Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

[Three Poems]

by Ellen Bass

Pray for Peace

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekinah, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail,
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas—

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

—From The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007); reprinted here with author’s permission

At The Padre Hotel in Bakersfield, California

It’s Saturday night and all the heterosexuals
in smart little dresses and sport coats
are streaming into what we didn’t know
was the hottest spot between Las Vegas and LA. 
Janet and I are in jeans and fleece—not a tube of lipstick
or mascara wand between us. Grayheads:
a species easy to identify without a guidebook—
the over-the-hill lesbian couples of the Pacific Northwest.
Janet’s carrying our red-and-white cooler with snacks for the road
across the marble tile of the Art Deco lobby
when we turn and see the couple
entering through the tall glass doors, slicing
through the crowd like a whetted blade. The butch
is ordinary enough, a stocky white woman
in tailored shirt and slacks, but the confection—
no, the piece de resistance—whose hand she holds
is of another genus entirely.
Her cinnamon sheen, her gold dress 
zipped tighter than the skin of a snake.
And her deep d├ęcolletage, exposed enough for open-heart surgery. 
She’s a yacht in a sea of rowboats. 
An Italian fountain by Bernini.
She’s the Statue of Liberty. The Hubble Telescope
that lets us gaze into the birth of galaxies.
O, may they set that hotel room ablaze, here
in this drab land of agribusiness and oil refineries,
outdoing Pittsburgh as the top polluted city in the nation, trash it
like rock stars, rip up the 300-thread-count sheets,
free the feathers from the pillows.
And may that grand femme be consumed
right down to the glitter on her sling-back four-inch stilettos
and whatever she’s glued on her magnificent skin
to keep the plunge of that neckline from careening clear off the curve.

—From Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014); reprinted here with author’s permission

Waiting for Rain

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.  Maybe it’s wrong
to think of better and worse. 
There’s no one who can carry my fear
for a child who walks out the door

not knowing what will stop her breath.
The rain they say is coming
sails now over the Pacific in purplish nimbus clouds.
But it isn’t enough. Last year I watched

elephants encircle their young, shuffling
their massive legs without hurry, flaring
their great dusty ears. Once they drank
from the snowmelt of Kilimanjaro.

Now the mountain is bald. Lucretius knows
we’re just atoms combining and recombining:
stardust, flesh, grass. All night
I plastered my body to Janet,

breathing when she breathed. But her skin,
warm though it is, does after all, keep me out.
How tenuous it all is.
My daughter’s coming home next week. 

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.

—From Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014); reprinted here with author’s permission

SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

Ellen Bass

is a California poet and teacher of poetry. Her poetry books include Like A Beggar (Copper Canyon, 2014), The Human Line, Mules of Love, and the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! She is co-author of The Courage to Heal. Her poems have appeared frequently in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Sun, and many other journals. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury