Monday, April 29, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 29: “Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness” by Ellen Bass

Read “Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness” in the literary journal Rattle here.

This poem, to me, feels like a master class in how to write moving moments. How to stay with each moment just long enough to sink it into the reader’s skin, not unlike that indelible image that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read this poem in 2016: “setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders, / reins for the journey.” And then the image of the “crumpled bills, steeped in the smells / of the lives who’d handled them.” And then the smells themselves, this egalitarian sense that everyone goes into a liquor store at some point in their lives, just as everyone at some time or another will sit in a diner, and everyone grieves, and everyone dies.

Ellen Bass has a way of telling stories, of adding just the right detail to let you in on a bit of backstory without overburdening the poem with it. For instance, look at the line about the father in the hospital: “this time / they didn’t know if he’d pull through.” This time—so this has been a long process. They didn’t know—implying an impersonal system of doctors, and also the maddening uncertainty of medicine. So much information packed into a simple phrase. And then of course the image at the end, this waitress who seems to understand, if only that this other working woman needs some time to herself.

In this poem, there are four women—the mother, the waitress, the speaker, and her wife, who is only mentioned in the title. And with that title, again, Bass is building you a window onto the larger story that you can look through briefly; there is an ill wife in this story, and a worried speaker, and an echo back to the father in the hospital, and to the diner and crying over the cup of coffee. Such deft connections, so carefully built, between these scenes that aren’t exactly parallel, but that deeply speak to each other across time.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

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