750words Feb 12 2015 ~ Ellen Bass & Me & Two Odes

Because I’m stuck I’m writing words not mine to establish a pattern of sound and rhythm. The initial words belong to Ellen Bass, the poem is:

Ode to the God of Atheists

The god of atheists won’t burn you at the stake
or pry off your fingernails. Nor will it make you
bow or beg, rake your skin with thorns,
or buy gold leaf or stained-glass windows.
It won’t insist you fast or twist
the shape of your sexual hunger.
There are no wars fought for it, no women stoned for it.
You don’t have to veil your face for it
or bloody your knees.
You don’t have to sing.

The plums bloom extravagantly,
the dolphins stitch sky to sea.
Each pebble and fern, pond and fish
is yours whether or not you believe.

When fog is ripped away
just as a rust-red shadow slides across the moon,
the god of atheists isn’t rewarding you
for waking in the middle of the night
and shivering barefoot in the field.

This god is not moved by the musk
of incense or bowls of oranges,
the mask brushed with cochineal,
polished rib of the lion.
Eat the macerated leaves
of the sacred plant. Dance
till the stars blur to a spangly river.
Rain, if it comes, will come.
This god loves the virus as much as the child.


So, the above is the Ellen Bass poem. Now to come up with an appropriate subject other than the god of atheists … and not a god. I think I’ll run with a house. The house of (what?) … The house of love? The house of death? The house of loneliness? The house of happiness?

The House of Happiness

The house of happiness will make your face ache
and drum songs on your sternum. It’s not like the house
of sad, of lonely, of broken,
or wooded with coffins satin-lined.
It makes no promises nor expects
cartoon hearts to float from your eyes.
There are no window curtains, no locks on its doors.
You don’t have to knock your knuckles raw
or ring bloody bells.
You do need to step in.

The rooms are organza,
the decor is vanilla ice cream.
Each sofa and lamp, bed and bowl
is an apple or bon-bon treat.

When day becomes evening,
when lavender spokes wheel the dome of sky,
the house of happiness won’t begrudge you
for walking the shores of midnight, or returning
with sand-glittered feet.

This house welcomes what falls away,
the silica shine of journeys,
the nacre-blushed debris,
totems of chocolate.
Sleep the dreamed sleep
of lambs curled against ewes. Laugh
till stones burble songs down high mountains.
Tears, if they come, will spring.
This house welcomes you, welcomes every lost one.


Ok. It’s done. Unedited, but done for the moment–these words replacing a master poet’s words. Ellen Bass is fantastic. Not to be trifled with, not to be matched. Ode to the God of Atheists is a poem found in Like a Beggar — a book full of exquisite work. An apology seems in order:

Dear Ellen,
Forgive me for trespassing, wandering onto your property, taking the paths you’ve created and redecorating your lovely garden of words with different bouquets. Without permission or invitation, I’ve spent time with a blanket thrown down in your forest. Will it help if I mention Prayer, the poem gracing the back cover of Like a Beggar? The opening line: “Once I wore a dress liquid as vodka.” (Who can resist wanting more?) Will it help if I encourage every reader of this flimsy blog of mine to buy Like a Beggar? Such a feast, this book. Such a feast.

I have no excuse for my actions here, other than a desire to improve my skills as a wordsmith. Who better to follow than you? (Yes, Mary Oliver … but her books are not within reach at the moment.)

Respectfully, lynn


It’s a thing I do, this imitation of other writers. I’m never certain about the right or wrong of my efforts. I don’t want or mean to plagiarize. I try not to directly repeat the words of others. It’s the rhythm, the sounds, the abrupt change of directions, the use of similes and metaphors, adjectives, adverbs, etc. that I go for–or the absence of same. It’s the syllables, the beat, the simplicity or complexity of syntax, the story arc, the movement from A to B to C, the assonance, alliteration, the esses and efs and hisses, the magic of words a maestra has spellbound me with–and I just can’t seem to stop reaching for that.


Not Like Missing Socks (revisited)

I am drowning in years and buttons — grappling with broken
white threads of dresses, the loosed hems of horizons
teasing appliqués of bald mountains on their way to me . . .

