Phone Therapy and Other Poems

By Ellen Bass

We’re delighted to feature in this issue four poems by the award-winning poet Ellen Bass. In the below bouquet of poems, Bass explores the experiences of witnessing and intervening in the lives of those around us: she ultimately reminds us of our shared humanity, “slash[ing] the membrane that divides us.”

– Charif Shanahan, Poetry Editor


Phone Therapy

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation

and got a call from a man on a window sill.

This was New York, a dozen stories up.

He was going to kill himself, he said.

I said everything I could think of.

And when nothing worked, when the guy

was still determined to slide out that window

and smash his delicate skull

on the indifferent sidewalk, “Do you think,”

I asked, “you could just postpone it

until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?”


The cord that connected us—strung

under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,

women in sneakers carrying their high heels,

drunks lying in piss—that thick coiled wire

waited for the waves of sound.


In the silence I could feel the air slip

in and out of his lungs and the moment

when the motion reversed, like a goldfish

making the turn at the glass end of its tank.

I matched my breath to his, slid

into the water and swam with him.

“Okay,” he agreed.

Jess Underwood, "Cocklobster"

Bearing Witness

For Jacki Phoenix


If you have lived it, then

it seems I must hear it.

—Holly Near


When the long-fingered leaves of the sycamore

flutter in the wind, spiky

seed balls swinging, and a child throws his aqua

lunch bag over the school yard railing, the last thing,

the very last thing you want to think about

is what happens to children when they’re crushed

like grain in the worn mortar of the cruel.


We weep at tragedy, a baby sailing

through the windshield like a cabbage, a shoe.

The young remnants of war, arms sheared and eyeless,

they lie like eggs on the rescue center’s bare floor.


But we draw a line at the sadistic,

as if our yellow plastic tape would keep harm

confined. We don’t want to know

what generations of terror do to the young

who are fed like cloth

under the machine’s relentless needle.


In the paper, we’ll read about the ordinary neighbor

who chopped up boys; at the movies we pay

to shoot up that adrenaline rush—

and the spent aftermath, relief

like a long-awaited piss.


But face to face with the living prey,

we turn away, rev the motor, as though

we’ve seen a ghost—which, in a way, we have:

one who wanders the world,

tugging on sleeves, trying to find the road home.


And if we stop, all our fears

will come to pass. The knowledge of evil

will coat us like grease

from a long shift at the griddle. Our sweat

will smell like the sweat of the victims.


And this is why you do it—listen

at the outskirts of what our species

has accomplished, listen until the world is flat

again, and you are standing on its edge.

This is why you hold them in your arms, allowing

their snot to smear your skin, their sour

breath to mist your face. You listen

to slash the membrane that divides us, to plant

the hard shiny seed of yourself

in the common earth. You crank

open the rusty hinge of your heart

like an old beach umbrella. Because God

is not a flash of diamond light. God is

the kicked child, the child

who rocks alone in the basement,

the one fucked so many times

she does not know her name, her mind

burning like a star.


Basket Of Figs

Bring me your pain, love. Spread

it out like fine rugs, silk sashes,

warm eggs, cinnamon

and cloves in burlap sacks. Show me


the detail, the intricate embroidery

on the collar, tiny shell buttons,

the hem stitched the way you were taught,

pricking just a thread, almost invisible.


Unclasp it like jewels, the gold

still hot from your body. Empty

your basket of figs. Spill your wine.


That hard nugget of pain, I would suck it,

cradling it on my tongue like the slick

seed of pomegranate. I would lift it


tenderly, as a great animal might

carry a small one in the private

cave of the mouth.


If You Knew

What if you knew you’d be the last

to touch someone?

If you were taking tickets, for example,

at the theater, tearing them,

giving back the ragged stubs,

you might take care to touch that palm,

brush your fingertips

along the life line’s crease.


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.


A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.

They’d just had lunch and the waiter,

a young gay man with plum black eyes,

joked as he served the coffee, kissed

her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.

Then they walked half a block and her aunt

dropped dead on the sidewalk.


How close does the dragon’s spume

have to come? How wide does the crack

in heaven have to split?

What would people look like

if we could see them as they are,

soaked in honey, stung and swollen,

reckless, pinned against time?


“Phone Therapy,” “Bearing Witness,” and “Basket of Figs” originally appear in Mules of Love (BOA Editions).  “If You Knew” originally appears in The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press).  All poems used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions and Copper Canyon Press. 

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