JUNE 17, 2020
INDIGO, THE LATEST BOOK of poetry by Ellen Bass, reflects the unique perspective of an unusual poetic life and the complex traumas and pleasures of a thoughtful, observant sensibility. Bass published four books between 1973 and 1980 that you may not have heard of. On the back of I’m Not Your Laughing Daughter (University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), she wrote: “These poems are my search for a chronicle of the truth of my life…” and they read that way, almost like journal entries. Then there was a 20-year gap, intensive study with Dorianne Laux, and the books you may know began to appear, starting with Mules of Love (2002). This is when Bass’ gift for the unique image — humorous, detailed, universal — emerged: “[M]y poems […] are brawny. / Even now I can see them working out at the gym / in their tiny leopard leotards.” And with The Human Line (2007) and Like a Beggar (2014), both from Copper Canyon Press, Bass’s wry, compassionate skill is in full force.
In these books, you find poems like “If You Knew,” from The Human Line, that starts, “What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone?” and ends, “What would people look like / if we could see them as they are, soaked in honey, stung and swollen, / reckless, pinned against time?” In Like a Beggar, the poem “Gate C22” about a reunion at an airport is deeply satisfying, including the lovely image “they kissed lavish / kisses like the ocean in the early morning, / the way it gathers and swells…” “God’s Grief” begins, “Great parent / who must have started out / with such high hopes.” It could be a line from a comedian on the Catskill circuit, but the poem accumulates image after image of a god (or a parent) filled with aching regret:
desperate god, frantic god, whale heart
lost in the shallows, beached
on the sand …
Reading through these three books of poems, the poet’s skill evolves, the images grow more complex as Bass fights against the tendency to wrap each poem up too carefully, to elicit that wonderful “Ahh…” from the audience at a poetry reading. With Indigo, that move toward safety disappears in the passion of the work. These poems display a vibrant imagery and fearless engagement with the messiness of human interaction. They don’t shy away from trauma, from the pain we inflict on each other. Bass’s subjects include parents, children, sex, age, animals, illness, politics, environmental crisis. The poet probes and praises with an authentic and spiritual wonder that reaches out from the page and moves the reader to participate in her experience, an experience that does not necessarily resolve, but lingers in its complexity.
Titles like “Ode to the Pork Chop,” “Taking My Old Dog Out to Pee Before Bed,” “Black Coffee,” and “The Kitchen Counter” firmly locate these poems in a domestic framework, which makes for a deceptive simplicity and accessibility. But below the surface, the craft of the poet is evident in the way these everyday scenes resonate, go deeper, reference the wells of memory, desire, questioning, and regret, “one minute / Louis Armstrong singing / and the next — / some fever or wreck — some impossible mistake.” The poet explores these sometimes contradictory, sometimes uncomfortable turns in a way that seems to unfold naturally, like reflection itself.
The love poems in this volume range from physical delight to grating emotional pain. They display the deep, hard-won physical and emotional bond of two long-time companions. As in her poem, “Marriage”:
… This is not
neat and white and lacy like a wedding […]
This is the shucked meat of love, the alleys and broken
glass of love, the dizzy, hoarse cry, the stubborn hunger.
At the same time, Bass is forthright in her exploration of the pleasure of loving another woman. The sensuality here is visceral:
It made me want to tongue the sweat
of her throat, taste salt
in the dusty crevices.
Yet while the book includes many poems that express unembarrassed delight in the physical body of her wife — the “sheaves of your hips,” “every / flake of bone pressed in” — there are also poems that explore her early heterosexual life, dating, marriage, birth, children. She talks about the yellow hat she wore “promenading the Boardwalk with Tommy Spagnola,” and evokes regret for missed sexual pleasure:
Today I heard a young woman read a poem
in which her husband lifts her bare bottom
onto the kitchen counter
and, in the next line, spreads her legs.
[…] suddenly I am ruing the fact
that no one has lifted my bottom to a kitchen counter.
We’ve seen that sexual longing in previous books, such as “Poem to My Sex at Fifty-One” from Mules of Love, “Ode to Dr. Ladd’s Black Slit Skirt” from The Human Line, and “Nakedness” and “The Morning After” in Like a Beggar. But the sensuality in this volume is more visceral, less tempered by humor. There is no shying away from the physical pleasure of loving another woman but a reveling in its truth:
Sometimes, when she is buried deep
between my thighs, rooted there
as a tree is rooted, digging into
my earth-heart, dirt-heart, heart riddled
with need and decay, breaking
down, breaking the world so
it can bud again …
Sensual imagery is at the heart of this book. Perhaps in contrast to her knowledge of the pain sexuality can cause (Bass led workshops on childhood sexual abuse and has written two nonfiction books on the subject), Bass pays attention to physical detail that enlivens the moment. Gender is less important than delight in the body.
The poems in Indigo move from sensuality to illness to mortality to the natural world. In particular, there are many vivid descriptions of animals in these pages, from the poet’s beloved dog Zeke to racehorses, grizzly bears, lizards, and even larvae. We are animals in a world with other animals, moving together as best we can. Here is Zeke, who appears in several poems:
Zeke tips up his muzzle, scent streaming
through a hundred million olfactory cells
as he reads the illuminated manuscript of night
There is violence in these encounters, too. Life itself demands it, the gopher caught in the shiny green trap, the grizzly who “hunkers / over a bison carcass, slowly ripping free / the shoulder.” Life takes a toll, and the poet enumerates how, but the loving detail Bass lavishes on the living world has its roots in fierce love.
One unforgettable poem arises from Bass’s dedication to her work with the incarcerated, both in state prisons and county jails. In “Bringing Flowers to Salinas State Valley Prison,” the poet brings flowers to a workshop. When told he can’t take the flowers back to his cell, one of the inmates eats them instead:
… a small wind stirred in that windowless room
as we watched Mr. S quietly bite
the heads off the Peruvian lilies,
crushing their pink sepals and the gold
inner petals flecked with maroon, swallowing
the silvery filaments, their dark
pollen-laden anthers, his mouth frothing with blossoms.
This genius for detail shines through Indigo — an iridescent thread that gives pleasure over and over, no matter the subject of the poem. The writer of these poems has lived a full life, so that even simple pleasures are shadowed by complexity and sorrow, brimming with love and trouble. As the poet says, “Oh, I know / it’s a miracle to have a life. Any life at all.” That miracle is on display here, in the kitchen, by the ocean, in childbirth, with old loves. As the poems in the volume progress through her partner’s serious illness and recovery, the poet acknowledges there may be a time when the most loving act is to say enough.
This is made explicit in the stunning title poem, “Indigo,” which inspired the book cover. This title poem uncoils from seeing a young, tattooed father pushing a stroller, and wishing the father of her child “had wanted / to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much / that he marked it up like a book.” The poem goes on to ponder the poet’s own birth, the birth of her daughter, their difficult relationship, and the possibility of her daughter helping to kill her “if I no longer had my mind.”
The construction of this poem, the layering of detail through small jokes (a conversation about dying while shopping for dresses at Ross) and deep regrets (her strained relationship with her daughter) playing off against each other, and the stunning ending display the skills of this poet as she has evolved over time. The poem spirals out a great distance, like the most intricate ink, with nooks and crannies of complex feeling. “Indigo” engages the reader with its willingness to face the contradictions of being a human being head-on. It leaves us not with the “Ahh…” of fulfillment, but with the “Oh!” of recognition.