Like a Beggar Ellen Bass

2 posts

We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident…Once You Read Them

One of the most famous lines in Thomas Jefferson’s start-the-presses Declaration of Independence is “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

OK, let’s not get political and note any ironies about what follows (“…that all men are created equal”) because you know and I know that inequality is as big in the Age of Trump as it was in the Age of TJ (a slaveowner himself).

Instead, let’s consider the role of truth in poetry. Truths are as important to good poets as they are to enlightened philosophers. If a reader reads your poem and has an aha moment that goes something like this: “Yes! I recognize that truth, and I loved the new way you uncovered it!” then you are onto something. Something we call the essence of good poetry (like gold cobbled from mongrel minerals, a rarity that will delight more than alchemists).

I just finished reading Ellen Bass’s collection, Like a Beggar. It includes a batch of Pablo Neruda-like odes, which are a lot more fun that Ancient Greek-like odes. Here’s an example of a “little truth” that Bass uncovers in her own creative way.

It’s called “Ode to Invisibility,” and it touches on the way older people become more and more “invisible” in a youth-worshiping world because… because what do they matter, anyhow?

If you’re older, you can read it and say, “Aha, I recognize this feeling!” and if you’re younger, you can read it and say, “Oh, yeah. Old people? I think I’ve noticed a few in the past two years….”


Ode to Invisibility
by Ellen Bass

O loveliness. O lucky beauty.
I wanted it and I couldn’t bear it.
When I was a girl, before self-serve gas,
as the attendant leaned over my windshield,
I didn’t know where to look.
I could feel his damp rag rubbing the glass
between us. Or walking from the subway,
even in my work boots and woolen babushka,
all those slouched men plastered to the brick walls
around the South End of Boston—
I could feel them quicken, their mouths
opening like baby birds. I was too beautiful.
and never beautiful enough.
Ironing my frizzy hair on the kitchen table.
All the dark and bright creams to sculpt my cheekbones,
musk dotted on my hot pulses,
and that pink angora bikini that itched like desire
as I laid myself down under the gold of a key we didn’t yet fear.
Hello, my pretty. Your ankles were elegant,
your breasts such splendor
men were blinded by their solar flare.
These days, I’m more like my dog,
who doesn’t peruse himself in the mirror,
doesn’t notice the gray at his temples, though I think
it makes him look a little like Cary Grant in Charade.
I can trot along the shallow surf of Delray Beach
in my mother-in-law’s oversize swimsuit,
metallic bronze and stretched-out so it bulges like ginger root.
On one side, that raucous ocean surging and plunging,
on the other, the bathers gleaming with lotions and oils.
I can be a friend to them all, even the magnificent young,
their bodies fluid as the curl of a wave.
I can wander up to any gilded boy, touch
his gaudy biceps, lean in confidentially. I’m invisible
as a star at noon, a grain of clear sand.
It’s a grand time of life: not so close to the end
that I can’t walk for miles along the pulpy shore,
and not so far away that I can’t bear
the splendid ugliness of this disguise.



The poem turns nicely on the line “These days, I’m more like my dog” and really gets down to the self-evident (but hard to express) truth with the line “I’m invisible / as a star at noon, a grain of clear sand.”

The good news? For women who once had to endure wolf whistles from men on city streets, invisibility is a blessing. But also a harbinger.

Just thank god that you can still walk miles along the pulpy shore, Ellen tells us. It’s a consolation, and consolation, they say, was the penultimate thing out of Pandora’s box.

Random Thoughts: July Edition

  • Summer vacation giveth and summer vacation taketh away. Yes, there is more time for reading, which is why you carried that extra piece of luggage to paradise, but there are also more family and friends buzzing about, sometimes visitors for a day (or two) and sometimes visitors for a week (or two).
  • Company and reading are like oil and water, taxes and savings, Trump and intelligence. Mismatches all around.
  • I am presently reading a book called Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale. I get comments from people who see me reading it or see it lying around. “Light reading, I see,” they say sarcastically. Or, “Great beach read you have there!”
  • I guess I’m a future corpse and they’re not. Which is the book’s point entirely. Or one of them.
  • I’ve been looking at markets for poetry and reacquainting myself with the forgotten fact that many poetry markets are centered at colleges and universities. In other words, the reading periods there are closed until (surprise!) September.
  • And really, do we have to say “September” at a time like this (read: July)?
  • The Fourth of July is behind us and, as is the new trend, private fireworks (now legal in this state, for instance) continued all the way till midnight or thereabouts. I wrote a prose poem about this last year. It’s a bit sarcastic. Tongue in cheek, maybe.
  • But I love my country as much as the next guy! Especially when it’s quiet.
  • (Both the country and the next guy, I mean.)
  • Because I often get new ideas for new poems and especially specific lines for new poems, I’m trying to carry a little notebook about (and if you’re thinking “Use your cellphone, fool,” recall that I don’t own one). Trouble is, the notebook in my pocket seems to work like kryptonite against new ideas. Remember the notebook, and my mind goes blankety-blank. Forget it, and the Muses begin warming up in the orchestra pit (with smirks on their nine faces).
  • It’s 63 degrees Fahrenheit this morning with a forecast for the high 70s today. No need for air conditioning. This is why Maine was invented, thank Odin. It is the antidote to air conditioning.
  • As my poetry book (to go with my prose book), I’m reading Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass. I like her stuff. A lot. And the great thing about the poetry world is how huge it is, and how often you can discover a “new-to-you” poet who you like. A lot.
  • Thank you, Ellen.
  • Usually I pick out one classic I’ve never read to tackle over the summer. This year, though, I’m going biography (also tome-like in size). I have one on Grant (U.S.) and one on Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da). How’s that for variety? But I can only pick one. We’ll see if I’m in an American or Florentine mood come August.
  • PBS is having a nationwide reading group and now asking everyone to vote from a list of 100 books. It’s a hilarious mix of genres and styles, from 100-page YA books to Moby-Dick and Don Quixote (two books, it so happens, that I have read on past “must-read-a-classic” summers). To what purpose, this vote? To show how inclusive PBS is?
  • Everyone has classics they have never read and insist they must before they become a future corpse. For me, the biggest “must finish” is James Joyce’s Ulysses. If Hemingway can do it, so can I. (So there, Ernie.)
  • And then there are classics we just don’t give a damn about reading. Ever. No matter how much other readers crow about them. For me this includes anything by Virginia Wolff, Henry James, William Faulkner, and many, many Victorian novelists (whose books, in fairness, I will consider as doorstops on windy days).
  • Oh, if only readers (and non-) would purchase my books as doorstops! (Um, screen doors only, please. Or maybe mouse-hole doors, considering how light they are — the mouse doors, not my books.)
  • Meaning: the subject matter of my poems is not “light” like this blog entry. Oh, no. Some poems even muse about death. Which implies future corpses. Again.
  • What was it Ben Franklin once said? Ah, yes. “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except future corpses and taxes.”
  • Other sure things in life (missed by Ben)? People willing to take your picture if you ask them to while out and about in public. In my case, it’s my wife’s phone. Because my wife cares about pictures (it’s in the job description under “wife,” I think). And everyone, it seems, loves to play Good Samaritan with a camera So quick. So easy. So kind.
  • Ask any writer who submits regularly. Checking Submittable for updates is like watching grass grow.
  • I wish it were like watching weeds grow. Results would come much faster.
  • Keep summer reading, friends! And summer writing! And staying un-corpselike!