Ellen Bass and Danusha Laméris have been Sun contributors since 2001 and 2008, respectively, and have participated in our readings, events, and writing retreats across the country. They’re also neighbors, close friends, and collaborators. As part of our ongoing celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth year in print, we asked them each to choose a poem by the other for this month’s Dog-Eared Page. We start with a conversation in which they discuss their shared history and why they selected the poems that follow.
Danusha Laméris: I met you about twenty-five years ago when I signed up for a poetry workshop in your living room. You were the first poet I studied with seriously. But also, in the year I was born, 1971, I believe we lived in the same neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lived on Pearl Street. Where were you?
Ellen Bass: Interesting! I was in graduate school for poetry at Boston University around then. My boyfriend lived on Pearl Street, so that’s where I hung out a lot. I probably saw you in your stroller. [Laughs.]
Danusha: When we met in the mid-nineties, I wasn’t in the habit of going to poetry workshops. I had done that with the poet Tony Hoagland when I was in high school, but then I went on to study painting at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I suspected I had a book to write, however. I didn’t even know what genre, but when I saw the flyer for your class in Bookshop Santa Cruz, our local oasis of a bookstore, I called the number.
Ellen: I remember your first class well. First of all, you were so beautiful. And, right out of the gate, your poetry was special. Having been a visual artist, you brought a sense of imagery to the page. Over time we became friends. We sometimes wrote together, shared poems, asked each other for feedback. During the pandemic we started having dinners together.
Danusha: Food trumped poetry for a little while.
Ellen: We ate in my backyard at separate tables with heat lamps: you and your husband, Armando, and me and my wife, Janet. It was so marvelous to actually see each other, even at a six-foot distance. I wouldn’t let Janet collect the plates until after you left.
Danusha: [Laughs.] It was a very choreographed affair. It’s what we had to do to have friends.
It’s strange how things become funny later. You’re so aware of the suffering at the time, whenever you look at the news. Yet somehow, in the middle of that, there’s this hilarious memory of what we went through to have dinner together.
Ellen: Anyone who knows your poetry knows you have a nuanced way of using humor, pressed right up against the pain. I came across this line you said somewhere: “Joy is when what we want matches what is. Grief is when there’s a vast rift between the two. Humor is the bridge.”
Danusha: I said that? [Laughs.]
Ellen: You did! And the humor in “The Cat,” the poem of yours that I selected, is, I think, a signature move of yours. You and I laugh so much, and it’s not for any lack of tragedies in our lives.
Danusha: People don’t see poetry as being funny, but I can think of many times when you showed me a first draft, and I almost fell out of my chair laughing. You’d do something so unexpected, so transgressive in the best way, and I’d lose it. That underlies so much of what works in art: we want to surprise ourselves and others.
Ellen: Toi Derricotte says her first rule of poetry is: Don’t bore me.
Danusha: I tell students, “First rule: Be interesting.” Write so that I’m leaning in, saying, Oh, I haven’t heard this before, or, I haven’t heard it in this way. Tell me more.
What first struck me when I read the poem of yours I picked, “The Big Picture,” was that I learned some science from it. That’s not a surprise; you often slip in facts. As someone raised by scientists, I appreciate that. The poem talks about the quandary we humans have placed ourselves in with regard to the natural world. A faithfulness is carried throughout: naming the species we’re losing; naming beloved songs — and also some stark, unavoidable truths.
At the end you write, “There never was anything else. Only these excruciatingly insignificant creatures we love.” That’s another thing I’ve come to expect in your poems: stating something plainly but earned, so that we really feel it.
Ellen: We both care a lot about that. We work to the best of our ability to construct poems so that the craft is strong, but underneath it all is: I want anyone to be able to read my poems. We communicate; we don’t obfuscate. Not every poem is going to be meaningful to every person, but at least they can know what it is saying.
Danusha: Ellen, you were recently bitten by a cat. And yet you still chose “The Cat.”
Ellen: [Laughs.] It wasn’t the cat’s fault! It was my own stupidity. I was in the hospital for two days, but I’m fine now. The cat and I are making up. He’s good with me.
I chose “The Cat” because of its humor, as I mentioned, but also two other things. One is something the poet Marie Howe calls “moving the camera off center.” In this poem you could’ve been talking about your grief at the loss of your brother, but instead you talk about your brother’s wife, and then — even further off center — about her wonderful, strange idea that your brother is living in the cat.
The other thing I appreciated is what’s not said, which is such an important part of almost every great poem. You don’t even say what you think about her idea — if you believe it or not. These omissions open doors for the reader. If you say everything there is to be said, the reader is shut out.
