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?

More by Ellen Bass

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.

Eating the Bones

The women in my family
strip the succulent
flesh from broiled chicken,
scrape the drumstick clean;
bite off the cartilage chew the gristle, 
crush the porous swellings
at the ends of each slender baton.
With strong molars
they split the tibia, sucking out
the dense marrow. 
They use up love, they swallow 
every dark grain,
so at the end there's nothing left,
a scant pile of splinters
on the empty white plate.

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:
star dust, flesh, grass. All night
I plastered my body to Janet,

breathing when she breathed. But her skin,
warm as 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.