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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.