The Outdoor Poet: Ellen Bass

This week's Outdoor Poet, Ellen Bass, moved to Santa Cruz in 1974. She lives on the Westside of Santa Cruz with her partner, Janet Bryer, and their dog Zeke. The two poems that follow originally appeared in Orion Magazine.

Saturn's Rings

Last night I saw the rings of Saturn
for the first time, that brilliant band
of icy crystals and dust. Mirrors
shepherding the light, collecting it
like pollen or manna
or pails of sweet clear water drawn
from the depths of an ancient well.
The gleam poured through my pupils
into this small, temporary body,
my wrinkled brain in its eggshell skull,
my tunneling blood, breasts that remember
the sting and flush of milk.
Saturn, its frozen rings fire-white,
reflecting the sun from a billion miles.
Maybe there's a word in another language
for when distance dissolves into time.
How are we changed when we stand out
under the fat stars of summer,
our pores opening in the night?
The earth from Saturn is a pale blue orb,
smaller than the heart of whoever you love.
You don’t forget the poles of the earth
turning to slush,
you don't forget the turtles
burning in the Gulf.
Burger King at the end of the street
is frying perfectly round patties,
the cows off I-5 stand ankle deep
in excrement. The television
spreads its blue wings over the window
of the house across from mine
where someone's husband pressed a gun
against the ridged roof of his mouth.
This choreography of ruin, the world breaking
like glass under a microscope,
the way it doesn't crack all at once,
but spreads out from the damaged cavities.
Still for a moment it all recedes.
The backyard potatoes swell quietly
buried beneath their canopy of leaves.
The wind rubs its hands through the trees.

Ode to the Fish

Nights, when I can't sleep, I listen to the sea lions
barking from the rocks off the lighthouse.
I look out the black window into the black night
and think about fish stirring the oceans.
Muscular tuna, their lunge and thrash
churning the water, whipping up a squall,
storm of hunger. Herring cruising,
river of silver in the sea, wide as a lit city.
And all the small breaths: pulse
of frilled jellyfish, thrust of squid,
frenzy of krill, transparent skin glowing
green with the glass shells of diatoms.
Billions swarming up the water column each night,
gliding down at dawn. They're the greased motor
that powers the world. Shipping heat
to the Arctic, hauling cold to the tropics,
currents unspooling around the globe.
My room is so still, the bureau lifeless,
and on it, inert, the paraphernalia of humans:
keys, coins, shells that once rocked in the tides—
opalescent abalone, pearl earrings.
Only the clock's sea green numerals
register their little changes. And shadows
the moon casts—fan of maple branches—
tick across the room. But beyond the cliffs
a blue whale sounds and surfaces, cosmic
ladle scooping the icy depths. An artery so wide,
I could swim through into its thousand-pound heart.

Ellen Bass’s books of poetry include Like A Beggar (forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2014), The Human Line, and Mules of Love. She coedited the groundbreaking anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! and her nonfiction includes the The Courage to Heal and Free Your Mind. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The New Republic and The Sun. Among her awards is a Pushcart Prize, Pablo Neruda Prize, Larry Levis Prize from Missouri Review , and New Letters Prize. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University.

The Outdoor Poet is edited by Robert Sward, author of numerous books of poetry including, most recently, New and Selected Poems: 1957-2011 (Red Hen Press). He lives on the Westside with his wife, the artist Gloria Alford, and a poodle mix named Cosette. Participation in The Outdoor Poet is by invitation.

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