Three poems from Indigo by Ellen Bass

The Small Country

Unique, I think, is the Scottish tartle, that hesitation
when introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten

and what could capture cafuné, the Brazilian Portuguese way to say
running your fingers, tenderly, through someone’s hair?

Is there a term in any tongue for choosing to be happy?

And where is speech for the block of ice we pack in the sawdust of our hearts?

What appellation approaches the smell of apricots thickening the air
when you boil jam in early summer?

What words reach the way I touched you last night—
as though I had never known a woman—an explorer,
wholly curious to discover each particular
fold and hollow, without guide,
not even the mirror of my own body.

Last night you told me you liked my eyebrows.
You said you never really noticed them before.
What is the word that fuses this freshness
with the pity of having missed it.

And how even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us,
even in this small country of our bed,
even in this language with only two native speakers.




Because the night I gave birth my husband went blind.
Hysterical, I guess you’d call it.

Because there’d been too many people
and then there was no one. Only

this small creature—her tiny cry
no bigger than a sequin.

Because I’d been pushing too many hours.
Even with her soft skull plates shifting,

the collar of my bones too slender.
When I reached down

I could feel the wet wisps of hair of this being living
inside me, but her heart was weakening.

The midwife told me not to push
on the way to the hospital, but I pushed anyway.

This was California in the seventies and I’d have pushed until I died.
The doctor asked for permission to cut

my perineum. So polite, as though he were requesting
the pleasure of the next dance. Then he slid in forceps

skillfully, not a scratch on her temples.
But we left that haven the same night because my husband

didn’t believe in hospitals, the baby naked,
wrapped only in a blanket because we both believed

in skin to skin. Because the baby cried,
but wouldn’t suck.

Because when I started to stand
I started to faint so I had to crawl

to the sterile diapers and pale-yellow sleeper
folded inside the brown paper bag I’d baked in the oven.

Because I’m still there on my hands and knees,
deflated belly and ripe breasts, huge dark nipples,

tearing open the stapled bag,
fumbling the ducky pins,

two fingers slipped between the baby’s belly
and the thick layers of cotton, the sharp point.

The baby, a stranger,
yet so strangely familiar,

flecks of blood still stuck to her scalp.
Because my husband slept

beside me and I let him sleep.
Because it would be years before I left him.

Now love and grief would be greater
than I ever imagined,

rooted together like north and south,
over and under.

Because I too had been pushed out
into another world

I lay there with the baby whimpering in my arms,
both of us wide awake in the darkness.



Mammogram Call Back with Ultra Sound

So this is what I’m here for, to see inside
the mute weight of my right breast, heavy handful
of treasure I longed for as a girl, crying
behind the curtain in the Guerlaine sisters’ corset shop.
Those tender spinsters could hardly bear
my tears, as they adjusted the straps
on a padded lace bra. I had to wait another year
before my breasts swelled like wind-filled sails
and many were the explorers carried away,
searching for perfumes and spices,
the nerve-laden nipples singing through the wires.
But never has there been a joy like this
as I lay in the pale green cool of radiology.
The lineage of death has swerved around me.
More happy love! More happy, happy love!
As the wand of the ultrasound glides over my flesh,
revealed is a river of light, a bright
undulant tangle of lobules and milk ducts,
harmless and radiant against the black fat.
I could be looking up at the night sky,
this wispy band of brilliance
a shining spur of the Milky Way galaxy,
and I, in my infinitesimal life, will,
at least for tonight, keep these lovely atoms
before I must return them to the stars.


“The Small Country,” “Because,” and “Mammogram Call Back with Ultra Sound” are from Indigo, Copyright © 2020 by Ellen Bass. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.


Ellen Bass’s book, Indigo, was published in April 2020 and is available for order here. Her other books include Like a Beggar, The Human Line, and Mules of Love. Her poems appear frequently in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and many other journals. Among her awards are Fellowships from the NEA, the California Arts Council, three Pushcart Prizes, The Lambda Literary Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize, The Larry Levis Prize, and the New Letters Prize. She coedited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks!, and her nonfiction books include the groundbreaking The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse and Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz, California jails, and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University. Author Photo Credit: Irene Young

Listen to Ellen Bass reading “Because” in The New Yorker here and Tracy K. Smith’s featured “Mammogram Call Back with Ultra Sound” on The Slowdown here.



Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

Today’s selection of poems is from Ellen Bass’s new collection, Indigo, out just this month after much anticipation. For me, this book is an instant classic, one of those I will carry around dog-eared and tattered from so much love. Readers will be captured by the intimate human moments, and poets will gorge themselves on the careful, attentive craft Bass brings to each piece. Bass doesn’t shy away from any topic—sex and desire, existential dread, the illness and recovery of a loved one, ambivalence about past decisions, birth and its complications, and abuse, to name only a few—and her speakers offer real vulnerability and groundedness as they traverse the highs and lows. With a keen sense of humor that acknowledges how even our saddest moments can offer levity, Bass offers comfort and assurance in these poems, always leading us back from the brink of intense emotion with wisdom and care.

