Poetry | March 01, 2002
Poetry Feature: Ellen Bass
Featuring the Poems:
- And What If I Spoke Of Despair
- Be Still my Heart
- Gate C 22 [This poem was featured as Poem of the Week for 10/2/2008]
- 3 A.M. Feeding
And What If I Spoke of Despair
…perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
And what if I spoke of despair—who doesn’t
feel it? Who doesn’t know the way it seizes,
leaving us limp, deafened by the slosh
of our own blood, rushing
through the narrow, personal
channels of grief. It’s beauty
that brings it on, calls it out from the wings
for one more song. Rain
pooled on a fallen oak leaf, reflecting
the pale cloudy sky, dark canopy
of foliage not yet fallen. Or the red moon
in September, so large you have to pull over
at the top of Bayona and stare, like a photo
of a lover in his uniform, not yet gone;
or your own self, as a child,
on that day your family stayed
at the sea, watching the sun drift down,
lazy as a beach ball, and you fell asleep with sand
in the crack of your smooth behind.
That’s when you can’t deny it. Water. Air.
They’re still here, like a mother’s palms,
sweeping hair off our brow, her scent
swirling around us. But now your own
car is pumping poison, delivering its fair
share of destruction. We’ve created a salmon
with the red, white, and blue shining on one side.
Frog genes spliced into tomatoes—as if
the tomato hasn’t been humiliated enough.
I heard a man argue that genetic
engineering was more dangerous
than a nuclear bomb. Should I be thankful
he was alarmed by one threat, or worried
he’d gotten used to the other? Maybe I can’t
offer you any more than you can offer me—
but what if I stopped on the trail, with shreds
of manzanita bark lying in russet scrolls
and yellow bay leaves, little lanterns
in the dim afternoon, and cradled despair
in my arms, the way I held my own babies
after they’d fallen asleep, when there was no
reason to hold them, only
I didn’t want to put them down.
Be Still My Heart
We were a pair. Me stomping off
on those redwood rounds that shifted
in the winter floods—my Kmart sneakers
and turquoise jacket with holes
in the pockets. Keys, toothbrush, drugs
burrowed in the lining like mice.
And you—standing on the patio in your Birkenstocks
and naturally curly hair, screaming
Don’t leave. I love you.
like you were a movie star and we were
going to wind up together at the end of the reel
with rain streaming down.
Only there was no rain and I wasn’t
your lover. Only a soul that God
had forgotten to attach, slipped off
like a poorly sewn button.
For all my two hundred and eighty pounds,
I had no more substance than a sliver of plastic.
Until I met you. And even then
you’d be sitting there smiling, your mouth
going on. I understood as much
as a frog listening to opera.
Trust was still a foreign country
like names we can’t pronounce til there’s a war.
But when you put your arms around me, I thought
Kill me now, Lord.
I figured you’d be glad to get rid of me—
this charity case who didn’t know
the names of any feminist poets,
who had crooked teeth and the waterlogged
skin that comes from too much white bread and Top Ramen.
I figured you’d be glad your Pygmalion experiment had failed
and you could go back to helping all those thin women
in J. Crew clothes who ate sushi
and floated off on guided meditations.
I never imagined you’d act like that, hollering
so all the neighbors could hear, crying and carrying on
for one more chance. I shook each slice
of tree in its lopsided bed of chips
and stood poised
on the last wobbly redwood round
like an elephant on a stool, or someone on a ledge
thirty stories up above the traffic, balancing.
Then, slowly, I pivoted,
executing the first of many
Gate C 22
At gate C 22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like satin ribbons tying up a gift. And kissing.
Like she’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
she kept saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning
of a calm day at Big Sur, the way it gathers
and swells, taking each rock slowly
in its mouth, sucking it under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching—
the passengers waiting for the delayed flight to San José,
the stewardesses, the pilots, the aproned woman icing
Cinnabons, the guy selling sunglasses. We couldn’t
look away. We could taste the kisses, crushed
in our mouths like the liquid centers of chocolate cordials.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still
opened from giving birth, like your mother
must have looked at you,
no matter what happened after—
if she beat you, or left you, or you’re lonely now—
you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off and someone gazing at you
like you were the first sunrise seen from the earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
each of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse,
little gold hoop earrings, glasses,
all of us, tilting our heads up.
3 A.M. Feeding
Zeke whines softly and nudges
my door. In the wash of moonlight
his black face gleams level with mine,
the large jaw politely closed, the eyes wide open.
His expression never varies, but I know
what he wants. Yesterday he found a nest
of kittens on the side of the road
and though I can’t hear them mewing, he can.
I’m too old for this, I think
as I throw on a robe and heat a cup of milk
in the microwave. My mother’s in the hospital.
I have to fly back East. What am I doing
saving cats the world has too many of anyway?
The scraps of fur are up, trembling
on their skinny legs. It’s all they can do
to hold up the balloons of their heads.
Their eyes are oozing, swollen shut.
Two take the dropper, but the smallest
doesn’t want to eat at all, opens
her mouth only to cry. Her tongue
is the size of a baby’s thumbnail, and almost
as thin. I pry apart the tiny splinter teeth
and squirt a little milk, most of which
leaks back out. Meanwhile
Zeke is in the zone, nabbing
each one as it wobbles, blindly
into his sphere. He’s serene as a massive
star, culling stray bits of matter
as they wander into his gravitational field.
One at a time, he pins them with a tender
paw and sets about their baths
with his huge, dry tongue.
He’s been at it all day, trotting
back and forth, a zealous waiter,
anxious to bring whatever’s required—
another bottle of wine? more coffee? perhaps
the cheesecake or crème brûlée? Like
Nureyev, Mother Teresa, Stephen King,
he’s found what he was born for.
As I top off the last kitten, Zeke
goes at the bottoms of the others, as their mother
would do, urging them to deliver,
licking up the miniature pees and poops.
And when they’re all finally settled
in the great warm arc of his body, he sighs
and lets his eyelids drift down with satisfaction.
I shuffle back to bed with a prayer:
Let me be Zeke. Let me rush
to each moment with his devotion,
eager to lick even the ass of life.
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