#139: HOLA! One of life’s great pleasures is your first encounter with an artist’s voice: maybe that’s why Far from the Madding Crowd is still my favorite Hardy, or The Great Fires still my favorite collection of Jack Gilbert. Ellen Bass’s work has been around since the seventies; The Human Line (Copper Canyon, 2007) is her sixth collection but the first of hers I’ve read. I opened it to read “If You Knew,” was bowled by it, and then started reading first to end, and devoured the poems over two days like a cookie binge. I’m smitten. What sustains the book is Bass’s skill in the middle ranges: the heightening of language in the narrative stretches without exaggeration or cheap flash. She pulls off the difficult feat that still falls most heavily on women poets, the transformation of the domestic: kids with headaches, how you smell after gardening, family stories, birdsong on the patio. Not that she can’t give you one right across the face: “How close does the dragon spume / have to come?” The everyday in Bass’s poems is constantly thrown by a look down the line, with death at the end of it. And she can lift to the cosmic: some of the poems are “At the End of the Cenozoic Era,” “I Was Thinking About Depleted Uranium,” and grieves for those species that are daily slipping away from us: “My longing / for the last six hundred / Iberian lynx with their tufted ears.” The poems written as a gay woman and about sexuality are never self-conscious: they are the natural stuff of her life. Beneath all of this is the satisfying, convincing continuo of Bass’s moral stance and its exhortation, never falling into preachments or hectoring. Note her modesty in ending, not with “God’s Grief” or “Pray for Peace,” the ones that soar, but “Winter Solstice,” her bow to “the inferior bits,” “as though these few hours with the musty / smells wafting up from the carpet, / heat clanking in the pipes… / weren’t irreplaceable.” “Don’t Expect Applause,” one poem warns, but Bass has earned it. Brava.
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