I picked up Ellen Bass’s extraordinary fourth collection the week I lost a beloved pet, when I didn’t want to read, even to think, and it’s a testament to Indigo’s artistry that it met me there. Indigo (Copper Canyon Press) is in dialogue with the meat of mortal existence—birth and death, mourning and desire—and Bass holds these polarities, often within a single poem, illustrating how they link us not only to each other, but also to the inexorable revolutions of the natural world of which we are only a small part.
Bass’s speaker is alive to the sensual pleasures of middle age—the joys of growing old with someone, the wonders of watching children mature—the fulfillment of harvesting what you’ve planted. But rot peeks through, as in the opening poem, “Sous-Chef,” where she marvels, “With all that’s destroyed, look / how the world still yields a golden pear. / Freckled and floral, a shimmering marvel.” Bass doesn’t settle for what is simply lovely; there’s always an undercurrent, as in “Ode to the Pork Chop,” where she cautions that, “Everything you do will cause / harm,” and yet, “that sizzling / tells us all will be well.” Yes, in each life, “there will be mayhem and there will be bliss.”
Ultimately, Bass doesn’t see it as a question of duality, but rather one of balance—the world offers up its entire, vast self to those strong enough to hold darkness alongside light, rather than deny or push that darkness away. Bass demonstrates how intimacy with loss can enrich our mortal lives in poems like “The Orange-and-White High-Heeled Shoes,” where Bass describes shopping for shoes at a department store with her mother, now “dead ten years.” Here, Bass’s gift for illuming the everyday is on full display as she describes “how we slid into them / like girls diving into a cedar-tinged lake, like bees / entering the trumpet of a flower.”
Of course, we aren’t to mistake Bass’s wisdom for a desire to go gentle into that good night. Her speaker is overwhelmed by horrified surprise at calamity as any of us in “How It Began”: “we could both feel the floor’s slight pitch. / We were in for a long long voyage / without a chance to grab even / an orange or comb our hair.” And we watch her struggle, wondering in “The Long Recovery,” “Is it sacred / or insane that I matter so much / to myself, that she / matters so much to me?” But, ultimately, the reality of mortality only enriches Bass’s appreciation for the things of this world, as in “Enough”:
Oh, blame life. That we just want more.
Summer rain. Mud. A cup of tea.
Our teeth, our eyes. A baby in a stroller.
Another spoonful of crème brûlée,
sweet burnt crust cracking.
And hot showers, oh lovely, lovely hot showers.
Bass also offers her loving, unsparing attention to the natural world. In “Gopher,” we watch the offending animal dragged from its hole and dispatched with a strike, “bit of breath / I bury under a stone.” In “Pushing,” it’s the birth of larva, “white, soft-bodied babies pushing and pushing,” which prompts the idea that “I have to look at my fear with curiosity.” A half-drowned lizard is given mouth-to-mouth in “Kiss,” until its “wrinkled lids peeled back.” Through the speaker’s eyes, we learn that we are not alone in our deepest struggles—we share them with our fellow living creatures.
But Indigo’s greatest gift may be how it urges us to reach toward each other in moments of great pain. Bass enumerates that pain—from the “Pines at Ponary” whose “needles offered oxygen / to victims and executioners, the same,” to a mother-in-law’s “mind an abandoned building” (“Not Dead Yet”)—offering an unsparing catalog of how what we do to each other is compounded by what time does to us. Bass then celebrates the bravery it takes to recommit oneself to a world that’s delivered suffering and promises more of the same, to declare in “Any Common Desolation,” “You may have to break / your heart, but it isn’t nothing / to know even one moment alive.”