Like a Beggar
Once years and years ago I had the fortune to take a class with Stephen Spender. Yes, I'm bragging, but listen.
After all that semester, two hours, once a week, three-and-a-half months, I can now admit to you that I only recall three things from our time together.
Imagine: me and thirty-five other MA candidates crowded in the same room with a famous poet who, it turned out, was quite a charmer, and raconteur. All fifteen classes, and I am but left with three nuggets.
The first was that this quite tall, quite imposing poet had the smallest, most wan, palest hands I had ever seen on anyone who was, well, quite imposing in all other ways.
The second was his two loves: the Edwardian poets . . . and the continent, Italy most of all. He said that when you let yourself into that peninsula, the language came to you like poetry. On the trains, he told us, there was a sign under the windows, a plaque that said Non sporgersi dal finestrino. But when he pronounced it, it was not a command; it was pure music.
Finally, the last, when discussing Ezra Pound and his Cantos (he knew Ezra Pound!), he said that his main problem with them was that the poet managed to squeeze everything into them. No filters. Everything: even, he said, the morning mail.
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Well, if you were overly critical, I suppose you could say the same of Ellen Bass. No no, not the hands (I've never seen her hands). Italy? When she lived there she was bored silly. In "Ode to Boredom," she writes, "the rose-washed light of Southern Italy,/the month of December stretched out before us/like rows of olive trees."
No, I mean that thing about the morning mail. Bass seems to have no fears at all of putting everything and anything in the forty-six poems to be found here in Like a Beggar. Even the morning mail. Because, I tell you, she will turn even that into music.
Like she does here with bats, flies, fish, ex-husbands, wasps under the microscope, going about naked, slaughtering chickens, growing up in New Jersey, dealing with Miss America contests, all along cutting deeply into her soul, rich with subtle oddments, showing all of us everything, the secrets that the rest of us try to keep safely hidden until we are safely in the grave.
She even manages to show, with her faultless poetic muse, affection for things that might topple the rest of us into despair: noisy streets, getting fat, liquor stores, coming down with migraines, getting old, "frilled jellyfish," the diapers of our dying parents, doctors dressed in high heels, chicken shit, people who smoke, and onions --- at least, Pablo Neruda's onions.
But I claim that this Bass is no pollyanna. She doesn't mind showing us what drives her to despair. Like the snow disappearing from Kilimanjaro, sea lions night after night "barking from the rocks," people killing people in Gaza, and those tedious folk who --- in their religious passion --- are willing to "burn you at the stake/or pry off your fingernails." Oh yes: and the damn birds, "singing like crazy in the morning."
Whistling and chirping, warbling, squawking,
claiming their territory, mine, mine, mine,
and calling for sex, pouring themselves,
into the blue bowl of morning.
In my lights, a poet who is worth her salt should not sprinkle poetry around like a precious seed but dump it everywhere. Because all the world is poetry, and because good poetry is the world.
All parts of a poem must sing. The wasp with that breathless wasp waist, "shocking/how anything that slender/could conduct the business of life." Or a beautiful woman in Bakersfield:
Her cinnamon sheen, her gold dress
zipped tighter than the skin of a snake.
And her deep décolletage, exposed enough for open-heart surgery.
She's a yacht in a sea of rowboats.
An Italian fountain by Bernine.
She's the Statue of Liberty. The Hubble Telescope
that lets us gaze into the birth of galaxies.
And I'm thinking: this Bass --- the gall of her. To compare a lovely woman to a yacht? A fountain by some 17th Century sculptor? The Statue of Liberty, even. You gotta be kidding! The Hubble? Get real!
But it is real. Why? Because it works. It is a sly overreach which turns out to be not in any way out of bounds.
All these ridiculous parallels work in a lopsided way, in the same funny way that Donne can call the sun "a fool," or Marvell would suggest that his love's "coyness" would be no crime "if we had world enough and time." Or Lord Byron who can solemnly tell us that today we can have love and "mirth and laughter," and "sermons and soda water the day after. "
For the great thing that Bass offers us is this self-same "mirth" --- despite all the darkness that life can offer --- as long as we face the day with passion,
I want to throw myself
on the kitchen tile and bare my throat.
I want to slick back my hair
and tap-dance up the wall I want to do it all
all over again --- dive back into that brawl,
that raw and radiant free-for-all.
I guarantee you, if you let yourself into Like a Beggar and don't come out aching for joy, wanting to "tap-dance up the wall" . . . if you go into this collection and don't find yourself filled with some light and life, then, god knows, you must be one of those nail-pullers who really believes, I mean believes, that neither you (nor I, nor her) can be an ancient fountain. Or the Hubble telescope.
Or the Statue of Liberty.--- L. W. Milam