A Valentine’s Day Poetry Sunday: “The Morning After,” by Ellen Bass


The Morning After

You stand at the counter, pouring boiling water
over the French roast, oily perfume rising in smoke.
And when I enter, you don’t look up.
You’re hurrying to pack your lunch, snapping
the lids on little plastic boxes while you call your mother
to tell her you’ll take her to the doctor.
I can’t see a trace of the little slice of heaven
we slipped into last night—a silk kimono
floating satin ponds and copper koi, stars falling
to the water. Didn’t we shoulder
our way through the cleft in the rock of the everyday
and tear up the grass in the pasture of pleasure?
If the soul isn’t a separate vessel
we carry from form to form,
but more like Aristotle’s breath of life—
the work of the body that keeps it whole—
then last night, darling, our souls were busy.
But this morning it’s like you’re wearing a bad wig,
disguised so I won’t recognize you
or maybe so you won’t know yourself
as that animal burned down
to pure desire. I don’t know
how you do it. I want to throw myself
onto the kitchen tile and bare my throat.
I want to slick back my hair
and tap-dance up the wall. I want to do it all
all over again—dive back into that brawl,
that raw and radiant free-for-all.
But you are scribbling a shopping list
because the kids are coming for the weekend
and you’re going to make your special crab cakes
that have ruined me for all other crab cakes


First published in The New Yorker and from Like a Beggar.  Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Bass. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Copper Canyon Press. Author Photo Attribution: Irene Young (color shot) and Alexis Rhone Fancher (black and white shot). Readers can buy Like a Beggar from Copper Canyon, or from indie booksellers.


Ellen_Bass (photo credit to Alexis_Rhone_Fancher)_1-21-16  Ellen Bassbook cover_Like_a_Beggar_1-21-16


Notes on “The Morning After”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

As soon as I came across this poem again a few weeks ago I knew it was what I’d been seeking for the Valentine’s Day 2016 post. Everything anyone could want in a love poem—sensuality, depth, tenderness, appreciation, frank passion, and cleaving—it’s all here in one stanza of 35 free-verse lines in which a speaker addresses her lover with frank and joyous desire. The poem made a big impression on me when I read it in The New Yorker, and I later recalled as one of the best-grown-up love poems-ever (plus something about crab cakes). I say “grown-up,” because although the poem does not say it, we can tell from details like the shared kitchen and expectation of kids coming home for the weekend that this couple has been together for some time. And I say “great” because this poem manages to engage love in all its complexity without sacrificing the body and its pleasures in the process. All five senses are evoked, more times than in the single examples I reference here: the smell of meat being braised; the sound of Tupperware lids snapping shut and in the poem’s usage of assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme; sight in vivid images like the description of the kimono pattern; touch, in that wonderful “shoulder” used as a verb in line 10; and mouth-watering taste, in the afore-mentioned roast and the crab cakes that make the speaker all but swoon at the end.

The poem opens with a vision of the beloved enveloped in “oily perfume” of the roast she is cooking, viewed with intensity and longing by the speaker from across the kitchen. Naturally, it is a “French” roast being braised, one that made me think immediately of the famous boeuf daube in Virginia Woolf’s To the Light House (and the subject of several of my own failed experiments with an inscrutable set of larding needles). Unlike the speaker, the beloved seems focused on nothing beyond the quotidian tasks at hand—dinner, the kids’ lunches, and a phone call to a mother about a pending doctor visit.

For her part, the speaker is enraptured, remembering shared passion of the night before and bemused that she cannot detect even a “trace of that little slice of heaven” in her morning-after lover. And what a heaven it was, starting with “a silk kimono / floating satin ponds and copper koi, stars falling / into the water.” The speaker moves from that rich but static figure into a more muscular and frank sensuality, asking “Didn’t we shoulder” (“shoulder” functioning as a very physical verb and also naming what we presume was beneath the kimono) “our way through the cleft of in the rock of the everyday / and tear up the grass in the pasture of pleasure?” Say that last line out loud and tell me if the terminal plosive of “up” followed by initial, alliterative plosives of “pasture of pleasure” don’t make you gasp a little.

Next Page: How the poem takes us, several times, to the proverbial edge. . . Read More »

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  • B. Lynn Goodwin February 14, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    The narrator’s thoughts resonate with longing, but it’s morning, and practicality rules. Maybe that’s the tension that made the night before so special.

    Writer Advice Managing Editor, http://www.writeradvice.com
    Author of YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers & Author of TALENT

  • Elizabeth February 14, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    French Roast is morning coffee. They are doing a pour-over as part of the morning (after) ritual. And still, the same analysis applies – every sense is envied. It is one of the greatest grown-up live poems of all times. Thanks for choosing it and bringing it to life!

  • Chris Roberts February 14, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    Only the young need write beautifully tortured ballads of lust and lust, leaving out all of the banality of everyday, of crab cakes and shopping lists, desire needs no contrast, yearn time is just that, burn and burn, surround sound down.

    Chris Roberts

  • Alanna February 14, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    I read this twice before reading the commentary below so when I read about ‘the smell of meat’ I had to read it again… twice! For me, this was breakfast and the boiling water was being poured over French roast coffee with its ‘oily perfume’ that I find so wonderful. Also, for me, the lover was not necessarily a woman — I read it twice to see if it worked from the perspective of both a man and a woman and concluded that it could be either. It is a beautiful poem, but oh so sad.