Finally, morning. This loneliness
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.
Something she ate? Some freshener
someone spritzed in the air?
They’re trying to kill me, she says,
as though it’s a joke. Lucretius
got me through the night. He told me the world goes on
making and unmaking….~~ Complete poem available online at The Sun
It’s very difficult to dissect a poem when the subject is as personal and universal as a sick child. I wonder if that’s part of the process, for a poet, of dealing with such a massive personal stress: to control it, use it, turn it into something with meaning and beauty in order to get through another crisis.
Ellen Bass knows a lot about coping with crisis. Back in the 80s, she co-wrote The Courage to Heal, which became the bible for those still recovering from childhood sexual abuse, the scope of which was just emerging into the public consciousness at the time.
But this poem is a different kind of crisis: a sick child. We start with that intimacy, a mother waking up, thinking of her sick daughter. But this is set in the larger context of the earth itself, personalized by the drought clearly seen in the shrinking Kilimanjaro snowpack. Zoom out farther, to the entire universe, to Lucretius’ Epicurean theory (ancient epicureanism isn’t what you think it is) of atoms and the void: we are interrelated on the smallest, and the largest, scales, as we share atoms with all other matter in the cosmos. My own personal buddy, Walt Whitman, echoed such a strain in “Song of Myself”: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” The dying elephants in Tanzania, the sick child in California, are one.
Bass zooms in again, bringing us to a painful intimacy with her child, and ultimately, with her, by the close of the poem:
She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.
When she points it out to the escort
pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy
to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.
The child is so fragile, so easily sent into paroxysms. We think the world is more robust, but that’s only because the scale is so much larger; if we could zoom back, we might see it, too, is wheezing.