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

One way this poem achieves its remarkable effect is by taking us, several times, right to the proverbial edge and then delaying release. The line I just cited is doused by line 13-16’s metaphorical cold shower of philosophy, juxtaposing Aristotle’s “breath of life” and an If/Then syllogism against the heated “work of the body.” Just when the water threatens to get too cold, the speaker swings back with the wry “then last night, darling, our souls were busy,” tempered immediately by another observation about the beloved’s aloofness. She looks, the speaker says, like she is “wearing a bad wig,” nothing like the night before: “that animal burned down / to pure desire.” OMG, as my daughters might once have said before their parents’ generation started using the expression. OMG.

After another nod to her lover’s imperturbability (“I don’t know / how you do it”) the speaker lets rip six lines (22-8) that express all she joyously feels. Here is the poem’s climax, the tension ratcheted up by the parallel syntax of three short declarations of “I want” and by the concentration of sound repetition in the rich internal and only instance of end rhyme (know/how, I/myself, throw/throat, slickback/back, bare/hair, wall/all/all/brawl) and ending with that unforgettable “raw and radiant free-for-all.” The lines that follow are tender aftermath, the lover (apparently unaware of all the heat just generated from a source other than her stovetop) “still scribbling a shopping list.” But it’s a list for “the kids coming for the weekend,” kids who could be the speaker’s or the lover’s and in fact seem to belong to both. And it includes ingredients for “your special crab cakes / that have ruined me for all other crab cakes/ forever.” Those crab cakes are just another way to say “I’ll love you always,” a declaration that goes both ways (in the making and in the appreciating), suffused with all the tender wit, intimacy, and authenticity that Valentine cards aspire to but rarely do express.

We should all be so lucky as to have lovers who look at us this way, even if they cannot write about it as wonderfully. If you’re stumped about what to do about Valentine’s Day, try printing this poem out and giving it the person you’re thinking about. Or, try making crab cakes. That’s my plan. For starters, anyway.


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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.



More from our Valentine’s Day Series

The Power of Young Love

8210336869_bab7e4a4cd_zBy Judie Rae
Richard’s math class was the hour before mine; we shared the same room as well as the same instructor. One Valentine’s Day I found a note in my locker directing me to look out the window of the math class, where I would find my Valentine gift.

An October Valentine

6877886245_3a0e1f2a15_zBy Sylvia Metzler
I always suspected that Fred’s father thought we were too young and too serious, since we had made plans to marry and depart for Africa as missionaries as soon as we grew up.

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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.