Spring 2014, Volume 16

Poetry by Ellen Bass

Waiting for Rain

Finally, morning. This loneliness
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.
Something she ate? Some freshener

someone spritzed in the air?
They’re trying to kill me, she says,
as though it’s a joke. Lucretius
got me through the night. He told me the world goes on

making and unmaking.  Maybe it’s wrong
to think of better and worse.
There’s no one who can carry my fear
for a child who walks out the door

not knowing what will stop her breath.
The rain they say is coming
sails now over the Pacific in purplish nimbus clouds.
But it isn’t enough. Last year I watched

elephants encircle their young, shuffling
their massive legs without hurry, flaring
their great dusty ears. Once they drank
from the snowmelt of Kilimanjaro.

Now the mountain is bald. Lucretius knows
we’re just atoms combining and recombining:
star dust, flesh, grass. All night
I plastered my body to Janet,

breathing when she breathed. But her skin,
warm as it is, does, after all, keep me out.
How tenuous it all is.
My daughter’s coming home next week.

She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.
When she points it out to the escort
pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy
to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.

At the Padre Hotel in Bakersfield, California

It’s Saturday night and all the heterosexuals
in smart little dresses and sport coats
are streaming into what we didn’t know
was the hottest spot between Las Vegas and L.A.
Janet and I are in jeans and fleece—not a tube of lipstick
or mascara wand between us. Grayheads:
a species easy to identify without a guidebook—
the over-the-hill lesbian couples of the Pacific Northwest.
Janet’s carrying our red-and-white cooler with snacks for the road
across the marble tiles of the Art Deco lobby
when we turn and see the couple
entering through the tall glass doors, slicing
through the crowd like a whetted blade. The butch
is ordinary enough, a stocky white woman
in tailored shirt and slacks, but the confection—
no, the pièce de résistance—whose hand she holds
is of another genus entirely.
Her cinnamon sheen, her gold dress
zipped tighter than the skin of a snake.
And her deep décolletage, exposed enough for open-heart surgery.
She’s a yacht in a sea of rowboats.
An Italian fountain by Bernini.
She’s the Statue of Liberty. The Hubble Telescope
that lets us gaze into the birth of galaxies.
Oh, may they set that hotel room ablaze—here
in this drab land of agribusiness and oil refineries
outdoing Pittsburgh as the top polluted city in the nation—trash it
like rock stars, rip up the 300 thread-count sheets,
free the feathers from the pillows.
And may that grande femme be consumed
right down to the glitter on her sling-back four-inch stilettos
and whatever she’s glued on her magnificent skin
to keep the plunge of that neckline from careening clear off the curve.

The Morning After

You stand at the counter, pouring boiling water
over the French roast, oily perfume rising in smoke.
And when I enter, you don’t look up.
You’re hurrying to pack your lunch, snapping
the lids on little plastic boxes while you call your mother
to tell her you’ll take her to the doctor.
I can’t see a trace of the little slice of heaven
we slipped into last night—a silk kimono
floating satin ponds and copper koi, stars falling
to the water. Didn’t we shoulder
our way through the cleft in the rock of the everyday
and tear up the grass in the pasture of pleasure?
If the soul isn’t a separate vessel
we carry from form to form,
but more like Aristotle’s breath of life—
the work of the body that keeps it whole—
then last night, darling, our souls were busy.
But this morning it’s like you’re wearing a bad wig,
disguised so I won’t recognize you
or maybe so you won’t know yourself
as that animal burned down
to pure desire. I don’t know
how you do it. I want to throw myself
onto the kitchen tile and bare my throat.
I want to slick back my hair
and tap-dance up the wall. I want to do it all
all over again—dive back into that brawl,
that raw and radiant free-for-all.
But you are scribbling a shopping list
because the kids are coming for the weekend
and you’re going to make your special crab cakes
that have ruined me for all other crab cakes


Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the dryer.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter's age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she's a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat—
the one you never really liked—will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you'll lose your keys,
your hair, and your memory. If your daughter
doesn't plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you'll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used-appliance store for a pickup—drug money.
The Buddha tells a story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs halfway down. But there's also a tiger below.
And two mice—one white, one black—scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here's the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you'll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles in a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You'll be lonely.
Oh, taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.




BIO: Ellen Bass's poetry includes Like A Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), which was named a Notable Book by the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002), which won the Lambda Literary Award. She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973). Her work has frequently been published in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Progressive, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Sun and many other journals. Among her awards for poetry are a Pushcart Prize, The Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod/Hardman, the Larry Levis Prize from Missouri Review, and the New Letters Prize. She is co-author of several non-fiction books, including The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988, 2008) which has sold over a million copies and been translated into twelve languages. She is part of the core faculty of the MFA writing program at Pacific University. Ellen's site: www.ellenbass.com/

Ellen Bass's New Book, Like a Beggar, from Copper Canyon Press (March 25, 2014)

"Her words are nostalgic, vivid, and visceral. …Bass arrives at the truth of human carnality rooted in the extraordinary need and promise of the individual. By the end of the collection [Like a Beggar]…it becomes lucidly clear that Bass is not only a poet but also a philosopher and a storyteller." —Booklist

“Ellen Bass’s newest collection of poems shimmers with presence, power and beauty. In it Bass speaks from the deepest places of the heart, clearly, boldly, and with courage and grace. These are poems to be savored and devoured, over and over, for they brim with a wisdom that she clearly earns from the keen authenticity of her life. Like a Beggar is a gift, a blessing, a map, a chronicle, a hymn, and a cry—and most of all a dazzling, masterful work of art.” —Frank Gaspar