Editor’s note: Ellen Bass was recently named the new Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate. Her poetry includes “Like a Beggar” (Copper Canyon, 2014), “The Human Line” (Copper Canyon, 2007), and “Mules of Love” (BOA, 2002), and she coedited “No More Masks!” (Doubleday, 1973), the first major anthology of poetry by women. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, and The Kenyon Review. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University. Visit ellenbass.com.
Ode to Repetition
I like to take the same walk
down the wide expanse of Woodrow to the ocean,
and most days I turn left toward the lighthouse.
The sea is always different. Some days dreamy,
waves hardly waves, just a broad undulation
in no hurry to arrive. Other days the surf’s drunk,
crashing into the cliffs like a car wreck.
And when I get home I like
the same dishes stacked in the same cupboards
and then unstacked and then stacked again.
And the rhododendron, spring after spring,
blossoming its pink ceremony.
I could dwell in the kingdom of Coltrane,
those rivers of breath through his horn,
as he forms each phrase of “Lush Life”
over and over until I die. Once I was afraid
of this, opening the curtains every morning,
only to close them again each night.
You could despair in the fixed town of your own life.
But when I wake up to pee, I’m grateful
the toilet’s in its usual place, the sink with its
gift of water.
I look out at the street, the halos of lampposts
in the fog or the moon rinsing the parked cars.
When I get back in bed I find
the woman who’s been sleeping there
each night for thirty years. Only she’s not
the same, her body more naked
in its aging, its disorder. Though I still
come to her like a beggar. One morning
one of us will rise bewildered
without the other and open the curtains.
There will be the same shaggy redwood
in the neighbor’s yard and the faultless stars
going out one by one into the day.
Even with my good binoculars
it’s a buff-colored smudge in the distance.
A smudge that pivots
so the outline of an ear
becomes visible, briefly,
before it’s consumed into the whole again.
That’s it. And yet
it’s as if the world unbuttoned her dress
and we can’t get enough
of looking. This is happiness—
without the freight of happiness. Only
the machinery of our eyes
working so hard to speed through
the air thick with dust and sun,
through the tall, tangled grasses.
We’re looking through a pinprick
in the universe, bound
to any aperture, no matter how small,
glad to be swallowed completely. Hunger,
thirst, the need to pee
all disappear. We’re focusing
in now, our pupils opening. We’re way past
past regrets, failures, promises,
into that bit of tawny fur.