Ellen Bass: INDIGO

Oh, my. I have been a fan of Ellen Bass for decades. And now this gorgeous, gob-smacking book. Ellen Bass’s Indigo (Copper Canyon, 2020), makes me want to take the mewling newborn sheaf of poems I’m calling a manuscript and dump them in the shredder. I’ll just start over.

She has a poem for that feeling—in the title poem, “Indigo”: “I can’t stop wishing” she writes, “I want,” “I want”:

I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here. 

In this book, there’s a poem for every feeling you can imagine: despair, lust, fear, envy, love. Maybe it’s that Indigo offers a bouquet of the seven deadly sins, starting with gluttony (I’m thinking of “Sous-Chef,” the first poem, but a few pages later we get “Ode to the Pork Chop”: “the hiss and spit is / a lullaby that’s soothed Homo sapiens / since the discovery of fire”). It’s a cornucopia of delights, one of which is sex.

Except when she dishes up sheer terror: the illness of a spouse, the deaths of parents, the Holocaust.

So I don’t know what else I can do but share a poem. Having spent an inordinate amount of time these past several years writing about my mother, I’m choosing this one. My mom never worked in a liquor store, didn’t have a chronically ill husband, didn’t drink alcohol. But she did have me, memorizing her every move (taking sips of her coffee), taking notes as though I’d need them to become a woman.

Black Coffee

I didn’t know that when my mother died, her grave
would be dug in my body. And when I weaken,
she is here, dressing behind the closet door,
hooking up her long-line cotton bra,
then sliding the cups around to the front,
leaning over and harnessing each heavy breast,
setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders,
reins for the journey. She’s slicking her lips with
Fire & Ice. She’s shoveling the car out of the snow.
How many pints of Four Roses did she slide
into exactly sized brown bags? How many cases
of Pabst Blue Ribbon did she sling onto the counter?
All the crumpled bills, steeped in the smells
of the lives who’d handled them—their sweat,
onions and grease, lumber and bleach—she opened
her palm and smoothed each one. Then
stacked them precisely, restoring order.
And at ten, after the change fund was counted,
the doors locked, she uncinched the girth, unbuckled
the bridle. She cooked Cream of Wheat for my father,
mixed a milkshake with Hershey’s syrup for me,
and poured herself a single highball,
placed on a yellow paper napkin.
Years later, when I needed the nightly
highball too, she gave me this story.
She’d left my father in the hospital—
this time they didn’t know if he’d live,
but she had to get back to the store. Halfway,
she stopped at a diner and ordered coffee.
She sat at the booth with her coat still on,
crying, silently, just the tears rolling down,
and the waitress never said a word,
just kept refilling her cup.

—Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass is a rockstar, “a living legend,” in the words of Jericho Brown. Though I didn’t include her whole lineup of books, if you’re not already tuned in, you can find more about Ellen at her website here, or here.

Digging Deeper

On Friday I drove with a couple of friends to Tieton, near Yakima, Washington, to attend Litfuse: a Poets’ Workshop. While there, I took classes from Samuel Green, Elizabeth Austen, and Ellen Bass — and others — and every class had time built in for opening a notebook and writing. I came home Sunday afternoon, with my head spinning.

Sunday was the blood moon, of course, and having spent the weekend with poets, there was no way I was going to

Lit Explosive Fuse Crackling and Sparking

miss it, no matter how exhausted I was. My youngest daughter refused to go with me. My other daughter still living at home was at work. My husband said, If you find it, sure, give me a call.

I was not going to miss it. I took the dog with me and drove, searching for a place without trees obscuring the eastern horizon. Not easy where we live. I drove down to the Sound, but that didn’t work at all (even though quite a number of people had gathered there). Finally, over the airfield, there it was! Very faint, low to the horizon, not all that big, but definitely in eclipse, pinkish-red. Lovely. I pulled the car over and Pabu and I got out to watch. One other car pulled up: everyone leapt out of the car, a woman took a picture with her cell phone, and they all leapt back into the car and drove away. I called my husband and told him to bring the binoculars. We stood in the parking lot of QFC, near a Jack in the Box, leaning on our car, and watched for an hour. We talked about where we are likely to be in 2033 when this particular combination of Blood Moon and Eclipse take place again. Older daughter got off work and joined us. Husband went home. I watched until the moon was back to its usual, brilliant self. High in the sky and easily visible from our house. No searching required. My 16-year-old’s sort of boyfriend showed up (Do you want to go look at the moon?) and they disappeared into the night.

“Be the sort of person on whom nothing is lost,” Henry James advised a young writer. Sherman Alexie, speaking at Seattle Arts and Lectures this past year, said something on the order of, You can make a poem out of anything — it’s what happens, and what you think about what happened (and then he read a poem about doing laundry).

I remember once being told that you can’t write poems about the moon — it’s been done too often. But at Litfuse, when Ellen Bass brought up how love poems are a little overdone, she then added, But of course we’re going to write love poems! We just have to write really good ones. Elizabeth Austen called it digging deeper.

In my reading this morning, I came across this quote, from novelist Jonathan Franzen: “With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, you’re going to have to dig even farther, or else, again it won’t be worth writing. And what that means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself.”

For every poem. There is a poem in this material for me about the frustrations of having a 16-year-old daughter, about my husband indulging me even when he thinks I’m cracked, about being a poet, about seeing what we’re given to see. Here I am, shovel in hand…

Ellen Bass, “The World Has Need of You”

My introduction to poet Ellen Bass was courtesy of Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, Nov. 19, 2008, when he read “After Our Daughter’s Wedding.” It was a poem I loved so much I printed out copies of it and gave it to friends. I love how deceptively simple her poems are, how they feel almost like a woman sitting down beside you and telling you how her day went. And then, there’s always the surprising image that makes your own imagination leap.

Here’s a poem from her new collection, Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon, 2014). (Click on the title to go to the PBS Newshour review.)


everything here
seems to need us

Rainer Maria Rilke

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple as well.