Yet it could be the ocean that comes.  That line where water
meets sky and eyes cannot differentiate blues, grays,
and air is water, water air — until the sun, moon,
or some heavenly body hangs an angle of light
across the shoulders of passing day or the thigh
of lumbering night.

To keep my chin above days, I stack flat goods of florals
I will sew into aprons for others.  I stack wools
in their weaves of Pendleton plaids and the black
and red flannel lumberjack checkers for shirts
I will never make.  I manage toeholds in rolled gowns
and diplomas, use mortar boards for recycled steps.

In 1960 our Home Ec projects were hospital corners
for Perfect Beds, Boiling Water, Nail Filing 101,
Personal Hygiene, the Evils of Sex wheeled in
from a.v. — those audio-video geeks who would later
own Silicone Valley.

Out of tiny blue checks, I made a pincushion horse and gave her
a mane and tail of red yarn, backstitched a halter
and reins I held to ride across cutting tables, gallop
the chalk trays of pond-green boards, and swing
on the pulls of maps, lowering continents into 7th grade,
patches of the world, each in the shape of a scrap . . .

The buttons grew in number — the lost ones, the found ones,
the shanked, 4-holed, 2-holed, oval, square, round,
shell, bone, Czechoslovakian glass, wood, brass.
Grandmothers, aunts, mothers of friends, seamstresses,
doodlers with thread, et al, made me heiress to tins.

This sea of fasteners proved unable to hold a coat closed, a cuff
circling a wrist, or his pocket flap in place.  They are failed
buttons of happenstance, missing buttons of place.  I have
bobby-pinned back a part in the hours, sectioned minutes
to the right and the left, braided seconds and wound them
about my head, which I keep above tides of buttons, and wait
for the horizon to come — buttons all missing from shirts
and skirts worn by somebody somewhere somewhen.

[after reading Christopher Buckley’s “Cloud Journal” from Sky]

The Heart I Brought to Baja

Inside the dishrag crocheted from coral
cotton and olive-drab yarns, a recycled
heart of blown glass travels.  This light
catcher for windows otherwise plain, save
a view of red bud and roses beyond a stain-
less steel sink above a wandering trickle
of drought-stricken creek, waits for fingers
to lift it back into place on a new pane 

in an old country.  When the cold heart
of what was cracked like a .22 shot echoing
up from a canyon, broken lobe in the shape
of a severed green thumb skittering Baja
tiles to calm at the base of a glorious palm,
we (busted heart and me) knew how to mend.  

[After Robert Wrigley, Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin, from ALP (American Life in Poetry)]

The Young

The young
are at play without names

their laughter is 
bright lanterns on a carnival night 

or flamingos lifting a sky with pink wings
su aire es ingrávido azul 

they make song from dirt
from gum wrapper notes rolled of foil
behind bins and power poles
on sidewalks cracked by the roots
de árboles 

their voices vary and go
tag the white walls of houses
tap on the windows,
spring from the screens 

            I would ask you to continue dear young
            and play through whatever comes 

let sirens wail on Main Street
while your giggles prevail 

and mothers and fathers refrain please
from calling your children in 

I would ask you to tarry longer

Boy with the guitar
Girl in the blue soccer jersey
Girl with the red-handled jump rope
Boy in the untucked white shirt

Being Here

Mid October, thirty miles south of Tijuana,
from a white casita I’d inexplicably contracted
to rent for a year, the view after sun fall
is dark date palms lufting good-byes and.
goodnights.  Lucky sky behind tall trees
is papaya warm.  And some hand has backlit
the sea, the ocean, with aquamarine.  It’s
as if the far side of this horizon is not water
but glass, and el sol, settled in over there,
focused for all he is worth on glowing
Pacific’s salt azure.  Uncanny, the colors
a dying sun looses on the world,
like a well gone riddled with holes
floods a square until asphalt and grass
are the same broad mirror showing trees
how they look when they bend, cars
how they move when they glide into gear,
columns on courtly mansions how grandly
they stand, and life, as it passes, how fast
it speeds by toward death.  Now the dark
palms lift their roots and move further
into night, disappear into an ocean some hand,
perhaps the same hand, has emptied and
refilled with a total absence of light.
Only sounds between casitas –
dogs barking stories from block to block,
a car alarm the next street over, voice
of a woman too distant to know what
was said – tango with hours.