Danusha: What did Emily Dickinson say? “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”? We’re always looking for that side view, and yet we want to say things directly. These contradictions brace against each other in poetry, as in life.
I don’t really know if my sister-in-law thought my brother was living in their cat, but there she was, saying it to all the guests who dropped by. To be fair, she’s very funny, and it’s hard when everyone’s feeling sorry for you. If you use humor, you get a different response. Difficult emotions also have shades of humor and pathos and desperation.
Both our poems touch on grief in a central, primal way. Yours focuses on global grief, yet points to a very particular tenderness: when we look at the frogs, they’re “breathing through their damp permeable membranes.” That prepares us for when the poem shifts to your almost-grown son, and “a cheap silver chain shimmers across his throat, rising and falling with his pulse.” Where do animals go as predators, but for the throat? It’s our most vulnerable place.
Ellen: The throat is such an intimate part of the body, so tender and vulnerable and sweet. That was just a detail from life. Sometimes our work is simply to recognize the details that are given to us.
Danusha: That reminds me of a conversation we had years ago: I was talking about how most poets have an irritant that tends to generate their work, and a solace they tend to go toward. When we talked about yours, you said the irritant is often the larger suffering of the world. When I asked about your solace, you said, “The world as it is.”
Ellen: That was a good answer. [Laughs.]
Danusha: Contradiction, right? Suffering is the world as it is, but the solace is the world as it is, too.
I think of your friend, the poet Jericho Brown, who says people don’t dislike poetry, but sometimes they dislike the soul work it requires of them. I think readers of The Sun want to do that soul work. That’s what The Sun offers. It’s a kind of protected space, like a national park, for that kind of writing.
Ellen: You might like some articles more than others, but in every one there’s somebody who is communicating something that’s meaningful to them, and which has the potential to be meaningful to others.
Danusha: I think we read to know that the thoughts and feelings we’re having are shared by others; we’re not alone. And we’re trying to understand something about how to survive.
We can read a piece of writing by someone who’s been through something horrific only because they survived to write it. How did they do that? There’s a primal need to know. The reader is leaning in, asking, How did you survive? How do you survive?
The Big Picture
I try to look at the big picture. The sun, ardent tongue licking us like a mother besotted with her new cub, will wear itself out. Everything is transitory. Think of the meteor that annihilated the dinosaurs. And before that, the volcanoes of the Permian period — all those burnt ferns and reptiles, sharks and bony fish — that was extinction on a scale that makes our losses look like a bad day at the slots. And perhaps we’re slated to ascend to some kind of intelligence that doesn’t need bodies, or clean water, or even air. But I can’t shake my longing for the last six hundred Iberian lynx with their tufted ears, Brazilian guitarfish, the 4 percent of them still cruising the seafloor, eyes staring straight up. And all the newborn marsupials — red kangaroos, joeys the size of honeybees — steelhead trout, river dolphins, so many species of frogs breathing through their damp permeable membranes. Today on the bus, a woman in a sweater the exact shade of cardinals, and her cardinal-colored bra strap, exposed on her pale shoulder, makes me ache for those bright flashes in the snow. And polar bears, the cream and amber of their fur, the long, hollow hairs through which sun slips, swallowed into their dark skin. When I get home, my son has a headache and, though he’s almost grown, asks me to sing him a song. We lie together on the lumpy couch and I warble out the old show tunes, “Night and Day”. . . “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”. . . A cheap silver chain shimmers across his throat, rising and falling with his pulse. There never was anything else. Only these excruciatingly insignificant creatures we love.
After my brother died, his wife was sure he was living inside their cat, Rocky. He’s in there, she’d say, staring into those blank, yellow eyes. Isma’il? Isma’il? Can you hear me? She’d tell anyone who came by how the cat would slip into their bed, put a paw on her cheek, and just look at her. Or, other times, crawl under the covers, turning his furred back to her chest. My brother had picked out the cat when it was just a kitten, brought it home for his kids. And there it was, still roaming the hallways he would never set foot in again. He’d miss driving them to school, making them pancakes, reading them to sleep at night. So, even though he took himself out of their lives with a single bullet aimed at his heart, I see now that, if he could, he’d find a way back to those he loved — not as a ghost, but to walk again among them, almost silently on his tender paws. Perhaps it was the least he could do, to pad up the stairs, only the heat of his small body to offer, his cool and steady eyes.
“The Big Picture,” by Ellen Bass, appeared in the April 2018 issue of The Sun and originally appeared in her poetry collection The Human Line. Copyright © 2007 by Ellen Bass. Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Copper Canyon Press. “The Cat,” by Danusha Laméris, first appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Sun. Copyright © 2017 by Danusha Laméris. Reprinted by permission of the author.