If Like a Beggar was performed on stage, every detail of the production would appear sharp and tactile. Colorful objects would linger in the air like jazz notes: a gold dress, “Cherries in the Snow” lipstick, a pink suitcase, white moth orchids. These are things Ellen Bass associates with female beauty, and some of them, such as a “grand femme’s” plunging neckline, or doctor’s “black slit skirt,” are visually stimulating enough to attract the speaker’s desire. In fact, Bass’s speaker’s sexual desire is hard to distinguish from her scientific fervor; in both cases, she wants to uncover what lies beneath the surface of the thing while “bound / to any aperture…glad to be swallowed completely” (62). For Bass, what things give way to aren’t the spiritual or philosophical depths that Jorie Graham pursued in Erosion, but material the eye zeroes in on. It’s the “hard evidence” that unfurls into more hard evidence, like Neruda’s onion with more of the same at its center (7). It’s “life itself,” in Roger Ebert’s words, that requires Bass to search “for the words to describe / a thing exactly” (61). Life may not last, or always be good, but it contains gifts a beggar relishes, offered freely as “a wild strawberry growing from a crevice” (3).
Bass’s speaker doesn’t need much to feel at peace. In odes inspired by Neruda, she praises repetition, boredom, the first peach, and the god of atheists. But she doesn’t take for granted her ability to praise even the lackluster and mundane. In poems that acquire momentum from listing what has happened or should happen, Bass’s speaker’s attitude of carpe diem recalls Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Like a Beggar opens with “Relax,” a poem of address that assuredly states: “bad things are going to happen” and “you’ll be lonely” (3-4). Marvell’s speaker also assures his mistress of an inevitable end no mortal can outlast: “Thy beauty shall no more be found; / Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound / My echoing song.” For both Bass and Marvell, this rhetorical strategy is meant to make the addressee less inhibited. In other words, there’s truth in each poem’s argument, but by exaggerating the dismal future, the speaker pressures the addressee to partake in pleasure on a more visceral level now. Marvell’s speaker’s invitation—“Now let us sport us while we may”—is heard in Bass’s final poem “Let’s,” as well as at the end of “Relax”: “Oh, taste how sweet and tart / the red juice is, how the tiny seeds / crunch between your teeth” (3-4).
For Bass, “the world as it is” (53) should be celebrated, especially because it includes the sea, chickens, Musca domestica, but also sex, nakedness, and, most importantly—the human animal. “How can you not love the human animal?” the speaker asks in “Restaurant,” a poem about our ability to remain civilized upon hearing bad news: “No matter what we’re up against…very few people are dropping to all fours / and baying at the empty white plates” (52). In other words, Bass is interested in the difference between what we want and what we actually do. You get the sense that she’s acutely aware of the way we mask our instincts, as easily as putting on clothes. And why do we? Are we ever permitted, like the wife of her ex-husband’s psych patient, to answer the door unclothed? Bass’s speaker is somewhat miffed, for example, at her partner’s ability to conduct business as usual in “The Morning After,” a poem about “the little slice of heaven” they slipped into the previous night. “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?” (30). The clichéd metaphorical language speaks volumes while the speaker attempts to understand her partner’s rote mechanical behavior, so contrary to what they’d just experienced. The speaker confesses her own difficulty at forgetting “that raw and radiant free-for-all,” but she’s not sorry: “I want to throw myself / onto the kitchen tile and bare my throat” (30).
There’s a lot of baring or revealing in these poems—not just the material beneath an object’s surface, but human fears that life is so tenuous. Nature goes hand-in-hand with instinct, and the struggle for existence includes anyone who doesn’t want to be “the one / who slips through the fence / when the god on watch turns away to take a piss” (63). But Bass deftly couples the knowledge that “we’re specks” (65) with fear for one another’s health and wellbeing—fear that, along with elation, can also “burnish the world” (64). In fact, humans have such a strong presence in Like a Beggar partly because Bass compares plants and nonhuman animals to us. In “Moth Orchids,” “the petals splay like a woman stretched” (14), and in “Looking at Diadegma insulare Wasp under a Microscope,” the wasp is “cleaning its head …not unlike a person / drying after a shower or a swim” (16). I’m not sure what these metaphors say about our relationship to nonhuman nature. In each poem, the object of visual interest is discussed in intimate terms. The speaker’s “naturally” interested in looking at something that’s unaware its being looked at. I wonder if this intense focus on nature is an act of love more than self-indulgence, or a way to circle back to the human. “How far into the / earth / can vision go and / still be // love?” Graham asks in “The Age of Reason” (19). Is the world better off if we look at it under a microscope? Or is it just better for us to look at the world as closely and thoroughly as possible?
Bass’s closest answer to that question is in “The World Has Need of You,” which argues that, yes, the world needs us, and other people especially do. Sometimes I wanted Bass to consider the consequences of that position, but that’s just not what the collection sets out to do. And when she is unwavering in her description of “the truth,” not the slightest bit sorry of the intended or unintended consequences, the result is that her poems radiate with pleasure derived from uncovering material beneath the surface. Take killing chickens, which I’d guess is unpleasant. In “What Did I Love,” Bass elevates their slaughter to a state of beauty I couldn’t have fathomed before reading the poem. Listening to Philip Levine read this poem on The New Yorker poetry podcast makes Bass’s description of the chickens jump off of the page. But Bass’s speaker is not heartless; it’s not the killing itself that she loves so much as the process, which she now understands having fully participated in it. She recollects losing herself while gutting and cleaning the empty carcasses and declares:
I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water. (32)
Bass, Ellen. Like a Beggar. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2014.
Graham, Jorie. Erosion. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1983.