christmas this year but we have suspended our annual Christmas Eve festivities for family reasons.  Shortly after Christmas Today's book of poetry and our much better other half will be heading to Montreal.  We are heading to Montreal to gain all the weight we've lost in the last year.  We both love Montreal and will do our best to eat well and find poetry, drink well and find poetry.  You know the drill.  Montreal is one of the finer places on the planet to spent time with the one your love.

House of Sparrows reminds Today's book of poetry of why we started writing these blogs/reviews in the first place.  Sometimes the poetry we get to read is simply too splendid not to be shared.  Betsy Sholl meets that standard.  We'll be scanning bookshelves in Montreal for the rest of Betsy Sholl's titles.

Betsy Sholl

Betsy Sholl is the author of nine poetry collections including Otherwise Unseeable, Rough Cradle, Late Psalm, Don’t Explain, and The Red Line. A former poet laureate of Maine, Sholl teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“Her work brings the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey to mind: its specificity, its engagement with and curiosity for living, even in the bluer stretches.”
—Boston Globe

“Very polished poetry that with careful attention can, in Wordsworth’s phrase, lift us up when fallen.”
—Central Maine

“A quiet, yet powerful journey through nature, memory, regret, and hopefulness. Readers will find themselves returning to its deftly understated voice again and again.”
—Split Rock Review

“This magnificent collection proves yet again why Sholl is one of our truly indispensable writers, whose poems engage what must be addressed if we are to fully encounter, as she writes in her triumphant title poem, ‘the wailing, the how, the when.’ I remain awestruck by her artistry.”
—Sascha Feinstein

“I love Sholl’s unyielding honesty, the great heart and deep intelligence of her vision.”
—Nancy Eimers

“It’s difficult to love the world enough, especially for someone like Sholl, who sees with such searing clarity its cruelty and sorrow. But, like Keats, she dares to, in poem after poem in this masterly collection. And we are all the richer for it.”
—David Jauss


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.
We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Midlife Action Figure - Chris Banks (ECW/A Misfit Book)

Today's book of poetry:
Midlife Action Figure.  Chris Banks.  ECW/A Misfit Book.  Toronto, Ontario.  2019.

Midlife Action Figure by Chris Banks, ECW Press

Chris Banks would have us believe that, as Roethke said, "Poetry is an act of mischief."

Midlife Action Figure is one particular form of mischief.  But Banks has so much more in store for us.  Today's book of poetry has seen this sort of anarchy before.  Anarchy?  Poetry anarchy and beauty.  But rarely, if ever, have we seen a collection where every single poem is a poetry monster.  These bloody epistles are giants.  We mean Coltrane giant, Miles Davis great.

Today's book of poetry has had Chris Banks on the table before.  Back in August of 2017 Today's book of poetry wrote about Banks full length collection, The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (ECW/A Misfit Book), with much excitement and fanfare.  You can see that blog/review here:

Since then Today's book of poetry has been on a bit of a mission.  We have procured the following Chris Banks titles:  Invaders (Anstruther Press, 2015), The Cold Panes of Surfaces (Nightwood Editions, 2006), Winter Cranes (ECW Press, 2011) and of course the brilliant The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory.  Now we need to find a copy of his first book, Bonfires.  Until then Today's book of poetry has considered sending our Today's book of poetry Task Force and Inspection Team to his home to see how he does it.

Dag T. StraumsvΓ₯g does it in Nynorsk, American hero Campbell McGrath does it in volume after volume, and Chris Banks does it from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.  Astounding.  Midlife Action Figure is an imaginary bomb going off in your poetry head.  Ideas come at you so quickly your brain figures it is getting a poetry version those "pop rock" candies that used to go off like sparklers in your mouth.

