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.