ways to persist

Jan 28, 2022 poetry appreciation

Lots of us find this time of year difficult at the best of times and, as we have noted before, these are not the best of times. So for the next while I want to share some poems which I find helpful. I would also be delighted to hear from you about poems which support you to carry on. (Drop me an email or comment below and we can have your poem in the column sometime soon.) But for today I want to share Ellen Bass’s ‘The Thing Is‘ which I find breathtakingly honest and stark and beautiful, and which definitely inspires me.

Part of what I love is how the poet doesn’t elide the intensity and magnitude of the pain life can bring us—of how we can lumber and lurch, weighed down by ‘an obesity of grief’. The poem is full of vivid images, of immediate sensory experience—of tasting, being ‘sickened’, and attempting to digest; of drowning and staggering—’burnt paper’, ‘silt’, ‘thicken[ed]… air, ‘tropical heat’, being ‘weigh[ed] down’. The imagery evokes how difficult it can be simply to move from moment to moment when we are stricken by loss or difficulty.

However, Bass offers an equally vivid picture of what to do: ‘hold life like a face/ between your palms, a plain face,/ no charming smile, no violet eyes’. There something about the resolutely un-beautiful image this evokes for me which feels so right; I picture life’s face being squashed ugly-comically between those ‘palms’. The poet reminds us that when life is not beautiful, ‘love’ may not mean feeling rhapsodically happy but rather consist in the clear-eyed, repeated acceptance, the facing of the facts, the desire to stay with what is simply because it is what is. The repetition in those final lines, and the simplicity of the words, underline this. But we’re reminded, too, that this is more than endurance, more than KBO: that the “thing to do” is to be willing to be vulnerable, to continue to be open to the twinned, twined pains and beauties of existence. Don’t just endure. Embrace.

And by the time I get to the end of ‘The Thing Is’, I’m newly inspired to greet these grey mornings with the poem’s final, courageous, beautiful commitment: ‘yes, I will take you/ I will love you, again’. Do get in touch to share the poems which en-courage you.

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