Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Human Line

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Human Line.
Ellen Bass.
Copper Canyon Press. 2007. 90 pp.
ISBN 1-55659-255-3.

Ellen Bass's name has become more and more prevalent in the poetry world during the past decade. The list of the various awards she has received, along the way, is worthy of note: The Pushcart Prize, the Elliston Book Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize, the Larry Levis Prize, the New Letters Prize, the Greensboro Award, the Chautaqua Poetry Prize, and a Fellowship from the California Arts Council.

The prize she particularly mentions nowadays is the Lambda Literary Award that she won for her acclaimed 2002 volume Mules of Love. According to the Lambda site:

Our mission is to celebrate LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) literature and provide resources for writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, and librarians—the whole literary community.

While she has two children (one boy, one girl) by an earlier marriage, she has been with her same-sex partner (to whom she dedicated the book) since 1984.

Bass's most recent volume, The Human Line, makes clear the basis upon which she received these awards. It is an exceptional book of poetry. Few poets can write at the level of its better poems. At the same time, it is resoundingly and unwaveringly a volume of mainstream writing-program poetry, confessional, readily accessible, rigorously dedicated to life as a predominantly subjective experience.

The poems about the death of her mother, in particular, are heart-rending. It was a slow, an agonizing death. The kind we all dread. The original courage of the poet, as it were, is matched only by the courage that allowed her to relive the experience in the poems:

Mom, I try again, lie down.
I'll lie down with Ellen, she says,
a wary edge to her voice.

I climb into the narrow bed,
my body a breath away from hers.

These poems have obviously been written with the utmost care and a highly competent hand. The words have necessarily been lingered over; the moments have been suffered through time and again in the process.

Toward the close of the first of the four sections into which the book is divided, the reader faces "The End." Bass can no longer stand to see her mother in agony:

In the morning, when the new
angel of morphine arrived
in its full brown bottle,
we funneled it into her throat.

These are poems that harrow the reader in both senses of the word. The heart blenches before these scenes and is prepared for seed.

After 23 pages of mother (more or less) The Human Line wanders farther afield with poems about partner, son and daughter, interspersed among quotidian events, toward all of which Bass struggles to be preternaturally receptive. Her better images are quiet and emotionally precise. In "Poem Not for My Son," a mother knows how not to suffocate the wildness of young manhood. She opens her son's bedroom door to look in at him as he sleeps:

        I shut
the door on my love.
Just a faint glow seeping
under the crack.

Sensitive response is her profession, her life a continuous round of Esalen seminars, writing workshops (given throughout the U.S. and Europe), interviews, writing, and caring for those she loves. It is the life that most mainstream poets yearn for: a life in which one possesses all the right opinions, sagely dispenses the wisdom of self-exploration and receives back beaming admiration.

On the other hand, something very noticeably is missing. The irony of our "exquisite intelligence," upon which Ellen Bass reflects in the poem "Evolution," begins to get at it:

        —A brain
firing one hundred billion neurons—
is still bashing its own skull with big rocks.

But there is far less skull bashing going on after some ten or twenty millennia of progressive cultural sublimations and subsequent internalizations of authority. These rocks have the too-comfortable distance of an overly simplified symbol.

Today, the smiling students and their professors of sensitivity, like the vast majority of people, bash others via poor job references, emotional blackmail, rumor mongering, browbeating (the term itself a telling metaphor), insults, a vast array of passive-aggressive weaponry, and other substitutes too numerous to mention. Thank God they do so for it would be impossible to have the advantages of advanced societies if our bashing were still done with rocks or an attempt were made to prevent it altogether.

The effort required in order to maintain all of this increasingly complex sublimation, and sublimated combat, is enormous. Our energy flags. We become cranky. We tell blatant lies in order temporarily to stave off unwanted conversations. Most particularly, we agree among ourselves to be as blind to such behaviors in each other as possible in exchange for limited cease fires called intimate personal relationships and peer groups.

Still, the beings that inhabit The Human Line are entirely estimable. At worst they exhibit foibles. The troubles of the world which the poet laments in her summary moments are wholly the fault of others outside of its borders: those with access to fissile materials, those who construct the built world—the world that she navigates to considerable advantage—at the cost of plant and animal species, those in possession of the technologies of dam building or DNA. "Wondrous species riddled with greed," writes Bass, "steeped in cruelty." But she must be referring to another species, cavalier, self-serving, perverse, not at all like the regular people who inhabit her book, nor aided by any self-destructive behavior on their part.

What is lacking in The Human Line is the courage to admit such ambivalent and profoundly fundamental aspects of sublimated human nature as are hinted at here: the courage not only to face death but to face life. A poet who offers herself and her readers only carefully cropped snapshots of themselves is necessarily limited, her exceptional command of the craft of confessional poetry notwithstanding.

In the aftermath of her mother's death we find Bass struggling with her own mortality. It peeks out from a poem, here, and is the subject of another, there. It might be called the theme of The Human Line. In the poem "If You Knew," it emerges full-blown:

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn't signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won't say Thank you, I don't remember
they're going to die.

This lingering effect of the various manifestations of death moving in and out of poems, like a Where's Waldo? book, is deftly handled. In the process, we see the poet changing, becoming more vulnerable, more engaging, more human.

But what would she feel if these people were more to her than figures in a snapshot? What if the man pulling the suitcase is moving so slowly because he momentarily regrets having given a poor reference for a young woman in the office who refused to respond to his advances? What if the driver of the car works in a munitions factory loading shells with depleted uranium? What if he merely browbeats his wife in order to feel like he's someone? These people are still going to die. Do they still receive her empathy by virtue of the fact that they will all share death? Will she still have all the right ideas if they do? Could she bring that empathy to her workshops—her books—without hurting her own living?

The final image of the poem is easily the best in a book of fine images:

What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

But what if the clerk, in a desperate attempt to be something more than a clerk, has recovered a memory that she was sexually abused by her uncle? What if it's a lie? What if she desperately believes her own story and it's a lie? What would these people look like if she could see them as they are?

Reading these four remarkable lines, the thoughtful reader is likely to find him or herself in the position of their old high school math teacher grading a test. Exceptional as they are, in isolation the lines mean far less than they might. In fact they mean little by themselves. The teacher hesitates, grades the paper and goes on. The student receives half credit. A note, in the margin, reads "Show your work!"


Editor Note: Thinking about buying The Human Line or another book today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!