Reviewed by Chivas Sandage
A psalm is a poem meant to be sung, and Betsy Sholl’s Late Psalm is filled with narrative, rhythmic jazz songs meant to be spoken. The collection’s central metaphors revolve around sound, song, and speech--bird, musician, singer, writer, and speaker are woven throughout. Sholl’s sixth book picks up where her latest, Don’t Explain (1997), left off: its title poem, which appeared next to last, ended, “the music couldn’t keep itself from breaking.” And while the fear of lost song is an underlying tension throughout, the collection is triumphant, embodying song itself.
Sholl’s newest book is darker, braver, recounting deaths without flinching, yet is full of feeling--something she breaks down, note by note, into a score of aural sensation. This poet hears music in everything--the screech as well as the aria. Rising from the pages of Late Psalm, “You’ll hear / engine grind, halyard clank, and fog’s / ghostly horn . . .”; “a sign swinging on one rusty hinge” in a “parched yard / where the clothesline has squealed on its pulleys / all spring”; or a mockingbird’s jazz solo that goes like this:
three simple notes,
then a complicated run, then she squawks
like a crow--back and forth, notes and braided twill,
something else I can’t grasp, punctuated
with that crow blat, as if she’s pushing
a sax so far out she has to flutter back
start over, from the top, voice after voice . . .
Found sound is no greater or lesser than other forms of music such as jazz, opera, gospel, rock, or rhythm and blues. And Sholl writes as if she plays, as if she knows: “It’s a deep groove in the brain, / whether you play on top or behind the beat, / walk the line or break out.” The narrator, maintaining one consistent voice, redefines the nature and sources of sacred song; a Walkman’s dying batteries give birth to a new, slow-motion sound from James Carter’s saxophone: “arriving at / such a viscous tone, it’s as if he played / through viscera, deep throat of God” leaving the speaker “stunned by the belly, the being of song.” The failing cassette player reveals an elemental, inner core of the music that cannot be heard in real time.
The breaking down of things--entropy, illness, death--is an essential subject in Late Psalm; often handled with humor, it is always embraced, made beautiful and true. In “Shore Walk With Monk,” the narrator describes the final moments of a worn-out, “eaten” cassette tape:
a Mobius strip of Monk, Monk billowing
over dune grass and rocks, ringing the car’s
antenna, Monk in hundreds of tiny
accordion pleats I couldn’t undo
no matter how I try, all spiraling out
of their plastic shell, catching the light, pouring
a kind of broken music the maker’s
done with, just slipped out of and left behind.
Developing upon Sholl’s previous book, what is damaged is significant, almost celebrated. We are told “Whatever rises, falls,” and this “law” appears in numerous poems, many of them elegies. While Sholl states, “Maybe music’s a way of weeping,” grief is continually balanced by the speaker’s experience of meaning derived from listening, observing, and feeling. And instead of offering answers, this poet asks questions that begin “Maybe,” “Will we,” “Can we,” “Is this,” “Do they ever,” and “Who isn’t?”
In Late Psalm, sound breaks down in the process of being born into words; turning thought and feeling into sound and sense can prove a trap. In the poem “Impediments,” Sholl writes: “No more stammer and ruse, / quick switch to a safer word, slippery mind / faster than the mouth, so the world’s all translation.” There is tension evoked here, as if there’s a singer inside this narrator who longs to hit her notes with ease “after all those years of throat lock and panic / at the lips, roadblock, detour.” What Sholl does not write: stammering as score! Why not let a word be caught, break down to its syllables and root? Perhaps stammer as jazz would be the ultimate transcendence of:
the enemy within,
that stymied child unable to say a word
without foot stomps and blinks, unable to let
a thought come easy and smooth. So much
feeling coiled inside her, a mouthful of sparks.
Sholl’s use of psalm, the biblical name of the Hebrew book, counters and plays off poems that are irreverent, multifaceted responses to contemporary life, and like their namesake, “range in mood from joyous celebration to solemn hymn and bitter protest” (Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature). The collection begins with a line from Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon all hope . . .” and proceeds to string together, through call and response, arguments that go beyond being simply about or against hope and despair. Sholl inverts our most basic beliefs about what keeps us going--or fails to--when she writes lines like: “lice-ridden prayers, nothing to do with / what you wanted, with sorry or please--“; “I was suicidal, my friend said, / until I got cancer; or “a bird is all instinct and moment, no ambition, / no better and worse driving it to the edge of song.” Sholl ends the book by saying “And maybe our best chance, yet, is to believe / the world’s not empty, not nothing in fine clothes, / but everything, marrow, muscle, skin.” Ultimately, these poems suggest that hope is a kind of endurance born of longing--instinctual as hunger.
The book’s title offers a koan that echoes one of the book’s underlying questions--even if it’s too late for hope, does it matter? Sholl thinks and writes about giving up, ends the first poem of her book asking, “And for what?”--a question the book goes on to grapple with in poem after poem. These late songs suggest that our demise is as natural as our rising, and bears a depth of being--even beauty--with a power of its own. And perhaps, if we can hear the broken music that is around us and within us, the experience of listening is more vital to our lives than survival, or however the song ends.