Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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O loveliness. O lucky beauty.
I wanted it and I couldn’t bear it.
When I was a girl, before self-serve gas,
as the attendant leaned over my windshield,
I didn’t know where to look.
I could feel his damp rag rubbing the glass
between us. Or walking from the subway,
even in my work boots and woolen babushka,
all those slouched men plastered to the brick walls
around the South End of Boston —
I could feel them quicken, their mouths
opening like baby birds’. I was too beautiful
and never beautiful enough.
Ironing my frizzy hair on the kitchen table.
All the dark and bright creams to sculpt my cheekbones,
musk dotted on my hot pulses,
and that pink angora bikini that itched like desire
as I laid myself down under the gold of a sky we didn’t yet fear.
Hello, my pretty. Your ankles were elegant,
your breasts such splendor
men were blinded by their solar flare.
These days, I’m more like my dog,
who doesn’t peruse himself in the mirror,
doesn’t notice the gray at his temples, though I think
it makes him look a little like Cary Grant in Charade.
I can trot along the shallow surf of Delray Beach
in my mother-in-law’s oversize swimsuit,
metallic bronze and stretched-out so it bulges like ginger root.
On one side, that raucous ocean surging and plunging,
on the other, the bathers gleaming with lotions and oils.
I can be a friend to them all, even the magnificent young,
their bodies fluid as the curl of a wave.
I can wander up to any gilded boy, touch
his gaudy bicep, lean in confidentially. I’m invisible
as a star at noon, a grain of clear sand.
It’s a grand time of life: not so close to the end
that I can’t walk for miles along the pulpy shore,
and not so far away that I can’t bear
the splendid ugliness of this disguise.
Fallen leaves will climb back into trees.
Shards of the shattered vase will rise
and reassemble on the table.
Plastic raincoats will refold
into their flat envelopes. The egg,
bald yolk and its transparent halo,
slide back in the thin, calcium shell.
Curses will pour back into mouths,
letters unwrite themselves, words
siphoned up into the pen. My gray hair
will darken and become the feathers
of a black swan. Bullets will snap
back into their chambers, the powder
tamped tight in brass casings. Borders
will disappear from maps. Rust
revert to oxygen and time. The fire
return to the log, the log to the tree,
the white root curled up
in the unsplit seed. Birdsong will fly
into the lark’s lungs, answers
become questions again.
When you return, sweaters will unravel
and wool grow on the sheep.
Rock will go home to mountain, gold
to vein. Wine crushed into the grape,
oil pressed into the olive. Silk reeled in
to the spider’s belly. Night moths
tucked close into cocoons, ink drained
from the indigo tattoo. Diamonds
will be returned to coal, coal
to rotting ferns, rain to clouds, light
to stars sucked back and back
into one timeless point, the way it was
before the world was born,
that fresh, that whole, nothing
broken, nothing torn apart.
From Like a Beggar. Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Bass. Reprinted by permission of the Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, coppercanyonpress.org.