Rung of boredom, rung of daily distress
from morning news, rung of thumbing
aimless through my phone, till landing
in gold leaf and a twelfth-century ladder
of monks on the rise, some falling.
Then on a bigger screen more—
a huddle of others at the icon’s bottom edge,
hands folded in prayer, and at the top
what must be saints leaning to yank a monk up
over the last arduous rung. Outside
the wake-up stun of a blue jay’s shrill,
then from a tree near the feeder, his song
like a punk rocker pulling a flute from his back pocket.
Rung of beautiful bully, scattering sparrows.
Last night after dinner with friends, after hugs,
sweet rung of fellow-feeling, I stepped into
the street’s blue dusk, and there was my old boss.
Horn player hogging the mike
would be him in a band, the one who splits
when it’s time to pack up. But now no title,
no desk, deciding vote, no classroom to set up
with the prettiest girls in front. Small,
sunk into himself. Handed me his card,
said, “Write to me. Send a question
for me to answer. Ask about some trope.”
And so this morning, rung of resentment
mixed with reluctant pity, I saw I could have
done it. I didn’t have to toss the card.
But what would I ask?—of myself, not him.
Not about tropes. Or maybe exactly that:
ladder, rung, rise, fall. The little wobble
from my weight testing the first step,
iffy shift as things settle into place,
then the short climb to prune or pluck.
Do the monks give all that up, one by one,
rung of hunger, of earthly pleasures,
rung of nursing old wounds? Scary
how almost at the top, threshold
of whatever bliss is, even there one falls.
Not much hope for other ladders,
say ambition’s crowded steps, where those below
rush the heels of the ones above
till somebody stomps on fingers, somebody
kicks whoever grabs at their ankles.
So many ways to fall. And to rise—
do these monks with their straight lines
and right angles have the only franchise?
Or does that group bunched up to pray
at the icon’s bottom edge have another way?
And what about this tree jutting out
in every direction, reaching out, rungs splitting
into other rungs, rising, improvising
by crook and bend? And here’s that jay again,
rung of skittish and brash,
spiked-up crest, his many blues, from smoky
to the bright ladder-back of his tail,
the way he flies off, then in the leaves,
that pennywhistle, that flute.
Betsy Sholl’s most recent collection is House of Sparrows: New and Selected Poems (Wisconsin). She teaches in the MFA program of Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Portland, Maine.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.