Ellen Bass, Like a Beggar. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-55659-464-9
The image on the cover of Like a Beggar alludes to wide, curling ribbons, light on the outside, but dark within, as if each one calls the viewer to look more closely inside the outer shell that these shapes create. It is both beautiful in its fluidity and grim in its depths of darkness. And it is entirely appropriate for the collection within, the third collection of poetry from Ellen Bass, currently a teacher in the MFA program at Pacific University. The epigraph from Rilke sets a similar theme of darkness and light:
But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,
How do you bear them, suffer them?
— I praise.
The first poem, “Relax”, is in many ways an exploration of those few lines. It begins, “Bad things are going to happen” and lists a series of disasters: the mundane (someone will throw “your blue cashmere sweater in the dryer”); the inconvenient (“you’ll lose your keys”); to the breaks in relationships and lives (“Your husband will sleep / with a girl your daughter’s age”; “Your parents will die”) (3). This combination of extremes makes the list, and the disasters both humorous and sympathetic: we know that a shrunken sweater can be replaced, but we can easily feel it as devastating. That is our humanness.
“Relax” goes on to tell a story from Buddha, of a woman hanging by a vine on a mountainside, caught between a tiger above and one below, as mice eat away at the vine and death approaches. She notices a strawberry nearby and eats it: “taste how sweet and tart / the red juice is” (4). We will die, bad things will happen, but we can nonetheless savour what the world has to offer, and even more so if we recognise our mortality.
This is, then, a collection about settling into being human, humbly and like a beggar. It explores the struggle and search for honesty and real sight. In “Prayer”, Bass describes herself walking up from a subway in a dress “like vodka”, her lover looking upon her as if she was “an underground spring” and adds
I want to stop wanting to be wanted like that.
I’m tired of the song the rain sings in June,
the chorus of hope, the ravenous green,
the earth, her ornate crown of trees
spiking up from her loamy head.
There are things I wanted, like everyone.
But to this angel of wishes I’ve worshiped
so long, I ask now to admit
the world as it is. (53)
This desire for “the world as it is”, both human and natural, becomes the touchstone of this collection. The poet’s own desire to be wanted as more than she is, is of a piece with the tendency to romanticise nature; looking only at it as transcendent prevents us from seeing it as it really is. And perhaps more profoundly, it is language that can separate us from nature, most specifically here in the use of anthropomorphising metaphor: the song, the ravenous green, the crown, the loamy head. The human attempt to express the wonder and power of our world through the very things that are most intimate to us—our bodies and our desires—is as old as gods and myth, but Bass suggests that what seeks to draw us closer actually pulls us away from truly seeing “as it is”.
Her comment here is not so much about language itself, but a particular kind and use of language. Perhaps too, the issue of language goes both ways—that of metaphor that veils the particularity of being human, and that of figuring the natural world in human terms. So the kind of language we use is important to the kind of seeing we do. Her unflinching gaze at the ordinary things of everyday life is a celebration of what life can be, and shows us that it is possible to see pain and decay, not simply as an abstract observation, but in its particularity and detail, in its intimacy.
Humans are creatures, part of the natural world. As Julia Enszer writes: “Bass recognizes and reflects a vibrant ecosystem, which includes both humans and non-humans in dynamic, continual interaction”.[i] But in so doing, she does not claim a simple kinship with the natural world; there is a pervasive sense of the process of losing, rather than loss, of yearning to feel unity with the natural world that is not always possible. “The World Has Need of You” traces the fluctuations of emotion (“suspended between the sidewalk and twilight”), in response to Rilke’s comment that “everything here / seems to need us” (46). Bass says “I can hardly imagine it”, and yet she seems to glimpse it briefly in the sight of a boy riding by on his bicycle, his white shirt “flaring / behind him like wings” (46). The natural world doesn’t need us, “the ocean doesn’t care” if we do good, and yet it seems that in our sensitive observations of nature, we can participate in the relationship of all things:
when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple. (46)
This is not science as control over the world—after all, “We know too much / and too little” (46)—but the capacity to recognise and appreciate nature. Here, it is not the law of gravity that the apple demonstrates, so much as the reach of the earth, the embrace of all things.
For humans, the contemplation of nature evokes emotion, both affirming and painful. Celebrating the “brilliant band / of icy crystals” that are the rings of Saturn, the poet is aware of its impact on her: “this small, temporary body, / my wrinkled brain in its eggshell skull”, but also her “tunneling blood, breasts that remember / the sting and flush of milk” (“Saturn’s Rings” 5–6). Without pause, the puny and the fragile are of a piece with her body’s capacity to sustain and give life. And just as she stands beneath the stars, recognising their beauty, she sees the “choreography of ruin, the world breaking / like glass under a microscope”: “poles of the earth / turning to slush”, the impact on animals of global warming, their suffering to serve our desires (cows “ankle-deep in excrement”), the conjunction of human despair and glittering technology (“Saturn’s Rings” 5–6). When we look at nature mindfully, nature looks back at us. This is one of the most beautiful and painful qualities of this book, the words of celebration that draw the reader on, and at the same time make one want to look away from what they show. “What Did I Love” tells, moment by moment, the visceral horror and pleasure of killing and processing chickens in words that are confronting in their apt richness, the chickens fully drawn, even in death. Time and hunger stop; Bass loves it all, and then:
I loved the truth. Even in this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world. (32)
Interspersed with these more weighty poems are those of such humour it’s tempting to quote the whole thing. “Ordinary Sex” celebrates the physicality that perhaps most closely reminds us of our creatureliness, and in its ordinary familiarity, without the usual metaphors of transcendence: “If no swan descends”, “if the earth doesn’t tremble”, “if my mother’s crystal / vase doesn’t shatter …” and “leaves of the city trees don’t applaud”, it’s “okay”. Instead, it is “the same old thing” in “the same old way” that offers more:
And then a few kisses, easy, loose,
like the ones we’ve been
kissing for a hundred years. (38)
Another of the sheer delights of the poems is the detailed observation of all of life—from the spiralling stars to her son standing on his chair by the dinner table, “his tiny penis / poised above his plate” (“Nakedness” 11); from the shell stuck to the down of a dead baby bird to her mother’s dying body; from the soil she digs when planting seeds to a baby bat nursed by a friend’s breasts.
This is a collection to read and consider carefully, that reminds us of our responsibility to the world in which we live—not as masters but as fellow creatures. Bass suggests that our contemplation of nature enlarges us, but only when we come aware of ourselves, like a beggar. On the back cover, Marie Howe comments, “The poems know what they contend with; they don’t flinch. Then they sing their joy.” Exactly.
[i] Julia Enszer, http://therumpus.net/2014/09/like-a-beggar-by-ellen-bass/
Robyn Cadwallader is a writer and editor who lives in the country outside Canberra. She has published poems, prize-winning short stories and reviews, a non-fiction book about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages (2008), a poetry collection, i painted unafraid (2010), and an edited collection of essays on asylum seeker policy, We Are Better Than This (2015). Her first novel, The Anchoress (2015), won a Canberra Critics Award and was shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards and the Adelaide Festival Literary Awards.