Ellen Bass – The Small Country


Unique, I think, is the Scottish tartle, that hesitation
when introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten

and what could capture cafuné, the Brazilian Portuguese way to say
running your fingers, tenderly, through someone’s hair?

Is there a term in any tongue for choosing to be happy?

And where is speech for the block of ice we pack in the sawdust of our hearts?

What appellation approaches the smell of apricots thickening the air
when you boil jam in early summer?

What words reach the way I touched you last night—
as though I had never known a woman—an explorer,
wholly curious to discover each particular
fold and hollow, without guide,
not even the mirror of my own body.

Last night you told me you liked my eyebrows.
You said you never really noticed them before.
What is the word that fuses this freshness
with the pity of having missed it.

And how even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us,
even in this small country of our bed,
even in this language with only two native speakers.

From Indigo, Copper Canyon Press, 2020

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Ellen Bass
Ellen Bass has published several award-winning books of poetry, including “Like a Beggar, The Human Line”, and “Mules of Love”. Her poems have frequently appeared in “The New Yorker”, “The American Poetry Review”, and many other journals. She coedited the groundbreaking anthology of women’s poetry “No More Masks!”, and her nonfiction includes the best-selling “The Courage to Heal”. Among her awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, three Pushcart prizes, and the Lambda Literary Award. A chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.