Ellen Bass


Don’t Expect Applause
by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line

And yet, wouldn’t it be welcome
at the end of each ordinary day?
The audience could be small,
the theater modest. Folding chairs
in the church basement would do.
Just a short, earnest burst of applause
that you got up that morning
and one way or another,
you made it through the day.

You soaked up in the steaming
shower, drank your Starbucks
in the car, and let the guy with the
Windex wipe your windshield
during the long red light at Broad Street.
Or maybe you were that guy,
not daring to light up
while you stood there because
everyone’s so down on smoking these days.

Or you kissed your wife
as she hurried out the door, even though
you were pretty sure she was
meeting her lover at the Flamingo Motel,
even though you wanted to grab her
by a hank of her sleek hair.

Maybe your son’s in jail,
your daughter’s stopped eating.
And your husband’s still dead
this morning, just like he was
yesterday and the day before that.
And yet you put on your shoes
and take a walk, and when a neighbor
says Good morning, you say Good morning back.

Would a round of applause be amiss?
Even if you weren’t good.
If you yelled at your kid,
poisoned the ants, drank too much
and said that really stupid thing
you promised yourself you wouldn’t say.
Even if you don’t deserve it.

If We Could See Them As They Are

West Second Avenue, October 19, 2010

If You Knew
by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line

What if you knew you'd be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line's crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn't signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won't say Thank you, I don't remember
they're going to die.

A friend told me she'd been with her aunt.
They'd just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt's powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon's spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?


Our Most Basic Imperative

After Our Daughter’s Wedding by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love

Mules of Love While the remnants of cake and half-empty champagne glasses lay on the lawn like sunbathers lingering in the slanting light, we left the house guests and drove to Antonelli's pond. On a log by the bank I sat in my flowered dress and cried. A lone fisherman drifted by, casting his ribbon of light. "Do you feel like you've given her away?" you asked. But no, it was that she made it to here, that she didn't drown in a well or die of pneumonia or take the pills. She wasn't crushed under the mammoth wheels of a semi on highway 17, wasn't found lying in the alley that night after rehearsal when I got the time wrong. It's animal. The egg not eaten by a weasel. Turtles crossing the beach, exposed in the moonlight. And we have so few to start with. And that long gestation— like carrying your soul out in front of you. All those years of feeding and watching. The vulnerable hollow at the back of the neck. Never knowing what could pick them off—a seagull swooping down for a clam. Our most basic imperative: for them to survive. And there's never been a moment we could count on it.

[Thanks Garrison Keillor! More by Ellen Bass.]