There is a lot of walking in Ellen Bass’s new collection Like a Beggar. In “Ode to Repetition,” Bass confides,
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 (15).
She remembers her father telling her that when he was a boy “to get home he had to pass / through the forbidden territory” (34) and, in her own childhood, “walking from the subway, even in my work boots and woolen babushka” (36). The motion of this collection is pedestrian, the steady pace of footsteps. I imagine Bass composing, practicing, refining the long lines of Like a Beggar while walking.
While a meandering pace sets the rhythm, the controlling form is the ode. Many odes in Like a Beggar nod to Wordsworth, but this collection is not a meditation on the pastoral. It is not bucolic. Consider the titles. Bass slyly introduces the ode in an early poem titled “Reading Neruda’s ‘Ode to the Onion’.” Wordsworth concerns himself with immortality, duty, piety, and grief; Neruda praises the onion, grown in dirt, for making us “cry without” hurt. Bass’s eight odes in this collection combine the concerns of Wordsworth and Neruda with her own obsessions. Her odes are titled Ode to – the Heart, Invisibility, Boredom, the Fish, the God of Atheists, Dr. Ladd’s Black Slit Skirt, the First Peach. Combining big issues—big ideas—with the mundane—with small objects from our daily lives, Bass’s poems alchemize their own immortal meditations.
In “Women Walking,” Bass and “Dorianne” [poet Dorianne Laux] walk together “back and forth / up the back entrance road, past the parked cars to the compost pile / where we turn around and start back again” (21). The two are walking together, not necessarily toward something, but around the grounds, even walking in circles. Like the poem, the two walk, circling around the heart of the matter.
“Women Walking” is about women, fat and old and facing death. As Dorianne observes in the poem, “Wouldn’t it be enough to be just fat or just old or dying?” Perhaps it would be enough, but the walk continues. Bass observes, “We’re passing through the garden now” (21). As in life, this poem is about what is said and what is not said. Bass observes, “There are so many things to feel bad about, just in our two families alone, / but we don’t talk about them now.” Now they walk, they “reassure each other” beneath the fast sky with “not a star visible” and fog “so thick we can barely see the tops of the cypress” (22). The walk continues, a slow circle, until the two part ways.
Bass’s deftness as a poet is breathtaking in Like a Beggar. By which I mean: I am left breathless reading these poems and witnessing her control of the line. Then, I am equally awed by my own breathlessness, which Bass, of course, has elicited artfully through her control. Reading each poem I feel as though I have been walking up and down the hills of Esalen with her. Like a Beggar, sings with the clarity of a single voice alone in a large concert hall and with the gravitas of a full chorus in the finale of a sold out opera. These poems are large in their ambitions and precise in their observations.
And there is a lot of sex. Not just the lesbian sex that I usually like and praise in poetry, though certainly it is there. In “Ordinary Sex” Bass confides, “Honey, / you don’t even have to wash up after work. / A little sweat and sunscreen / won’t bother me.” The poem concludes with the easy swagger of long-time lovers:
Take off your boots, babe,
swing your thigh over mine. I like it
when you do the same old thing
in the same old way.
And then a few kisses, easy, loose,
like the ones we’ve been
kissing for a hundred years.
Lesbian sex with a long-time partner, yes, that is part of the sexiness of these poems, but Bass writes about heterosexual sex as well. (I guess heterosexual people have sex, too; I’ve heard tell of it, but I, personally, have no proof.) In the opening litany of “bad things” happening, she writes, “Your husband will sleep / with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling / out of her blouse,” (3) and even the birds, “whistling and chirping, warbling, squawking” are “calling for sex” (33).
These are carnal poems. “Nakedness” begins,
The first time I saw my boyfriend’s penis,
I thought the shaft would be covered with hair,
like the grassy knoll of my own sex (10).
Nakedness in this poem is multifaceted in the manner that Bass insists on understanding things. We have the joy of seeing children and lovers naked and the startling images of naked wives in Saran Wrap or the Torah lifted from the ark, “its silver crown and breastplate, velvet cloak and robe” removed, and the sad images of a mother dying, “a baby bird fallen from its nest” (10). In Bass’s hands, nakedness and sex open to humanity and our messy, conflictive, uneasy relationships with it. “Nakedness” ends with the poet addressing someone whose daughter works as a pole dancer “while men hold their naked hunger in their naked / palms to escape their naked pain.” But the addressee “cannot stop / thinking about her naked toes the first time you / / took her to the sea.” Ah, the sea! And the naked toes! Bass returns us to nature, to our feet, to the motion of walking.
Bass turns to nature not as Merwin or Oliver turn to nature—with a sense of awe and reverence; rather, Bass observes the natural world through its presence in the lives of humans, through interactions between nature and people. In “Ode to the Fish,” she opens, “nights when I can’t sleep, I listen to the sea lions / barking from the rocks off the lighthouse.” So begins a meditation on fish filling the anxious space of insomnia. The sea lions are present in this moment of silent reverie, of almost despair. For Bass, the dynamism of the poem often arises through an observation of what else is present in the natural world, simultaneously deflecting and animating the emotion of the speaker.
Bass recognizes and reflects a vibrant ecosystem, which includes both humans and non-humans in dynamic, continual interaction. In “Saturn’s Rings,” she wonders,
How are we changed when we stand out
under the fat stars of summer,
our pores opening in the night? (5)
She answers: we are changed by seeing nature. But Bass reminds us that this transformation is not purely positive; it is not a moment of unadulterated hope. Bass requires her readers to hold continuously the awfulness of the world: “the poles of the earth / turning to slush,” “the turtles / burning in the gulf,” “someone’s husband pressed a gun / against the ridged room of his mouth” (5).
This ability to contain wonder and despair, life and death, beauty and destruction, always with intention and mindfulness is, perhaps, Bass’s greatest gift as a poet. This skill is on full display in “What Did I Love” where Bass confides what she loves about killing chickens. This is a grisly poem. She describes
Slitting a fissure
reaching into the chamber,
freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard,
the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts,
easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gallbladder,
its bitter bile (31-32).
Not only does Bass refuse to look away from this gruesome scene, she directs our eye to it and dwells in it with us. After a litany of killing chickens, the poem concludes
I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water (32).
Bass’s accord is with the living, but the remnants of the dead—“the stain blossoming through the water,” the “many things to feel bad about,” the burning turtles—are just a glance away. Bass’s art is the simultaneous renderings of this polarity. Like a Beggar is a well of discovery, rewarding readers with steady rhythms, sexy stories, lush images and rich insights.