Blue sky, yellow flowers, cool jazz, and Renaissance poetry all inhabit Betsy Sholl’s latest collection of poetry. Grounded in the everyday but never mundane, these poems remind readers of the wonders that surround us. From a child’s drawing tattooed onto the arm of a mechanic to bats under the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, Sholl points to the richness of life.
As the volume carefully and slowly immerses us in the poet’s world, we gradually begin to understand that this is our journey of exploration as much as hers. Where does one find joy in the face of loss? Why does music exist in a world of grief? How long does it take love to overwhelm pain?
Through these powerful poems we learn to see past the unreliability of memory and into the depth of the present.
The child makes you a blue inch at the top of the page,
and it’s still hard for grown-ups to think you come
all the way down to the space between grass blades
—Excerpt from “Dear Sky”
“Attuned as she is to harmony—musical, spiritual, earthly—Sholl weaves seemingly miscellaneous notes into vibrant wholes. She references Dante more than once and it’s apt, for she is very much a pilgrim, someone who conveys the feeling of being in it—the tangle that is a moment, a street scene, a biblical incident—and that is a key to her achievement, her openness to the ways of being. Great compassion marks these poems, that inestimable talent for tracing the ways of kinship, how one occasion graces another.”—Baron Wormser
“Unflinching in their willingness to engage with matters of faith, personal loss, and empathic witness, these poems probe and speculate, articulating rather than resolving their uncertainties. They sweep jazz and religious thought into their ample net, are gracefully informed, never doctrinaire, and leave us lifted by their uniquely devotional spirit.”—Leslie Ullman
“Keenly alert to a world where 'the light that falls is knit with shadow,' Betsy Sholl creates an encompassing vision of nature and spirit, past and present, self and others, music and word. Always 'going griefward' toward the gorgeous elegiac poems of the last section, she offers us difficult but sustaining wisdom. 'Yes, it is hard, but there are gifts'—including these exquisite poems.”—Martha Collins
The bluesy, rich, and vital poems in House of Sparrows look for grace and beauty not outside of the suffering world but within it. Betsy Sholl explores the shifting ironies and contradictions in the stories we tell—how the apple is both medicinal and poison, and how the poor are spiritually rich. Her language mines the landscapes of Appalachia, New England, and the works of Dante and St. Francis, seeking music and moral clarity in the breakages and noisy contradictions of life. By turns meditative and vivid, these poems suggest that all journeys are in part journeys of the spirit.
“House of Sparrows collects poems that conjure the work of Philip Levine, Ruth Stone, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Books. Like those great poets, Sholl interrogates the gravity and grace of living. This terrific collection, full of remarkable soul and language, reminds poets and poetry lovers of her enduring talent and significance.”—Terrance Hayes
“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
Winner of the 2014 Four Lakes Poetry Prize What if ruin is a good thing? What if each day is built on the ruin of the one before? What if all our attempts to avoid ruin only make us bitter or closed off from what’s around us? What if only by exploring our ruins do we become human?
The poems in Otherwise Unseeable examine such questions. It is a poetry full of music and surprise, in voices that are personal, invented, and historical, sometimes belonging to the poet and sometimes to others. Betsy Sholl probes what there is still to learn from the devastations of the twentieth century, and she explores the roots of human envy, greed, and generosity in lively, unexpected ways, enacting the kinds of arguments we have with ourselves: between control and relinquishment, grief and ecstasy, regret and acceptance, faith and skepticism. The end result is a book of verbal wrestling, a girl-Jacob mixing it up with one kind of angel or another, limping for sure, but still blessed.
Winner, Maine Literary Award, Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance
“For a good four decades now, Betsy Sholl has been producing a poetry of stern self-reflection, risky lyrical fluency, and a deeply empathetic social consciousness. With Otherwise Unseeable, she gives us her finest collection thus far, a book which has refined itself into something I can only call wisdom―sometimes rueful, sometimes fierce. This is work in which, as one poem memorably puts it, we must ‘unlatch our wounds and love our ruins.’”―David Wojahn
“Otherwise Unseeable is faithful, as is all Sholl's work, to the contradictions we live with from day to day. These deeply earned, masterful poems take in the full range of human nature, looking unflinchingly at human evil and human suffering, while also acknowledging the ground-note of joy that waits to be heard in our daily lives. Sholl’s poems can be elegiac and mournful; they can riff and fly on the force and spirit of their own language as they chart a path between despair and hope, making seeable what is ‘otherwise unseeable,’ as they give us glimpses of a ‘kingdom’ which is always here and always to come.”―Robert Cording
Late Psalm takes themes from those ancient songs of joy and grief and transposes them into the language of contemporary life.
"Sholl’s descriptive powers are amazing: ‘the flesh of swordfish swirls like wood grain / around a knot’ or ‘A moment of silence at Soup Kitchen / for our saint of the quick grip, faking / a side stitch to hide the bottle under his coat’ . . . such snap and vigor, such rueful itemizings! This book is one dizzying, painful pleasure after another, and I will read it again and again."—Lynne McMahon, author of Sentimental Standards
"Imagine how Dante would have written if he were the daughter of Thelonious Monk and Mother Jones and you might have some idea of what Betsy Sholl’s Late Psalm is like—a jazzy, heartfelt, no-nonsense Divine Comedy with a social conscience."—David Jauss, author of You Are Not Here
"The Red Line would be worth reading for this honesty, an intensity and clarity of vision that can be the same as joy. . . . This is a greatly impressive collection, which recounts pain without pretending it can go away, without claiming there's nothing else." --American Book Review
"With the sad, sweet urgency of a blues harp player, Betsy Sholl illuminates the dark undercurrents of American life. In a world of 'hunger and trembling,' where 'truth's not supposed to be pretty anymore,' her poems are inimitable and indispensable, luminous parables of love and grace." --Ronald Wallace
"Tough-minded and uncompromising, the poems of Betsy Sholl's new collection flare out at the reader like 'little parables of survival.' The Red Line's title poem makes us think of those neighborhoods insurance agents term 'high-risk,' and these are indeed high-risk poems that cross the borders into territory that is socially and spiritually charged. Sholl's richly layered narratives sizzle alternately with tense jazz and sudden lyric swoops of grace, and I mean grace in all its manifold definitions. This book's an arrival to celebrate, a bracing and necessary anodyne in a time marked by too much tamely risk-free verse." ―Lynda Hall