Flirting with the Mystical
By Dana Wilde
Rough Cradle by Betsy Sholl; Alice James Books, Farmington,
2009; 80 pages, trade paperback, $15.95.
In some parallel literary universe, Simone Weil might have been a
shoo-in for the Top Ten Literary Influences on late postmodern
American poetry. Weil, who had the misfortune of being French
during World War II, wrote an influential little book with the English
title The Iliad, Poem of Force that showed how war objectifies human
beings for the purpose of killing them. She also was a mystic (which
means she showed distinct signs of having come into direct contact
with the divine) and as it happened resisted the war with every moral
and philosophical weapon at her disposal. She died in England in
1943 of illness aggravated by malnutrition because she refused to eat
more than what was being rationed in mainland Europe.
What does this have to do with Maine's poet laureate, Betsy Sholl, in
2009. Well, one of the poems in her new collection Rough Cradle is
addressed to Weil. Another bears an epigraph from the Renaissance
Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, and Sholl has been known to
invoke the medieval Persian mystic Hafiz. So there you have a
mystical interest of some sort.
Given that poetry is words that dance up activity in the intellect,
emotions, morals and sometimes other near-dormant human
faculties, it has a mystical aspect. In the right hands, it can do odd
things to your mind. Expansions, of different kinds. This has been
known, accepted and described in various ways since ancient times.
At this historical moment, we are enduring a literary period which is
fixated on themes of social activism and personal pain. So you might
think that Simone Weil, a legitimate mystic as well as a legitimate
social activist who seemed to have a profound understanding of
personal suffering, would be a heroine of postmodern poetry.
We don't live in that universe, however. Our faith is in politics and
socioeconomics, and mystical sensibilities have in the past 50 or 60
years been all but jettisoned in favor of a severely narrower
description of "reality." Simone Weil, with her meditation on the "Our
Father" prayer, is probably a bit too, well, religious for most of our
socially responsible poets. So in this corner of literary space-time,
Simone Weil is a fringe oddity at best.
Our laureate meanwhile has the standard themes of race, class,
gender, anti-violence and oppressed-childhood deftly covered in
Rough Cradle. But in one view from the fringe, Betsy Sholl appears
nonetheless to be trying to make sense of certain glimpses of religious
feeling, while maintaining a decorous preoccupation with the
thematic demands of the time. In a partial break with convention, she
speaks directly to the mystic in "Gravity and Grace":
. . . your executor was to destroy
all record of your mind -- those notebooks filled
with stark meditations as Hitler railed,
as death camps filled and ghettos burned. Love is
not consolation, you wrote, it is light
All the bases are covered in these lines, and they exemplify the
themes and language of Rough Cradle. Other poems invoke other
standard postwar demons such as Stalin and screaming racists, and
angels such as Osip Mandelstam, who wrote poetry which got him
on Stalin's bad side.
The language of Rough Cradle is conventionally cool, calm, collected
and exceptionally sophisticated throughout the book. It speaks
skillfully to the rational intellect, which is the faculty we have all been
schooled, for better or worse, to use in reading poetry, in picking each
other's brains, and in bemoaning the state of the world. Sholl's poetry
is definitely conveying exactly what it is expected to convey, and
maybe a little more. Possibly. It's possible.
Rough Cradle is available from www.alicejamesbooks.org.
This review first appeared in the Bangor Daily News, Oct. 5, 2009.