If You Knew
by Ellen Bass
In this beautiful poem, Roger Housden speaks of how Ellen Bass couples our sweetness with our stung and swollen selves – echoing Machado’s lines in which he says that the golden bees
were making white combs
And sweet honey
From my old failures.
Both Machado and Bass join our beauty to our wounding, although in this poem by Ellen Bass she addresses our greatest wounding, which is our mortality – the imperfection that no amount of prayer or goodness or psychotherapy will ever do anything to erase. We ‘are pinned against time’. Time is our ultimate demise and yet also our friend. It is our friend when we awaken to the reality that we are not here to stay. When we know this from the inside, the caution that may have colored our days will dissolve like mist over the bay. With nothing to lose, knowing there can be nothing to hold onto, we can fall headlong into life at last – “reckless”, like butterflies still hovering over a flower even as the collector leans forward with his net.
“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 lifeline’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 Thank you, 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?