A weekly poem selected for likability.
This column aims to ingratiate poetry to people who don’t already read it. The title is taken from the first lines of a Marianne Moore poem called “Poetry”:
“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond / all this fiddle.”
Undeniable! Also undeniable: the joy of reading poetry, which is available to anyone open to it. Poetry was inert to me until a professor introduced me to contemporary American poets; their lines took the language already in my mouth and broke it open “like a cut of pink fruit, a sudden shaft of sun.”
You think you don’t like poetry. I insist: You haven’t read the right poems.
For this first edition I’ve chosen Ellen Bass’s “Relax,” first published in American Poetry Review and then featured in Poetry Daily.
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat–
the one you never really liked–will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up–drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice–one white, one black–scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
Detached from the demands of narrative, poets can just tell you the score, straight up. (Or, in blurb-speak: I love this poem for its “plainspoken wisdom.” But actually.)
“Relax” is also a showcase for the cinematic: the closing jump-cuts between Buddhist parable and the depredations of aging make an arresting pitch for mindfulness.
Bass also writes non-fiction for survivors of sexual abuse. Her poem, too, engages with great pain, leaving us a hard-won practicality.
My hugest thanks to Ellen Bass for permission to republish “Relax”! It will be included in her forthcoming book, Like a Beggar, which will be published by Copper Canyon Press in February.
To further appreciate Bass’s straightforwardness (and poems in her future-book), check out “The Morning After,” a relatable poem about sex, originally published in the New Yorker.
Look for “You, Too, Dislike It” every Thursday.
Photo via “The Brit_2” on Flickr.