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In the first poem of her new collection, “Like a Beggar,” Ellen Bass tries to accept what she has spent her whole life avoiding: misfortune.
From the “trivial to the tragic,” including scenes of melting ice cream in your car and your son hawking your refrigerator for drug money, Bass stops fighting what she calls the unavoidable.
“This is a kind of a watershed poem for me,” Bass told Art Beat. “Of course you don’t surrender just once so the poem has become a kind of teaching poem for me. Even though I wrote it, it talks to me and reminds me what I have to keep doing over and over.”
She closes the poem with a Buddhist story about a woman trapped on the side of a cliff. The woman arrived in that precarious position because she climbed down a vine to avoid a tiger that was chasing her, only to find another tiger below. To make matters worse, the woman looks up to find two mice gnawing at the vine that got her there.
The woman is stuck in a predicament, but she notices a wild strawberry growing near her. “She looks up, down, at the mice./Then she eats the strawberry.”
During the seven years that Bass worked on “Like a Beggar,” she was going through a challenging time. As a narrative poet, her first inclination was to write the stories of her difficult experiences, but this time she couldn’t do that. The events concerned other people and she wasn’t able to write about them directly.
“At first that really threw me for a loop — what will I do? How will I be a poet?” said Bass.
“I soon realized that I had to take this as an aesthetic challenge and that it would be good for me, that it would push me to write in ways that weren’t as familiar to me, that it would push me into new poetic territory.”
What Bass found surprised her. She ended up with a lot of odes and realized “the harder the times the more important to praise.” That discovery can be seen in an epigraph from Rilke, which she uses to open the collection:
“But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,/how do you bear them, suffer them?/–I praise.”
One such poem of praise is for repetition, a daily phenomenon that Bass sees as a privilege.
“I don’t think I’m completely alone in loving repetition, but I’m certainly in the minority in our culture. There’s a great premium placed on new, adventure, variety, all of that and again, in my family I get teased a lot about my kind of mule-like inclination for 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,
the friction of air through his horn,
as he forms each syllable 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.
The poem ends in a much darker space than where it starts, an evolution that Bass wasn’t expecting.
“Even people who don’t like repetition, we all want the kind of repetition that allows the people that we love to stay in our lives and not die and we don’t want to die. We want to wake up every morning.” said Bass. “I was validated in my love of repetition. You may think you don’t want repetition, but you really want it too because you don’t want to wake up and find your beloved one gone either.”
The title of the collection comes from one line towards the end of “Ode to Repetition,” where Bass references going to bed with her wife of thirty years, “her body more naked/in its aging, its disorder. Though I still/come to her like a beggar.”
“We are all in some way beggars in this lifetime. We are at the mercy of others and at the mercy of what will happen to us. Of course, we can chose how we respond to it, but we are always praying for something to happen or not happen in one way or another. We come with these empty bowls and there’s a great deal that is given to us … We are all vulnerable to whatever might befall us.”
It’s those vulnerabilities that Bass focuses on in “Relax,” that first poem about misfortune.
“In the poem, I was able to commit myself more to not trying to escape and instead trying to remember in any moment to eat that strawberry.”
“Ode to Repetition” from “Like a Beggar” by Ellen Bass. Published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Used by permission Copper Canyon Press.
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