About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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—around the value of imperfection, she joins our beauty to our wounding.The “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Hamlet puts it, can serve tounveil the inherent sweetness of our essential nature. And our greatest wounding, the imperfection that no amount ofprayer or goodness or psychotherapy will ever do anything to erase, is that weare “pinned against time.” Time is both our friend and our ultimate demise. Itis our friend when we awaken to the reality that this life will not always be so. When we know this from the inside, the caution that mayhave colored our days will dissolve like mist over the bay. With nothing tolose, knowing there can be nothing to hold on to, we can fall headlong into life at last;“reckless,” like butterflies still hovering over a flower even as the collectorleans forward with his net. Far from being a tragedy, there is something poignantly wondrousabout our mortal predicament. Czeslaw Milosz, in his poem, “Encounter,”captures it beautifully:
O my love,where are they, where are they going The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.4
I wish only that I might live out my days like this, “in wonder.” 2 LOVE SONNET XCIV by Pablo Neruda If I die, survive me with such sheer force that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold, from south to south lift your indelible eyes, from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth. I don’t want your laughter or your steps to waver, I don’t want my heritage of joy to die. Don’t call up my person. I am absent. Live in my absence as if in a house. Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air. Absence is a house so transparent that I, lifeless, will see you, living, and if you suffer, my love, I will die again. if i die There is a power, a force in this poem that runs like ariver down from the first line to the last and that carries over the love ofone person to another even beyond the frontiers of death. If someone is readingyou this poem as lover to beloved, take in the words as a message from yourlover’s heart to yours, Neruda’s sonnet being the bird that sings to you. Evenif you are alone, you can say this poem out loud to yourself, and know thatyour life can continue through the life and presence of others who will surviveyou.
If I die, survive me with suchsheer force that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold, . . .
“Survive me with such sheer force,” Neruda urges his beloved, thateven the dead are shaken awake. It is a tidal wave of living that he is callingfor; nothing less will serve. No mere living on in memory of what was, nodrifting through the days trying to pick up the pieces of a life shattered bythe death of a beloved. In these first few lines I almost wonder if what Nerudawants is his revenge on Death itself. He certainly wants his love to bedeathless, to continue on through the sheer vigor and vitality of the way hisbeloved lives her life after he has gone. There is more than a tinge ofdefiance here—he even says “If I die,” rather than “When I die,” which would bethe more accurate phrase, and which reminds me of those famous lines of DylanThomas:
Do not go gentle into that goodnight, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.1
Yet where Neruda departs from Thomas is in the loving melody thatwhispers here beneath the surface of the defiance. Neruda cares so deeply forthe one he expects to leave behind that he offers this poem to her as a strongwind in her sails while she continues on her voyage through life. This is whatI can hear, a siren call ringing all the way through from beginning to end: hislove for her is so great, so passionate, so unstoppable that he wants to pour itinto her so that she may live large enough for both of them when he is gone. Later, looking down on her with the empty gaze of the dead, hewould not have been disappointed. The lover who Neruda addresses in this poemwas the Chilean singer Matilde Urrutia. His OneHundred Love Sonnets, which includes this one, was published in1960, when Neruda was in his fifties. It was dedicated to Matilde, with whom hehad a clandestine relationship for the last eight years of his marriage to theArgentinian painter Delia del Carril, who was twenty years his senior.