The Tower Journal

Betsy Sholl


And it was commanded them that they should not
hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing…
                                  —Revelation 9.4

Consider the way they shudder in the aftermath
of coal trucks, farm trucks, the fast red car,

the way they sway in the backwind
of passing’s vacuum, bending into the void,

the small rustle of what’s left in the wake,
whatever is said on the edge of our leaving—

chicory, ironweed, aster, thistle, Joe-pye,
poorest of the poor—the way they stand

as if anonymous, knowing themselves
to be the blur passersby barely see,

the way they disappear when winter storms in,
and then come crowding back in spring,

the ground loving them the way it does not
love the golf course with its sleek chemical green—

coreopsis, milkweed, bittersweet, goldenrod,
sumac, wild carrot—

the way they bow to the passing waves
that release their seeds, needing only a little wind

to lift them across the field, a little rain,
a small crack in the hardpan to grow,

to possess the earth, as scripture says
they will, don’t worry.


“My goldfinch…
together we’ll look at the world…”
                     --Osip Mandelstam

The way you sit at the feeder, your head cocked,
beaking a seed, I think of Mandelstam
mumbling, working sounds out of their husks.

And that flash, that song made in flight,
that high-pitched muttering—

How fragile genius is,
anxious, always ready to leap from the sill,
always an eye out for the informer…

Wings black as tilled earth
folded like hands behind your back.

What did he think, little one, reciting
“the ten thick worms of his fingers,” reciting
“scum of chicken-necked bosses”—

Reckless as it was, still better
than whispering in the kitchen, hiding
behind the radio’s storm?

Every spring you bring him back to my yard
as if you’ve memorized the address.

And you call, you call
like a phone still ringing in a house
whose occupants have disappeared…

U.S. Clamps Down On Pianos To Cuba

All over Cuba, tuneful Cuba, ruin plays
itself out in the backfires of big-finned cars,
in rain dripping from overhangs, waves battering

sea walls—as if to ask, how long can this
musical fortress last? How long in green
humid Cuba before those soft-wood pianos,

once sent by comrades in Europe,
turn into rundown termite hotels?
Back in the 1950s, polished grands

filled every Havana ballroom—
gamblers and glitz, movie stars, mafia dons,
martinis, big bands. Where could all that go,

but under? —those bright bandstands crashing
like Bud Powell in Bellevue, who drew
a keyboard on the hospital wall and played

for visitors, asking how they liked the tune,
his ears so fine he could make music
out of plaster, ghost notes passing through

wall and ear bone. But what happens
to an ear when the soundboard warps,
when the ghost notes drag rusted chains?

To get donated Steinways and Baldwins
into Havana, requires cranes, a cargo ship,
then derricks and container trucks,

which aren’t on the dock when the ship arrives.
So the young American who’s risking
arrest to break this sound barrier

worries and phones, paces and waits.
You’d think pianos were state secrets,
the way he’s been tailed by the Feds,

taken in for questioning. They could care less
if a prodigy loses her ear, if her fingers fly
at Bach speed straight into a stuck note’s thunk.

Word comes down like a fist: No pianos to Cuba.
You’d think our skies never fatten on winds
that first clatter in palm leaves, whistling

through Havana’s shutters and wrought iron rails,
that the beat of rain drumming tin buckets
and car roofs can’t pass through walls, syncopate

the street, as under overhangs, citizens
gather with trumpets and guitars, the music
in Cuba swelling—out of sea-pitted brass

and rusted strings, out of potholes, broken
storm drains, music on every corner,
radios still playing when the cars don’t run—

is that possible, radios still playing?—
too much music for anyone to block, the air
heavy with it, and the wind picking up.

Second Line

Blindfolded and gagged, tossed in the back
of a car—it’s how they gather up young men
and after tire irons and chains, leave some

lying in the road like dirt, rained on all night.
Some are bundled-up, tossed off a bridge
into the river whose muddy swirls warn:

kick, fight, breathe, twist your arms free.
Some do. They rise, spit out the rags
stuffed in their mouths, limp back to town,

and one begins to sing—slow at first—Lord,
I want to be in that number...
Another moans
a low muted tone where words won’t go.

