Julie Christine's Reviews > The Human Line

The Human Line by Ellen Bass
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it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry, best-of-2015, read-2015

I didn't mean to read this so quickly, not nearly all at once, in the space of an afternoon. But I could not stop. Ellen Bass takes the smallest moments—the ones we feel the most deeply for a fraction of a second and let slip away, because we just don't have the time or energy to consider what they mean—she takes those moments and enlarges them until we can walk right inside.

Her mother, felled by some malady of an aged body, has left her home in an ambulance. Ellen steps into her mother's empty room and
I lie in her bed
like a fork on a folded napkin
perfectly still and alone

The poems that complete the first section of The Human Line bear witness to the dying and death of Ellen Bass's mother and in them, we see the poet contemplating her own decaying body and mortality. There is so much raw regret, disgust, and sweet love, all wrapped up in the same stanzas that at times it's hard to breathe. In Angels, her mother's caregiver pauses for a snack while the corpse of her charge lies prone in the next room and Ellen, who is present, sits and waits for the promised celestial shimmer of her mother's soul that never comes.
Even as I pressed my palm
to her heart to prove
that it was still, I glanced up
in the case the room did brighten.

Part Three is devoted to a woman's experiences of birth and motherhood, the helplessness of the body and heart in the wake of children birthing and beginning to die the moment they leave your body.
How can I begin
to grasp it: the Earth
in peril, my son's chest shining
like polished burl. His spine
visible beneath his skin.
The way before he was born,
when he was still
safe in the belly's sheath,
I could feee the exact shape
of his just-formed foot
pressing against the world. – from At the End of the Cenozoic Era

On my way home, I stopped at a bench on a street corner to read. I took this with me to the beach and read it after a series of sun salutations. Before dinner, I put the cat on a leash and walked her around the driveway, The Human Line grasped, open, in one hand. The cat wriggled on the sun-warmed pavement and I read. I read as the onions sautéed, I read as I ate. I sat in the bath until the water cooled, reading aloud.

I cried at over The Woman Who Killed My Cat
But she kept telling me how
sorry she was
and I couldn't help myself,
wrapped my arms around her.
Of course she had to return my embrace.
And maybe she neeed this too, to be forced
against my grief, a owman
who'd gotten up that morning, like me,
not expecting to kill anything

Were I a younger woman, perhaps Ellen Bass's poetry would not have connected the way it did. But she writes from a place I know, where the disappointments of love, body, family are exceeded only by feelings of tenderness for the same; where all politics really are personal.

Bass reminds me to observe the routine and discover in it the precious, wondrous precious of the sublime.
Gate C22

At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching–
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after–if she beat you or left you or
you’re lonely now–you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.
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Reading Progress

July 15, 2015 – Started Reading
July 15, 2015 – Shelved
July 15, 2015 – Shelved as: poetry
July 15, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
July 15, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
July 15, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer Julie, I was reading your review, thinking, "I have to tell her about the airport poem! She needs to read it!" So glad that it was in this book so you could, and I am now adding this book to my to-read list.


Julie Christine Jennifer wrote: "Julie, I was reading your review, thinking, "I have to tell her about the airport poem! She needs to read it!" So glad that it was in this book so you could, and I am now adding this book to my to-..."

Jennifer, I love that!! The airport poem rocked my world. Gah. So good!


message 3: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Ah, those first lines...


message 4: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Wow, excellent review! Thanks for including so many excerpts. I don't read much poetry, but I MUST read this! Thanks for introducing this poet and book to me.


Julie Christine Debbie wrote: "Wow, excellent review! Thanks for including so many excerpts. I don't read much poetry, but I MUST read this! Thanks for introducing this poet and book to me." Thank you, Debbie! I'm just discovering her poetry, I'm such a poetry novice, but what I've read, I adore.


Julie Christine Cheryl wrote: "Ah, those first lines..." I'm lurking in your poetry shelves, Cheryl. I'll put things back where I find them, I promise. :)


message 7: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Gate C22! Good one! Thanks for sharing.


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