Poetry by Ellen Bass

Any Common Desolation

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.



Morning

                        after Gwendolyn Brooks

The morning of her death she
woke fierce, some dormant force revived,
insistent. For the last time
I sat my mother up, shifted the loose mass
of her body to lean against me. Her dried-up
legs dangled next to mine, triumphs
of will, all the mornings she forced
herself to spritz cheap perfume,
hoist each pendulous breast into
its halter, place the straps in the old
ruts. We were alone, petals
falling from bouquets crowded
around us. I pulled
some pillows behind me when I couldn’t
hold her any longer
and we rested there, the
body of my mother slumped
against my breast, the slow droop
of green stalks in their vases.
Her long-exhaled breaths
kept coming against her
resolve.  And in the exquisite
pauses in between
I could feel her settle—
the way an infant
grows heavier and heavier
in your arms
as it falls asleep.



Ode to Zeke

O breathing drum, O cask of dark
waters, O decaying star, my
barking heart, my breaking brother,
what will seep into the space
your body leaves? O huge
eighteen-muscled ears, oscillating
ossicles and cochlea, your busy canals
now hollow caves of quiet. I have said
your fur is black, but you are
silvered, rimed with frost.
You are the new moon.
You are light in the dark house.
How long will I see your shadow?
O heavy hunk of existence, O great flank
I have rested my head upon
when I was too weak for human touch.
Sleek leading man, you debonair dog,
how people on the avenue stopped to swoon.
O splaying legs once faster than rabbits,
canines slashing flesh. Urgent thug,
unstoppable thrust. O happy snapping
at the wind. What do you remember
now that you are mud slide, glacier
melting, cliff collapsing into the sea?
I have memorized your milky breath,
your ballet leaps and whirly-gigging.
Your princely patience, as the children
dressed you—Soccer Zeke
in jersey and shorts, one paw on the ball.
Snorkel Zeke with mask and fins.
Bar Mitzvah Zeke in a yarmulke
and my father’s silk tallit. O my text
of decrepitude, my usher to death,
companion of ten thousand years,
I’ll fry you a fish. I’ll sit by your bowl.
Eat from my hand. I have nowhere to go.



Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness

I didn’t know that when my mother died, her grave
would be dug in my body. And when I weaken,
she is here, dressing behind the closet door,
hooking up her long-line cotton bra,
then sliding the cups around to the front,
leaning over and harnessing each heavy breast,
setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders,
reins for the journey. She’s slicking her lips with
Fire and Ice. She’s shoveling the car out of the snow.
How many pints of Four Roses did she slide
into exactly-sized brown bags? How many cases
of Pabst Blue Ribbon did she sling onto the counter?
All the crumpled bills, steeped in the smells
of the lives who’d handled them—their sweat,
their body heat, cheap cologne, onions and
grease, lumber and bleach—she opened
her palm and smoothed each one. Then
stacked them up precisely, restoring order.
And at ten, after the change fund was counted,
the doors locked, she uncinched the girth, unbuckled
the bridle. Cooked Cream of Wheat for my father,
mixed a milkshake with Hershey’s syrup for me,
and poured herself a single highball,
placed on a pink or yellow paper napkin.
But this morning I think of a scene I never
witnessed, though she told me the story years later.
She’d left my father in the hospital—this time
they didn’t know if he’d pull through—
and driving the hour back to the store, stopped
in a diner and ordered coffee.
She sat in the booth, silently crying
and sipping the hot black coffee,
and the waitress, she told me, never said a word,
just kept refilling her cup.



The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.



When You Return

Fallen leaves will climb back into trees.
Shards of the shattered vase will rise
and reassemble on the table.
Plastic raincoats will refold
into their flat envelopes. The egg,
bald yolk and its transparent halo,
slide back in the thin, calcium shell.
Curses will pour back into mouths,
letters unwrite themselves, words
siphoned up into the pen. My gray hair
will darken and become the feathers
of a black swan. Bullets will snap
back into their chambers, the powder
tamped tight in brass casings. Borders
will disappear from maps. Rust
revert to oxygen and time. The fire
return to the log, the log to the tree,
the white root curled up
in the unsplit seed. Birdsong will fly
into the lark's lungs, answers
become questions again.
When you return, sweaters will unravel
and wool grow on the sheep.
Rock will go home to mountain, gold
to vein. Wine crushed into the grape,
oil pressed into the olive. Silk reeled in
to the spider's belly. Night moths
tucked close into cocoons, ink drained
from the indigo tattoo. Diamonds
will be returned to coal, coal
to rotting ferns, rain to clouds, light
to stars sucked back and back
into one timeless point, the way it was
before the world was born,
that fresh, that whole, nothing
broken, nothing torn apart.


Ellen Bass's most recent book is Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014). She co-edited the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women and her non-fiction books include The Courage to Heal and Free Your Mind. Her poetry frequently appears in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, and many other journals. Among her awards are Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, three Pushcart Prizes, and The Lambda Literary Award. She teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University and is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. www.ellenbass.com