relax

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Relax
Ellen Bass
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat—
the one you never really liked—will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up—drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice—one white, one black—scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
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 of 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.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

french chocolates

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French Chocolates
Ellen Bass
If you have your health, you have everything
is something that’s said to cheer you up
when you come home early and find your lover
arched over a stranger in a scarlet thong.

Or it could be you lose your job at Happy Nails
because you can’t stop smudging the stars
on those ten teeny American flags.

I don’t begrudge you your extravagant vitality.
May it blossom like a cherry tree. May the petals
of your cardiovascular excellence
and the accordion polka of your lungs
sweeten the mornings of your loneliness.

But for the ill, for you with nerves that fire
like a rusted-out burner on an old barbecue,
with bones brittle as spun sugar,
with a migraine hammering like a blacksmith

in the flaming forge of your skull,
may you be spared from friends who say,
God doesn’t give you more than you can handle
and ask what gifts being sick has brought you.

May they just keep their mouths shut
and give you French chocolates and daffodils
and maybe a small, original Matisse,
say, Open Window, Collioure, so you can look out
at the boats floating on the dappled pink water.

prayer

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Prayer
Ellen Bass
Once I wore a dress liquid as vodka.
My lover watched me ascend
from the subway
like I was an underground spring
breaking through.
I want to stop wanting to be wanted like that.
I’m tired of the song the rain sings in June,
the chorus of hope, the ravenous green,
the earth, her ornate crown of trees
spiking up from her loamy head.
There are things I wanted, like everyone.
But to this angel of wishes I’ve worshipped
so long, I ask now to admit
the world as it is.

ordinary sex

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Ordinary Sex
Ellen Bass
If no swan descends
in a blinding glare of plumage,
drumming the air with deafening wings,
if the earth doesn’t tremble
and rivers don’t tumble uphill,
if my mother’s crystal
vase doesn’t shatter
and no extinct species are sighted anew
and leaves of the city trees don’t applaud
as you zing me to the moon, starry tesserae
cascading down my shoulders,
if we stay right here
on our aging Simmons Beautyrest,
dumped into the sag in the middle,
that’s okay.
You don’t need to strew rose petals
in my bath or set a band of votive candles
flickering around the rim.
You don’t need to invent a thrilling
new position, two dragonflies
mating on the wing. Honey,
you don’t even have to wash up after work.
A little sweat and sunscreen
won’t bother me.
Take off your boots, babe,
swing your thigh over mine. I like it
when you do the same old thing
in the same old way.
And then a few kisses, easy, loose,
like the ones we’ve been
kissing for a hundred years.

“rooting in the rich recesses”

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Soixante-Neuf
Ellen Bass
Yesterday, rooting in the rich recesses,
tending each ridge and furrow,
I thought how like two farmers we were,
digging and planting, each working
our own corner of the field.

a deal made

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Oh Demeter
Ellen Bass

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year after immortal year. How even in the thick
heat of summer, when bees swarm in the broad leaves
and figs swell like aroused women, even then
sorrow coats you like salt,
a white residue on the rich black furrows.

And life will never be the same. Even
when you get her back. Hell leaves its mark.

Your heart, like mine, is shattered, an ancient urn.
I have pieced the shards together,
but much is dust. Even in summer
wind blows through the cracks.

They begged you to allow the corn to grow again.
They write that you were kind
but I think kindness had little to do with it.
You’d done what you could.
People may as well eat.

Photo by Jake Gard on Unsplash

the thing is

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The Thing Is
Ellen Bass
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash