Poetry

Ellen Bass – If You Knew

“What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?”

– Ellen Bass


In order to know what kindness really is, writes Naomi Shihab Nye in her famous poem about the power of compassion and empathy, we have to first know loss and sorrow; likewise Philip Larkin in his heartbreaking poem about a dead hedgehog reflects on the ways in which beings affect one another, both consciously and otherwise, and the wonderful or tragic consequences that can stem from the smallest, most mindless encounters. In her poem, If You Knew, Ellen Bass draws us in to brief moments of contact, brushes with others that fill our day, and urges us to consider the fleeting nature of this and every life and thing that we meet. Similar to the Buddhist practice of contemplating impermanence, this request to maintain focus on what is transient and could vanish in an instant is foundational in the development of compassionate response between people.


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?

Ellen Bass
From: The Human Line



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