Reading So-and-So's Selected Poems in a Used Bookstore

I like the jade dragons and the bougainvillea.
The various mistresses of Paul Klee, Gustav Klimt.
Jackson Pollock pissing in a fireplace at a party.
A locomotive hauling away a sibling's death.
Allusions to Pompeii. A Greek philosopher du jour.
A token villanelle. An amusement park.
Roller coasters on fire. What beautiful rhymes!
Afro and gazpacho. Crocus and hocus-pocus.
Syllabics of beauty and despair and truth
hidden in musty stacks. Someone's handwritten
notes in the margins: Love this one! Huzzah!
Haikus solemn as frogs beneath a lily-white moon.
Lyrics a reminder of the shadow's dark roost.
How about this one poem with sledgehammers?
A grand piano overflowing with Blue Morphos?
A Japanese actress who cut off her lover's genitals,
threw them into the sea? The last poem
in the collection will rip your heart out, I swear.
It's about a boy throwing rocks at a seagull,
smashing its wings. The bird hopping broken.
The Gatha of Atonement. It's little prayer.
Human shame like a shipwreck in a bottle.
The poet's photograph is in black and white.
He lives in a French chalet, or as a recluse
on a Greek island, summers when not teaching
freshman about poetry and personal failure.
There is an ivy-league campus in the photo's
background. His crow's feet, grim smile, says
each day, I walk out of my French chalet, or
a white house with a blue door, heading
to the old town, poems gestating, where I buy
my breakfast, a newspaper, thinking about
friends back home. At night, in my dreams,
I put a contract out on this poet's life.


Today's book of poetry has been arguing with the poetry gods and some personal demons this December.  Mr. Banks and Midlife Action Figure pretty much fixes that action for the time being.  Midlife Action Figure raises the bar for everyone in 2020.

Banks makes you laugh, demands you cry and kicks you where the sun shines the least when need be.  He both kisses and kicks ass.  The poems go up one side of you and down the other so quickly you're not sure what is occurring.  Just like a Grade Six Billy Dunlop learned about the wrath within my Grade One sister Sally.  Billy was thumping me senseless for some reason or another and out of the blue my pint-sized sister raccoon-launched herself onto his head.  She jumped down on Billy from above, her legs around his neck and her little hands pulling out amazing large tufts of Billy-hair from every direction at once.  Chris Banks Midlife Action Figure will do that!  Sally whack a Billy Dunlop.

Just like my sister and the infamous Confederate general, who realized his troops were surrounded and uttered "Excellent, attack in all directions," Chris Banks' poems are an onslaught against the senses.

Stolen Matches

Existence is not for the weak. Consciousness
moves like a river beneath sheet ice. I make
going to the grocery store an event. Every meal
when you are single is a sad banquet. So what
if we are incisors, daydreams. Hey Muse, hit me up.
Let's go dancing. The lyric makes its little noise,
something like, out of the darkling sky come
the white stars, little frozen glyphs, or Valkyries
burning in separate Valhallas. No more hand-me-downs.
I have nothing up my sleeve except nerves
forming a small city with dirty cabs. I don't
want to learn the patter, the schtick, of one word
against another. I want the feast. The offal
I leave on a silver dish for gods who
starve this time of year. Choose wisely
amongst the coloured rags. Memorize
traumas.  The after-life is a recital. Hello loss.
Hello exaltation. Have I made you smile yet?
Knowing this poem is a forgery. I traced it by hand
in elegant calligraphic script. Like a dry drunk,
I want more and more of what I cannot have.
Emotions disfigure perception. Open all the doors.
What is the difference? Heave-ho the familiar
and see what takes its place. The scope is cavernous
so take a good flashlight. I follow my thoughts
into a gully where they are playing with stolen matches.
Isn't that always the case? Put away the Play-Doh
when you are done. The school closed down years ago.
Clean up the art tables. I'll lock up after you.


2019 has been a difficult year here in the Today's book of poetry offices. But we've also seen more support and kindness than every before.  Just this past week Sir Christian McPherson replaced our essential office machinery.  Our newish Apple (which we dearly loved) rotted itself senseless and the poet McPherson has given us a rather remarkable replacement.  We are hoping that with some TLC we can drive this new machinery for many happy Today's book of poetry years.  McPherson was the catalyst behind starting Today's book of poetry years ago.  We can't thank Christian enough.

