Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass
Copper Canyon Press, 2014
Paperback, 86pp., $16.00
Review by Carol Smallwood
The epigraph is by Rainer Maria Rilke: “But those dark, deadly, devastating ways, how do you bear them, suffer them? ---I praise.” It applies to the poems.
The new collection that I was waiting for since The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), collection opens with the poem, “Relax” listing bad things that will most likely happen to you but ends with the lines:
Oh, taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
The 46 poems are not separated into parts like her last collection; the charcoal and oil cover art is also by Carolyn Watts and Copper Canyon Press again is the publisher.
Her strength as a poet in my view is her fearless look and acceptance as in “Morning” on the topic about her mother’s death:
Here long-exhaled breaths
kept coming against her
resolve. And in the exquisite
pauses in between
I could feel her settle—
the way an infant
grows heavier and heavier
in your arms
as it falls asleep.
Her very readable poems are mostly in a narrative style based on common events and places such as “Women Walking” but this commonality is wide as in “Another Story” that includes the television program NOVA and the size of the universe, Marlon Brando, red fingernails, and baby bats. “Pleasantville, New Jersey, 1955” includes an unlikely mix of T-shirts, A&P parking lots, deliverymen, a pack of Camels, Allen’s Shoe Store, tweed skirts, and ends with it all being “…at the center of our tiny solar system flung out on the edge of a minor arm, a spur of one spiraling galaxy, drenched in the light.”
Quite a few poems deal with aging but “Ode to Invisibility” concludes “It’s a grand time of life” and the element of sex is a often mentioned. While the immensity of the rings of Saturn and the Hubble Telescope are topics, so are the smallness of flies and wasps.
Bass describes the praise that a poet has for the onion in “Reading Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion”: “When he praises the onion, nothing else exists. like nothing else exists in the center of the onion. Like nothing else exists when you fall in love.”
My favorite is “When You Return” that begins:
Fallen leaves with climb back into trees.
Shards of the shattered vase will rise
and reassemble on the table.
Plastic raincoats will refold
into their flat envelopes.
Bass poems impact one depending on awareness at the time of reading. That is true of course of all poetry and writing but with Bass poems, you will see layers you didn’t catch before with other readings and they have a solid dissection of humanity. What looks effortless, requires much expertise to write, to make it universal. She also has the ability to surprise with such descriptions as high heels on linoleum “distinctive as the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth” and I am already looking forward to her next collection.
About Ellen Bass:
Ellen Bass’s most recent book of poetry, Like a Beggar, was published in April 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Her previous books include The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press), named a Notable Book by the San Francisco Chronicle and Mules of Love (BOA Editions) which won the Lambda Literary Award. She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday).
Her poems have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Sun. She was awarded the Elliston Book Award for Poetry from the University of Cincinnati, Nimrod/Hardman’s Pablo Neruda Prize, The Missouri Review’s Larry Levis Award, the Greensboro Poetry Prize, the New Letters Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Poetry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and a Fellowship from the California Arts Council.
About Carol Smallwood:
Carol Smallwood’s over four dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences is a 2014 collection from Lamar University Press; Divining the Prime Meridian, is forthcoming from WordTech Editions.