I lie in her bed
like a fork on a folded napkin,
perfectly still and alone.
In these lines from the opening poem of Ellen Bass’ latest collection, The Human Line, Bass demonstrates the smooth and evocative writing that permeates her work. There’s a simile matched with feeling, stated in the last line and implied throughout. This simile, efficient and neat, allows the reader’s eye to brush past the words and take with it a sense of something larger. Bass employs this technique here, and often throughout The Human Line, in order to draw attention to the remarkable similarity between the banal and the emotionally charged. The simplicity of these poems often is louder and more striking than any bombast could muster. When Bass maintains this sort of style, the collection works beautifully.
Organized in five sections that mostly adhere to a specific theme, The Human Line works best when it focuses on private moments, as in the poems from part one. Relaying the pain of her mother’s last days, Bass takes tragic experiences and makes them seem at times mundane, at others horrifying. The deceptively subtle poems demand repeat readings in order to grasp their hidden intricacy. Such is the case with “The End,” a poem, seemingly gentle and sweet, that forces the reader to jump back and reexamine its story of euthanasia. Is this confession and if so, confession of an act or a fantasy? Unlike the work of Anne Sexton, Ellen Bass’ confessions are tricky; they only tell you enough to keep you guessing.
This is not to say that The Human Line is thoroughly ambiguous. “My Father’s Day” strikes a clear note, relating events and emotions with the preciseness of a well-wound grandfather clock. Within the same section, “Eating the Bones” arrives with a quality of observation that allows the common occurrence of a family meal to turn disturbingly macabre. Thinking of the two poems, almost on top of each, it becomes easy to see that Bass’ prowess is in her ability to relay the everyday with a reporter’s memory and find within it the compelling truth behind the façade.
Laden with quiet moments that swell into tremendous cries, part two of The Human Line is startling in its honesty and ambition. “Discovering Fire” explores the desultory nature of early sexual passion:
Though it was rash
and left chaos in its wake,
I clung to the only science I knew
“Asking Directions in Paris” takes the simple scene, outlined in the title, and builds from it a stunning analogy:
you think this must be how it is
with destiny: God explaining
and explaining what you must do
and all you can make out is a few
“Bone of my Bone and Flesh of my Flesh” addresses the problem of finding an endearing and proper pronoun to describe a same sex spouse. The frustration of having to abandon the traditional terms “partner” “wife” and “husband” manifests into mocking humor. Bass’ ability to weave such dueling elements into her poems evidences a writer with a unique touch. Rarely will either the pathos or humor sink the poem as a whole. Perhaps only “Evolution” suffers from slight misdirection, as the ambitious work (ambition always a welcome thing in poetry) full of meditations on the journey and death of every species culminates in a fascinating near miss.
This trend permeates the third part of The Human Line. With the exception of the title poem, part three of the collection seems so focused on making a point that the effortless effect Bass creates earlier in the book is lost. Writing “who will mourn / Homo sapiens?” seems not only too easy but needlessly didactic. Regardless, the poems still manage striking moments:
who must have started out
with such high hopes.
These opening lines manage to effectively pull the eye and only display a hint of the sorrow that will ultimately develop in the poem “God’s Grief.” The opening works where some of the later evocations (Stalin, The Trail of Tears, Allende, fruit pickers and children sold into prostitution) falter. The points Bass makes are salient, their merit as poems not as much.
The problem with Bass’ lesser works in The Human Line is not that they are irretrievably bad, which they are not, but that they fail to measure up well against the nearly flawless poems. In part four’s “Lost Dog” she proves that her strength lies not in her ability as a protest poet but in the personal and emotional works that also populate The Human Line. “Don’t Expect Applause” rides the crest between a personal expression and a public address, never really succumbing to the pitfalls of either. Aside from this aptly constructed work, most of the poems in the last two parts of The Human Line strive too much toward the political or public and away from the personal expressions that make Bass so compelling. One can easily applaud the “The Big Picture” for its overreaching, though the sentiment, contemplative with a dash of arrogance, is less interesting than the private calm of “Winter Solstice.” Closing the book, “Winter Solstice” evokes a sense of quiet desperation mixed with an odd sort of comfort, as the poem’s speaker, entombed in the winter night and starring out windows, ponders mortality “as though I don’t know I’m going to die.” The poem moves from the interior to the exterior gracefully, taking the reader through charming personal quirks:
At home, I’ve propped up the head of my bed―
Ulysses and Anna Karenina keep me aloft―
to far-reaching ruminations and moments of desperation:
I am so tempted to wish myself into the future,
the night over, as though life were infinite
and I could afford to throw away the inferior bits―
This is Bass at her best. The poem strives for grandeur and hits upon it while somehow staying rooted to the private elements of the speaker’s life. As her lover and their son sleep peacefully, the speaker wrestles with questions of time and mortality. Bass eschews the preaching of “Pray for Peace”, the first poem of the final section, and in doing so bridges the gaps she has created. Didacticism breeds a sense of removal, as if the poet were far away from the sins she is reporting. Conversely, “Winter Solstice” like the best of The Human Line, places the poet and the reader in the same, quiet, meditative space, revealing the commonalities of all human experience.
Bass is undoubtedly a gifted writer capable of producing astonishing poetry, and The Human Line proves that often. If she veers off into the overly didactic or ambitiously reaches for enormous heights we can forgive her, for the collection always returns to well crafted, quiet places where her poems find their finest voice. There is much to admire in The Human Line and many moments worth returning to, finding always deep meditations rendered exquisitely in verse.