Ellen Bass’s most recent book of poems, The Human Line, was published by Copper Canyon Press in June 2007. She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973), has published several volumes of poetry, including Mules of Love (BOA, 2002) which won the Lambda Literary Award.
Her poems have appeared in many magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Progressive, The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, 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.
She is also co-author of Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth (HarperCollins 1996) and The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (Harper Collins 1988, 1994), which has sold over a million copies and has been translated into ten languages. She teaches in many beautiful locations and at Pacific University’s Low-Residency MFA Program.
Ode to Dr. Ladd’s Black Slit Skirt
Praise to the little girl whose grandmother taught her to embroider,
slip the tip of the needle through the taut cloth and scallop
fasten the feathers to blue bird wings.
And praise to the student who gulped muddy coffee
and memorized maps of muscles, puzzle of bones,
slid tendons through their shafts, curling and uncurling
each finger of the corpse like a deft puppeteer.
When I got to the ER Janet lay there, the morphine
not strong enough to winch up the pain.
Her arm looked like a carcass where a lion had fed.
Praise Dr. Ladd pulling green scrubs over her head
and gathering her long hair under a cap.
All the days we drove up to Stanford and waited for hours
in the room with the ugly orange carpet
thumbing through tarnished pages of National Geographic,
wondering what Dr. Ladd would be wearing,
until we heard the strike of her high heels on the hallway linoleum,
distinctive as the first notes of Beethoven’s fifth.
Praise her hands that lifted Janet’s hand, her fingertips brushing
over the gnarled scars, flesh lumped like redwood burl.
Praise her for getting up early to outline her eyelids,
slick her lips. And praise to her blouses, the silk creamy
as icing on a cake, the generous buttons open
like windows in summer. And praise
her bracelets coiled gold and her wide leather belts
encircling her waist like two strong hands about to lift her.
Praise to her earrings, little tinkling tambourines
and her perfume that braced us like a dry martini.
But most of all, praise to her slim black skirt
with the slit up the front so that when she sat down
and crossed her legs, the two panels parted like the Red Sea
and we were seized by the curve of her calves,
the faceted shine of her knees sheathed in sheer black mesh,
a riff of diamonds rippling up her thighs.
When You Return
Fallen leaves will climb back into trees.
Shards of the shattered vase will rise
and reassemble on the table.
Plastic raincoats will refold
into their flat envelopes. The egg,
bald yolk and its transparent halo,
slide back in the thin, calcium shell.
Curses will pour back into mouths,
letters un-write themselves, words
siphoned up into the pen. My gray hair
will darken and become the feathers
of a black swan. Bullets will snap
back into their chambers, the powder
tamped tight in brass casings. Borders
will disappear from maps. Rust
revert to oxygen and time. The fire
return to the log, the log to the tree,
the white root curled up
in the un-split seed. Birdsong will fly
into the lark’s lungs, answers
become questions again.
When you return, sweaters will unravel
and wool grow on the sheep.
Rock will go home to mountain, gold
to vein. Wine crushed into the grape,
oil pressed into the olive. Silk reeled in
to the spider’s belly. Night moths
tucked close into cocoons, ink drained
from the indigo tattoo. Diamonds
will be returned to coal, coal
to rotting ferns, rain to clouds, light
to stars sucked back and back
into one timeless point, the way it was
before the world was born,
that fresh, that whole, nothing
broken, nothing torn apart.
Ode to The God of Atheists
The god of atheists won’t burn you at the stake
or pry off your fingernails. Nor will it make you
bow or beg, rake your skin with thorns,
or buy gold leaf and stained-glass windows.
It won’t insist you fast or twist
the shape of your sexual hunger.
There are no wars fought for it, no women stoned for it.
You don’t have to veil your face for it
or bloody your knees.
You don’t have to sing.
The plums that bloom extravagantly,
the dolphins that stitch sky to sea,
each pebble and fern, pond and fish
are yours whether or not you believe.
When fog is ripped away
just as a rust red thumb slides across the moon,
the god of atheists isn’t rewarding you
for waking up in the middle of the night
and shivering barefoot in the field.
This god is not moved by the musk
of incense or bowls of oranges,
the mask brushed with cochineal,
polished rib of the lion.
Eat the macerated leaves
of the sacred plant. Dance
till the stars blur to a spangly river.
Rain, if it comes, will come.
This god loves the virus as much as the child.
Visit Ellen’s website.
Order The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007).
Order Mules of Love (BOA Editions Ltd, 2002).