“And What If I Spoke of Despair” by Ellen Bass

And what if I spoke of despair—who doesn’t
feel it? Who doesn’t know the way it seizes,
leaving us limp, deafened by the slosh
of our own blood, rushing
through the narrow, personal
channels of grief. It’s beauty
that brings it on, calls it out from the wings
for one more song. Rain
pooled on a fallen oak leaf, reflecting
the pale cloudy sky, dark canopy
of foliage not yet fallen. Or the red moon
in September, so large you have to pull over
at the top of Bayona and stare, like a photo
of a lover in his uniform, not yet gone;
or your own self, as a child,
on that day your family stayed
at the sea, watching the sun drift down,
lazy as a beach ball, and you fell asleep with sand
in the crack of your smooth behind.
That’s when you can’t deny it. Water. Air.
They’re still here, like a mother’s palms,
sweeping hair off our brow, her scent
swirling around us. But now your own
car is pumping poison, delivering its fair
share of destruction. We’ve created a salmon
with the red, white, and blue shining on one side.
Frog genes spliced into tomatoes—as if
the tomato hasn’t been humiliated enough.
I heard a man argue that genetic
engineering was more dangerous
than a nuclear bomb. Should I be thankful
he was alarmed by one threat, or worried
he’d gotten used to the other? Maybe I can’t
offer you any more than you can offer me—
but what if I stopped on the trail, with shreds
of manzanita bark lying in russet scrolls
and yellow bay leaves, little lanterns
in the dim afternoon, and cradled despair
in my arms, the way I held my own babies
after they’d fallen asleep, when there was no
reason to hold them, only
I didn’t want to put them down.


Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love, via EllenBass.com


8 thoughts on ““And What If I Spoke of Despair” by Ellen Bass

  1. Oh, despair…so terrible, so blessed, so, so beautiful. Like her last lines: …”the way I held my own babies after they’d fallen asleep, when there was no reason to hold them, only
    I didn’t want to put them down.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Will Grimes

    Reading this Bass poem, it’s hard not to think of Jane Kenyon’s poem, ‘Happiness’. I particularly like Kenyon’s inclusion of the boulder, the rain, and the wineglass at the end of her poem.

    There’s just no accounting for happiness,
    or the way it turns up like a prodigal
    who comes back to the dust at your feet
    having squandered a fortune far away.

    And how can you not forgive?
    You make a feast in honor of what
    was lost, and take from its place the finest
    garment, which you saved for an occasion
    you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
    to know that you were not abandoned,
    that happiness saved its most extreme form
    for you alone.

    No, happiness is the uncle you never
    knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
    onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
    into town, and inquires at every door
    until he finds you asleep midafternoon
    as you so often are during the unmerciful
    hours of your despair.

    It comes to the monk in his cell.
    It comes to the woman sweeping the street
    with a birch broom, to the child
    whose mother has passed out from drink.
    It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
    a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
    and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
    in the night.
    It even comes to the boulder
    in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
    to rain falling on the open sea,
    to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They go very well together, don’t they? I shared Ms. Kenyon’s poem just about a year ago, oddly enough, on 8/26/16.

      It makes me think of “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye

      Before you know what kindness really is
      you must lose things,
      feel the future dissolve in a moment
      like salt in a weakened broth.
      What you held in your hand,
      what you counted and carefully saved,
      all this must go so you know
      how desolate the landscape can be
      between the regions of kindness.
      How you ride and ride
      thinking the bus will never stop,
      the passengers eating maize and chicken
      will stare out the window forever.
      Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
      you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
      lies dead by the side of the road.
      You must see how this could be you,
      how he too was someone
      who journeyed through the night with plans
      and the simple breath that kept him alive.

      Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
      you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
      You must wake up with sorrow.
      You must speak to it till your voice
      catches the thread of all sorrows
      and you see the size of the cloth.

      Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
      only kindness that ties your shoes
      and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
      purchase bread,
      only kindness that raises its head
      from the crowd of the world to say
      it is I you have been looking for,
      and then goes with you every where
      like a shadow or a friend.

      I shared it back when I started the site in January 2014, but I may need to repost it again soon given current affairs. Maybe I’ll go ahead and run it again tomorrow.


  3. Will Grimes

    I just ran across this poem at the website of On Being. It was contributed by Parker J. Palmer on August 1, 2017. I thought I would share it.

    “The Peace Of Wild Things”
    by Wendell Berry

    When despair for the world grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound
    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
    I go and lie down where the wood drake
    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting with their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

    Liked by 1 person

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