It's getting awfully close to Christmas and that rat bastard Santa must be stocking up on coal.  But if you want to please anyone in your poetry universe you cannot go wrong with Chris Banks' Midlife Action Figure.  Whether you want to be naughty or nice.

Mr. Banks burns like he invented the term.

Midlife Action Figure

My body feels made by Mattel.
There is no lifetime achievement
award for surviving emotional
trauma. Van Gogh cut off an ear,
went about his day. I don't mean
to make light of suffering. My alma
mater tells me by phone they could
be doing better. Can I coat-check
this malaise? Talking to neighbours
feels like treading water. Similes
are passe. I need an electrician to
rewire my mood. Going to parties
when you don't drink is open-heart
surgery without local anesthetic.
I've completed all seven seasons
but my knees are arthritic, and
my chakra is in shambles. I love
how business thinks innovation
is dreamt up in hotel bars and
conference rooms. Being forced
to take the arts package is what kills
creative embryos. My depression
is pure Suzuki method. I'm going
to open a Montessori school
for recovering addicts. Ever seen
a masterpiece wrapped in cellophane?
Go to your local record store,
dig around in the stacks. Maybe
the letter does not arrive on time
so you drink poison, or decide
to take up pole dancing. Either way,
someone's parents end up crying.
Pull the string protruding from my back.
Listen to what I am about to tell you.
There is not much time.


Today's book of poetry is sure you get what we're selling but in case we are not being clear enough: Chris Banks' Midlife Action Figure is full burn feast.  There is no end to the delights Banks' brings to the table.

This is what poetry can be, at it's best.  Absolute and splendid.

Image result for Chris Banks Poet

Chris Banks

Chris Banks is a Canadian poet and author of four previous collections of poems, most recently The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (ECW Press, 2017). His poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event, The Malahat Review and Prism International, among other publications. He lives and writes in Waterloo, Ontario.

Midlife Action Figure delivers surprise, delight, and sense; Banks slams sly one liners as though he were competing in a professional wrestling match . . . The result is breathlessly entertaining and gut-punchingly wise . . . Midlife Action Figure is an insightful tour through the human experience, crafted in clear and specific imagery that captivates the imagination and the intelligence. It is a book that begs to be read and reread.”
      — Quill & Quire Starred Review

“‘The laboratory of aesthetics / these days is really about mischief / and surprise’ writes Chris Banks in this collection of cheeky, pointed dicta on everything from how to survive an emergency to enduring a job interview, amid surreal admissions that the speaker has a ‘minor crush on Saturn's moons’ or possibly suffers a ‘slow leak’ as each year his ‘heart grows an extra ring.’ Midlife Action Figure is a book of solid poems from the centre of existing, through deep space and the places in the mind like ‘Matryoshka dolls’ that endlessly nest into their own allusiveness, returning with a yield of essential observations and imperatives for the continuance of the earth.” 
     — Catherine Owen, award-winning author of Designated Mourner

“The poems are densely thick and incredibly rich, akin, somewhat, to a lyric molasses in which a reader is caught up in an unexpected lyric flow . . . A poetry in which one can't easily pull away from . . . Banks' poems are a kind of lyric collage.” 
      — rob mclennan’s blog

“[A] spirited, wide-ranging collection.”
      — Toronto Star

“‘My spirit guide is a scarecrow’; ‘guilt is everyone’s personal gulag’; ‘can I coat-check this malaise?’; ‘death is classically trained’: Chris Banks builds poems out of short sentences that are like photons, little packets of energy full of aphoristic punch and surprise. He delights in the swings of imagination, in the way every next image or idea can plow new ground even as it alters the meaning and feel of what has preceded it. The result is a constant state of euphoria, an ongoing demonstration of the swerve and swirl of human consciousness. ‘A river is a correspondence course’ — as with so many lines here, my recognition that I’ve never thought of it that way is followed immediately by the sensation that there’s no other way to see it, that I am being shown the truth.” 
     — Bob Hicok, award-winning poet and author of Elegy Owed

“There were a lot of single lines that stood out to me, I found many gems among these short poems . . . Midlife Action Figure is a powerful collection that will evoke many thoughts.” 
    — Literary Lizard blog

Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.
We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.