And there’s a bridge from verse to verse,
where bodies rise out of thicket and ditch,
out of jail cell, ravine and watery grave,

where gone, invisible hands seem to lift
like drum sticks, and soul sax blood brass
begin to flow, a band improvising

resurrection, until the dead
take to the streets, a spirit insurrection,
dripping river muck and frayed rope—

with crow-pecked eyes, burnt flesh, charred bone,
they rise, every flown soul finding its way
back through troubled air to swell the song.

Vanishing Act

Over the phone we’re already bodiless,
though remember, Love, sound has a source,

and even a kiss made of mist
can touch a cheek and lodge in the mind.

Even a rose made of nothing but words.

It’s not really a choice to be working on this
vanishing act. We hardly achieve form

before it starts going soft, opinions first,
then all those clamoring ambitions.

I can’t help fretting about our next porous
existence, which one of us

will go first, last breath disappearing
in a crowd of molecules,

while the other is left alone
with a closet full of empty clothes.

Still, here on earth, it seems nothing
vanishes completely.

Fire leaves ash, a boat its wake wobbling
against the dock, and once we put our fingers

into the grooves where bullets gouged
the columns of the Dublin post office.

Remember the young gypsy girl who sat
on the curb, her breath already reeking

as she held out that squalling baby
and begged for spare change—

behind her how many curses, evictions,
burning wagons?

Until it’s our turn, what do we really know?

Even despair, Kierkegaard said, is good—
enough to make a man

lift out of its withered case a battered violin,
enough to cause a woman

warming herself under five skirts
to throw back her head and sing.

Frayed strings. Scorched throat of song.

First it vanishes into thin air,
then the air enters us.

What’s Left Of Heaven

I longed to put them down on my canvases,
to get them out of harm’s way.
                                   --Marc Chagall

Not in a museum or book, but in sleep I saw
those paintings, little man in blue pants
afloat over the town, his violin,

playing the screech of crows flying up
after the first shot. Then many more rounds,
and a whole town rises—cow and bridge

and jumbled houses, wagons and goats
and red onion roofs flying apart. First
they fall down, hit hard, then rise back up

into the air, what’s left of heaven. There is
a bride whose two feet don’t quite touch earth,
a horse’s eye—Oh Chagall, the past adrift,

cut up in wedges, the jagged glass become
blue windows into the gone, thenever, the once,
held only by color and lead, longing and sleep.


Your tipsy villages crimson with flames,
where citizens pulled out toilets, church pews
and old sinks to stack up against panzers—

when I was young I thought that was history,
meaning over and done. Still, my dreams filled
with locked boxcars blurring the countryside

into streaks of color, the land through slats,
ghostly Bauhaus barracks with Prussian red
chimneys at the track’s vanishing point,

as if sleep were insisting the gone
is not over, though the once will never return
to women wailing over their dead,

to men on crutches with sock-covered stumps,
and other men with eye patches over
the last thing they saw fly into their faces.


At night when the stars look like fat asters
blowing across the sky, I try not to think
of explosions, gas fires, burning trash,

of old wars whose winners carve up the world
into pieces that rub against each other
until sparks fly and flames erupt

that will scorch us all. Oh Chagall,
good to remind us of cows, hens, the moon
dangling from its rusty hinge, a fiddler

on his green violin, and the bride waiting
in mid air for a man whose white shirt
blooms with dark roses. She drifts, silent,

moth-like over broken stalks, bearing no tools,
but a glass raised to the song that won’t stop,
to the groom who hasn’t yet come, to the world

that’s still undone, its sparks and its young
who can’t imagine that the light they see
comes from everything they love slowly burning.

Copyright © 2014 Betsy Sholl

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2014