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Ellen Bass’ new poetry collection, Like a Beggar, exhibits the compassionate voice and celebratory worldview on display in her previous books The Human Line and the Lambda Literary Award-winning Mules of Love. Yet, Like a Beggar has a stronger focus on narratives than her earlier collections.
Some of the best poems in the book are patiently paced and vibrant with details, like “Women Walking,” which follows the conversation of two women on a stroll. As the characters in the poem discuss growing older, we discover small details about their lives: the speaker worries her partner finds her belly unattractive, and her friend asks, “Wouldn’t it be enough to be just fat or just old and dying?” The poem articulates worries we may have in common with the two women by bringing us into the moment-by-moment movement of their conversation. Bass achieves this by describing both the women’s banter and their walk in beautiful detail:
There’s a wall of sunflowers, each splendid
full-seeded head fringed with yellow flames,
and on the wide lawn ahead the yoga class unfurls supple arms toward the sun.
The aroma of whole-wheat bread baking mixes with the scent of salt and kelp.
Because we experience the walk with the characters, it is easy to empathize with their concerns; we, of course, are part of their dialogue, if only as observers.
All of the poems in the collection are alive with description. “What Did I Love,” which some readers may know from its publication in The New Yorker, revels in the carnage and effort of slaughtering chickens. Bass guides the reader through the process of killing the birds, cleaning their bodies, and packaging the carcasses. Though the subject matter may initially seem grim, the poem succeeds as a meditation on the pleasures of work. Similarly, “Another Story” explores the importance of storytelling as a way to fend off despair by taking joy in small details, like the salad the speaker makes while she tells her mother-in law about the time her partner coddled a baby bat between her breasts after it fell from the chimney.
The book also works in the tradition of Pablo Neruda’s odes (such as his “Ode to My Socks), which use careful observation of mundane objects and events to arrive at greater concepts. Bass employs odes to explore domestic comfort (“Ode to Repetition”), atheism (“Ode to the God of Atheists”), and the beauty of the female body (“Ode to Dr. Ladd’s Black Slit Skirt”), among other topics. These poems tackle imposing ideas by grounding them in the physical world. For example, in “Ode to Boredom,” the poet talks about a vacation in a quiet Italian town during which her family labored to keep occupied:
A farmer poured acorns for pigs
that squealed and snuffled. A shaggy horse
stood in a muddy corral. Once
we watched his bright penis emerge.
We bought clay and a tin of watercolors,
fashioning a miniature sty, painting the pigs hot pink,
rice grains filling their trough. I was bored
for the first time since childhood.
One night we sat in the lobby of the only hotel,
watching cartoons in Italian. How the days opened,
space widening between hours.
Bass has such a clear eye for specifics that she transforms pedestrian topics into individual and lived-in art objects.
What allows the poems in Like a Beggar to endure is that they praise the world in which we live, including its beauty and hardships. As the poet writes in “Relax”:
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles in a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh, taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
The poem acts as an appropriate thesis for the collection as a whole, which digs into the dirt of the everyday. Ellen Bass pays witness to our small but remarkable lives, and that reverence makes her book a success.
Like a Beggar
By Ellen Bass
Copper Canyon Press
Paperback, 9781556594649, 7o pp.