Wednesday, June 09, 2010

At the Ear: Listening to and Reading Poet Betsy Sholl

"From the Fishouse" is "an audio archive of emerging poets." Although the phrase conjures an image of a sun-warmed turtle slowing extending from its shell to test for safety, poets emerge in varied ways and at multiple speeds. Betsy Sholl, a founding member of Alice James Books, is the author of seven exquisite collections of poetry, each one more compelling than the one before, so I'd hardly call her "emerging" in a casual sense, but since many readers aren't aware of her work, let's say she's appearing now on a wider stage.

And thanks to the Fishouse, we can hear eight of her poems and some interviews at the Fishouse website, I'm hooked on her 2009 volume, ROUGH CRADLE (Alice James Books). There are mellow reflections like the opening poem, "The Sea Itself," which fingers the old wounds of the teen years; and "Sparrow Farming," evocative of that fine old New York haunt, Gotham Book Mart. I like the shifts in form among Sholl's poems, from finely crafted triplet stanzas to longer ones of six lines each, with plenty of embedded alliteration to delight the ear and tongue.

Most of Sholl's poems are personal narratives laced with questions. "Doing Time" (with an explanatory line "Prison poetry workshop") opens with:
They call me "Babe" and make a kissing noise
from inside their bars and inside their rage.
Most of them are men, though they act like boys

who've played too hard and broken all their toys.
Now they're trying to break their metal cage.
They yell out "Babe," make that loud kissing noise

as if their catcalls mean they have a voice
routines and bells can't break.
Separating the pressed petals of mother, stepdad, the  shapes and hauntings of the 20th century, Sholl's fingers invite long moments of contemplation. And when she dips into multiple levels of pain and loss and beauty, as in "Noche Oscura," she tests the premise that the dark night may be sweeter than dawn.

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