I should mention here that I’m not an unbiased reader. When the stars align and my teaching schedule doesn’t conflict, I participate in Bass’s home workshop, a long-running group that meets in her living room each week for lively craft discussions and careful critiques of poems-in-progress. Many participants have been working with Bass for years, and we’ve all come to depend on her friendly support and encouragement coupled with her unsparing drive to keep language sharp, details consistent, and images balanced in our poems. With her healthy snacks, stylish yoga pants, and slippered feet up on an ottoman, Bass projects relaxation. But, she is actually quite rigorous—athletic even—when it comes to critiques, saving her sweet “Yes, but….” for some of her most incisive comments and smiling even as she suggests a poet cut a whole stanza or rework an entire poem. It is the work she demands of us in these sessions that I see exemplified in Indigo, and for every line I marvel at, I know the amount of attention, labor, and craft involved.

I chose these three poems from the new collection to demonstrate what I most appreciate in Bass’s body of work and why I think it resonates so deeply with such a wide range of readers. Although writing from deeply personal experiences—a moment between lovers in bed, the hours before and after giving birth, a mammogram callback—these poems insist on universality at the same time. Whether the gestures are overt or subtle, we can all find ourselves in these moments, and Bass helps us contextualize and understand them. Moreover, her vivid, specific imagery imbues each scene with tangible reality. At the same time, her craft is deft and witty, inviting us into a world of imagination.

“The Small Country” opens in the wide universe, exploring world languages and searching for tangible words to represent intangible feelings and ideas, mostly ones we can all relate to. Who hasn’t forgotten someone’s name during an introduction? How convenient that the Scottish give us a word for that, the poem muses. Then, with vivid sensory detail, it rolls through other sensations and situations that, although familiar, nevertheless elude language, such as “a term…for choosing to be happy” and an “appellation [that] approaches the smell of apricots thickening the air / when you boil jam in early summer.”

These images are surprising, fresh, and identifiable, seeming to spring from the speaker’s personal experience that includes the happiness of making jam along with the tinge of sadness that comes from having to make an effort toward happiness. As I read, I can feel, smell, hear, or picture exactly what the poem describes, notwithstanding the lack of one single word to carry the weight of that description. The aperture of the poem’s focus shrinks suddenly from these more abstract concerns to the much more intimate “way I touched you last night” in a scene between lovers discovering new aspects of one another’s familiar bodies. This experience evokes another phenomenon that doesn’t have a name, the feeling of “freshness / with the pity of having missed it.” There is such a delicious irony in the way the poem is able to describe enough for a reader to understand and maybe even embody the elusive experience even as it ultimately recognizes that touch—and perhaps even language—“cannot mean the same to both of us.” Embracing instead of resolving this ambiguity is the resonance of the poem—it takes good craft to be able to pull all these levers at once.

A more explicit example of Bass’s attention to the formal craft elements of her poems is found in “Because.” Its incantatory repetition, the anaphora of the word “because,” guides us through a tough night of labor, birth, and aftermath. From the beginning, the word “because” posits a cause-and-effect relationship though the “why?”—the question those “because” clauses are answering—is never made explicit. The poem is a long answer to a question we don’t hear but begin to understand based on the details the speaker provides. Perhaps the final lines reveal the underlying question—why is the speaker lying awake all night following the birth “with the baby whimpering in [her] arms”? It could also be, though, that the question is larger and more complex, unanswerable even, and deserving of such a multifaceted response. In any event, this form is a marvelous conceit. It allows the narrative to unfold while also providing context, moving between details of “this being living / inside me” to “This was California in the seventies and I’d have pushed until I died,” a line with four strong beats that is a delight to read aloud. The telescoping focus between the birth and its implications and outcomes adds tension as the poem unfolds, and the speaker’s admission of her own role in her suffering creates empathy and understanding that indeed make the “love and grief…greater, / than I ever imagined.” Emotions run high in this poem, but the repetition of “because” keeps us grounded and far from melodrama or panic even as the situation may warrant those responses.

Today’s final poem, “Mammogram Call Back with Ultra Sound,” takes its name from the functional jargon of a hospital, words written with as much poetry as a prescription or insurance statement. The tension between the sterile medical language and the intense human experience of confronting one’s own “lineage of death” captures the disconnect between an emotionless medical procedure and a patient’s heightened awareness of their own mortality. Rather than spin out into hysteria, the speaker tempers the moment with tender memories of her breasts’ development and the longing for and eventual discovery of all their joys, no match for the joy of being declared healthy. As the speaker watches the ultrasound, Bass strikes a celebratory note in a series of wonderful images, both corporeal and heavenly: “flesh,” “milk ducts,” and “black fat” against the celestial, a “river of light,” “Milky Way galaxy,” and a wondrous group of “lovely atoms.” By raising her physical form and “infinitesimal life” to the level of a constellation, she gives the joy experienced in the “pale green cool of radiology” an appropriate amount of significance—all is right with the universe when she can claim “More happy love!

More happy, happy love!” is the clarion cry I hear through so much of Bass’s work, perhaps especially the poems that touch darkness. Her affirmations of life and love, of the joys of the body and bed, of long marriage and family, come side by side with the descriptions of their difficulties and pains. This fantastic collection will be a welcome gift to poets and non-poets alike, one to be passed around and shared in times of happiness we want to celebrate and in times of darkness, as now, when we need a little comfort.



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