You know how
a voice comes and without seeing the maker
of the words, gender is clear as a bell.
Without knowing her language or what
her words mean, you know she is a mother,
she will be obeyed, and loved for her
absoluteness.  Such voices are not
questioned.  Such voices simply are. 
Such was the voice that came in
and then faded through my window tonight.  
Now, all the dog stories told, old mongrels
snore with the stars.  The car alarm is gone,
giving back night’s skin; when it went silent,
as startling as when it began, claiming nothing
for its warnings.  I am certain the tides
are too far away to hear, or the breakers,
on hiatus from crashing to shore, are unfolding
one at a time, rolling out like translucent tongues,
long and wide, ready to speak of how water fares
on the south side, unwilling to wake the tired sand. 

                                    To be sighted
in the middle of night, be hearing in
the center of quiet, leaves a stranger curled
next to the heart, another eased under the tongue,
a third with a net on a long handle, who sits
where the ribs almost meet, catches pulses
and beats, keeps them from straying out
on the dark where the mongrels sleep. 
Phantoms drift in and out, stop by to lift
the tongue, say hello to the dreamer there,
but the red child of words cannot speak,
rolls noises up from the lungs, grunts and turns
with lessening squeaks, and so the drifter
moves on.  He would sneak through
the chambers of the heart, but is barred
by the stranger there; he would steal
the net of the pulse catcher, but is caught
by the net, instead, and thrown to a toe
where he pinches you awake.  And each
morning do you thank them?  The mothers
who call you inside and the inside strangers
who hide under tongues and swing from
your ribs  catching thieves who would
wrestle your heart from your chest?  No –
for these miracles of breath, sight, sound
you pay no price, offer no crowns, see
another blue sky, green frond, red roof
without knowing you see them at all; hear
another dog bark stories of high mountains
and gulches where coyotes grow horns,
cacti are covered with teats that never empty,
and the men are all kind. 



[after Philip Levine, Getting There, The Simple Truth]

Road Work in Baja and The Middle School Boy

He turns warning posts on their sides and makes 
orange hurdles, bright as carrots, set crosswise
into the ditch like ladder rungs down the center
of Calle Guanabana.  He tests for firmness,
kicks one end and then the other, before placing
the next and the next, as if planting hazards
for futures, maybe entrance exams for universities, or
a senorita’s refusal to dance.  Twice, he’s run at them,
left the ground, soared with legs stretching
a high, long stride, as if in a moon race
where gravity holds no one back.  Then, perhaps
desire outreaches pace, or ground becomes a draw
not to be ignored, and he is galloping the channel
left by earlier laborers, feet touching this world
step by step.


[After Ted Kooser, A Washing of Hands, Delights & Shadows] & shadows]

What Happens When The Word Won’t Come

Today William Stafford’s many stones
made a marker under the skylight, one
of those stacks of relatively flat rocks
that say: 

one was
here & placed us
just so for reasons
we don’t understand

For reasons I don’t understand
the word for that rock pile skips
over my tongue, hits the back
of my throat, lifts again to nick
along molars, but refuses
(even silently in letters soft-leaded
on the page) to form.  It is a hierarchy
of rocks, smallest on top, largest footprint
on the bottom, more in the middle space. 

I know you can see what I cannot find. 
I will blame this lapse of easy-word
catching on the ceiling fan, not on the sun
or the earth or the sky turned down
like an ironware bowl glazed blue
and fired with runnels in tact.  Not on
a dead poet’s crows or stones.  It is all 

a balancing act – the remembered, what
is not, the naming of acts, after effects,
how soon one topples, or stands. 

Is it enough that I know there is a word
for such a marker stacked out of stones?
After all, it’s not the compilation I admire
in the end, but the elements, stone by stone
that cause my heart to cave in.


[after reading three Stafford poems: “Things That Happen Where There Aren’t Any People”, “The Early Ones”, and “Notice What This Poem is Not Doing” from Contemporary American Poetry, Fifth Edition]