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.
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