1 If You Knew by Ellen Bass 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 Thankyou, 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? the dragon’s spume The first person I normally greet in the morning is Diego.Today, I look at him with eyes whose vision has been altered by reading thispoem. Diego is from the Yucatán, but now he makes cappuccino in my local caféin Sausalito. Diego is irrepressibly happy. We shake hands every day as I ordermy cappuccino. He invariably slides it across the counter to me with someexclamation about how beautiful the day is, whatever the weather. Even if Ihave just walked through a blustery wind and a smattering of rain, it seemschurlish to contradict him, and I can only agree, especially when I know howfar he has cycled in the small hours of the morning to get here. Yes, it is abeautiful day. Always. Today, I take in his tiny Mayan frame; his businesslike vigor; hiskind, open gaze, and I feel what this café would be like without him. It wouldbe empty. All the locals are here because of him. Because of his warmth, hiswelcome, his verve. I wonder about the sad stories that hide behind his smile;the journey from his homeland, the family he has left behind, the relatives,perhaps, who never made it across the desert in Arizona. I think of him on hisbicycle at four in the morning, pedaling into the wind all through San Franciscoand over the Golden Gate Bridge while the rest of us are quiet in the sleepingcity. Today, his gesture of sliding the cup over the wooden counter islit for me with an uncommon light—the light that glows around someone as yousense that this gesture, that sentence, that smile, that look in the eyes, isalready disappearing out of this moment into the timeless. Gone; gone forever.And yet a trace remains; not in the memory only, but in the feeling heart. Andin the body, too; because when we see and feel like this, we are moved. Forwhat is illuminated is the reality that, even as it disappears, the mostordinary gesture can convey the truth and beauty of a human life. I feelgrateful for Diego’s courage, his vulnerability to “the dragon’s spume”; awareof his humanity as I am now streaming across the counter to me along with mycoffee. Aware as I am, too, of my own vulnerability, and that of everyoneelse in this café this morning, washed and tumbling along as we all are in theriver of time, on our way to the endless ocean. Because all of us are here onlyfor the time being; vulnerable, intrinsically vulnerable to old age, sickness,and death. Nothing will save us from this, our common fate. However puffed outour chest may be, however booming that voice of ours, however many tallbuildings or stocks we own, we, too, are exquisitely, excruciatingly exposed tothe fact that, sooner or later, our place will be cleared and we will be gone. When we remember this, this poem says, something softens in us. Ourjudgments soften. Our hurry slows down a little, our worries return toproportion. We breathe a little easier. After all, every one of us is in thesame leaky, old boat. Everyone we meet, everyone around us—the wise, thefoolish, the saintly, the murderous—all of us alive today are heading together,in one great fellowship, toward the final waterfall, even as we argue, lash outat each other, care for each other, love each other, regardless of what it iswe do or don’t do. This is why ours is an “exquisite” vulnerability. It is exquisitebecause it is so touching, so life affirming when we see through the shell of aperson to the tender reality beneath. One of the women I pass in the café mostmornings was in the local supermarket the other day. We had sometimes smiled inrecognition, but never spoken. She always seemed busy and brisk to my eye, incharge of her day and what she was doing. When we bumped into each other in thesupermarket I greeted her by saying how colorful she looked in her bright blueshirt. She said her husband had died recently, and it was the first day sincethen that she had felt a little alive. I am so sorry, I said. She burst intotears and clung to my shoulder, sobbing. The wave of her grief washed throughand over me. I had had no idea. I would never have known. She was not in chargeat all. She was just trying to do what she could to get through. It reminded me that all of us are a hair’s breadth away fromdeath—our own or someone else’s—at any moment of the day or night. All of us,whatever we may do to conceal it, are as tender inside as the down on asongbird’s breast.
When a manpulls his wheeled suitcase too slowly through the airport, when the car in front of me doesn’t signal. . . .
This is what Ellen Bass is saying in these lines: that our commonvulnerability is palpable even in those who irritate us. They, too, carry thesame mortal wound, and when we see this, we see their essential humanity. Thenwe, too, will have softened our own shell and remembered for a moment who we are, below theparade of our passing concerns. It is always exquisite, to return to ourselves,to that quivering presence, substantial and unsayable; and know ourselves againas if for the first time. The poems of Ellen Bass are always achingly human, just like thisone, and weave often threads of grief and loss with love and starlight.
Bring meyour pain, love. Spread it out like fine rugs, silk sashes,
she says, in “Basket of Figs.”1 In “The Moon,” she sees it
framed inthe windshield like a small white shell glued to the blue silk of the afternoon.2
This is one of the many wonderful things about a poem: you can poureverything into it, joy and sorrow, the remarkable and the ordinary, and thepoem will use all of it, turning stones into bread along the way. Just as in“If You Knew,” even the man wheeling his suitcase through an airport and eventhe clerk in the pharmacy who won’t say “Thank you” come newly alive for uswhen we remember that they, too, like us, are drifting toward an irrevocablefinality. Bass is affirming that we are most alive when we are aware of theshadow of death that hovers over everything and perhaps especially overourselves. It is our mortality that makes life so precious. She brings this vividly into focus in the following stanza, whichmoves us from the general to the specific. She shares a graphic, startlingimage from her own life:
a young gayman with plum black eyes, joked as he served the coffee, kissed her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
The waiter has an air of spontaneity, and an almost femininebeauty, which is not insignificant to my mind. It suggests an ease withrelatedness, with the warmth of contact, with life itself. He needs only wingsto be a personification of Eros, the joyous, life-giving energy of delight anddesire. And what a blessing he gives her, unknowingly—for he is the last personto touch the aunt, who walks out of the restaurant and drops down dead alongthe street. She was blessed with the touch of life just as she was leaving it.And he, too, was blessed without knowing it, as we are whenever we extend ourhand in kindness or in generosity toward the transient, fragile life ofanother. The last four lines are an accumulation of successively potentimages, ending with one of the most arresting pictures of the human condition Ihave ever encountered:
What wouldpeople look like if we could see them as they are, soaked in honey, stung and swollen, reckless, pinned against time?
Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror, or at your lover or yourparents, and seeing someone “soaked in honey, stung and swollen.” How forgivingyour look would become, the lines in your face softening already in the glow ofthe truth before you. The phrase reminds me of that beautiful image of AntonioMachado’s:
And thegolden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.3
When I first heard Machado’s lines, they broke open my mind to awhole new way of seeing my life. I was in amazement. Imagine the possibilitythat every single turn of events, however dark or disappointing the outcome,can in some circuitous way be the raw material for something that eventuallysurfaces with the sweetness of honey. Machado is saying that your failures cansoften you, render you more permeable to worlds you may never have countenancedif you had always met with success in the world of action. The heart, like thegrape, is prone to delivering its harvest in the same moment that it appears tobe crushed. The beehive in your heart is humming precisely because of thosefailures. Ellen Bass, too, couples our sweetness with our stung and swollenselves. Like the Japanese, who have developed an entire philosophy—wabisabi—...