In Praise of Strength: A Review of Ellen Bass Reading at San Diego State University

ellenbassbyirene-young200pxwIn the first line of Ellen Bass’ poem “Relax,” she prophesizes, “Bad things are going to happen.” Let’s just say it hasn’t been the best month. Personally, I can speak to that on many levels, and I’m sure you can too. Regardless of the pain and suffering we all endure through the everyday grind of living our lives, Ellen Bass can always invigorate us with a reason to keep moving forward, to keep living whether we are poets or not.

On November 16, 2016, San Diego State University [SDSU] students, professors, and colleagues had the pleasure of listening to Bass read her poems at the Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series behind a dark brown podium in room 108 of the campus’ very own Love Library. By the time I arrived, the red theater-like chairs, which reclined back, were lined up row upon row. The room was wide with thick white pillars from floor to ceiling, and lights were bright enough to practically see the poems tumbling out of Bass during her reading. Students, teachers, and friends of Bass swirled and mixed from group to group making small talk before the reading began. Some bought her books stacked on a table at the back of the room, while others slowly settled in their seats in preparation for Bass’ reading.

SDSU Professor, Poet, and Curator of the Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series, Maegan Marshall, set the tone with her introduction for Bass when she said that her poems move, “From grief to acceptance to joy by proving that writing gives us agency–as she states–‘it’s a way to transform our experiences, to take something destructive and work with it in a way that is life affirming, that creates rather than destroys.’” There is no time more urgent than now for us to hear words that encourage us, uplift us. Marshall’s introduction compelled me to be present for one of the most powerful poetry readings I have ever encountered.

One of her first poems, “If You Knew,” hooked the audience in the room: “What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone?” This is the type of question that can throw a room into silence, leave everyone in anticipation of the words to follow, at the same time, ponder what a human connection might feel like if it were the last thing on this planet.

Her next poem, “God’s Grief” can be perceived as the great metaphysical question we all wonder: What is God? I know, from the poets I read and hold conversations with, it is the type of question that can be discussed for hours. Bass illustrates for us the possibilities of God with the sound of her words moving like a wave, permeating through the silence of the room: “A mind the size of the sun, / burning with longing.” The sound of her language, combined with her staggering ability to shock the audience by way of a demonstration of what God might be, is how she moves from a question that could potentially destroy faith; however, it creates hope instead.

Her poem, “Saturn’s Rings,” dedicated to the amazing poet Frank Gaspar, can be perceived as an exploration of the human condition from a lens fascinated with space, the ultimate expanse of destruction and creation. Bass writes, “How are we changed when we stand out / under the fat stars of summer, / our pores opening in the night?” What made the evening so enchanting were these moments, questions that asked of us in what way have we evolved, forever propelling us closer to one another, to love.

In the final poems, Bass said of her newest collection, Like A Beggar, “I must have needed to keep finding things to praise.” The reason Like A Beggar contains several odes is because the poems move from a place of despair to hope, and nothing can be as powerful as praise for our country at this crucial time.

When the evening moved into Q & A, Bass answered questions from students about the craft of her writing, and provided valuable insight towards the rigor and lifeline of her experience as a poet. She said (and I paraphrase) it’s always nice to get published, but it’s not what it’s about. It’s about finding things about yourself, the inner work.

To sum up the evening, Bass was asked if there was any ode she would write at this very moment, what would it be. She said it would be an ode to Hillary. She said it would not be a political poem, but a poem about Hillary’s strength, and how Hillary muscles that strength against such dominant opposition. This caused the room to break into an uproar of celebration, a room full of people clapping. If there is anything we can take away from an evening with Ellen Bass, it is that no matter what happens to us, through the vigor of poetry we can find our hope again.

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