Poem of the Week | July 30, 2009

This week we’re delighted to feature “Jazz” by Ellen Bass; the poem is published in our current issue TMR 32:2 (2009). Ellen Bass’s poetry books include The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press), named a Notable Book of 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002) which won the Lambda Literary Award. Her poems have been published in The Atlantic Monthly, The Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, and many other journals. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University.

I wrote ‘Jazz’ at the Virginia Center for the Arts, where I spent a month last May with my two dear friends Dorianne Laux and Joe Millar. The three of us give each other assignments, then go off and write, and afterward come back and share our work. ‘Jazz’ emerged from a list that included these words: wave, absent, one-eyed, sparkle, nothing, ripen, kiss, rags, nude, split, vapor. Although these constraints could seem artificial and limiting, they give the conscious mind something to occupy itself while our deeper minds offer up the poems.


Today I’m thinking about this child’s life —
the rags of it, the ragged waves of it, the vaporous
fumes of it, the split tree, stomped out spark,
the one-eyed, peg-legged pirate of it, the over-ripened
kissed to bruises fruit, the exposed
negative, the burned out bulb marquee. And then
I start thinking maybe there’s hope.
Maybe her life could be like jazz
that starts out with a simple melody,
nothing complicated, nothing jittery or twisted,
and then breaks off, kisses it, waves goodbye,
ripens the notes, tears the tune to rags,
strips it, pokes out an eye, burns it,
sends it up in smoky wreaths,
reaches inside and steals the honey,
bees streaming in black ribbons from the hive,
and when it seems as though it’s long gone, ashes and bone,
when it’s strung out, wrung out, blasted
with a wrecking ball, bombed out, concrete dust,
it slides over and spirals up in one high thin note
stretched so far you can’t tell if the ache
is bitter or sweet, it returns
to the melody, rinsed pure and clean of the past,
you almost can’t bear it, the deliverance,
the song come home.