The Poems of Ellen Bass

ae EllenBass(Irene Young)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,

sunk deep

into that bit of tawny fur.

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