Black Coffee

Ellen Bass

I didn’t know that when my mother died, her gravewould be dug in my body. And when I weaken,she is here, dressing behind the closet door,hooking up her long-line cotton bra,then sliding the cups around to the front,leaning over and harnessing each heavy breast,setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders,reins for the journey. She’s slicking her lips withFire & Ice. She’s shoveling the car out of the snow.How many pints of Four Roses did she slideinto exactly sized brown bags? How many casesof Pabst Blue Ribbon did she sling onto the counter?All the crumpled bills, steeped in the smellsof the lives who’d handled them—their sweat,onions and grease, lumber and bleach—she openedher palm and smoothed each one. Thenstacked them precisely, restoring order.And at ten, after the change fund was counted,the doors locked, she uncinched the girth, unbuckledthe bridle. Cooked Cream of Wheat for my father,mixed a milkshake with Hershey’s syrup for me,and poured herself a single highball,placed on a yellow paper napkin.Years later, when I needed the nightlyhighball too, she gave me this story.She’d left my father in the hospital—this time they didn’t know if he’d live,but she had to get back to the store. Halfwayshe stopped at a diner and ordered coffee.She sat in the booth with her coat still on,crying, silently, just the tears rolling down,and the waitress never said a word,just kept refilling her cup.

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Ellen Bass’s most recent poetry book is Indigo (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Her poems appear frequently in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and many other magazines. Among her awards are Fellowships from the NEA, the California Arts Council, three Pushcart Prizes, and The Lambda Literary Award. In 1973, she coedited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks!, and her nonfiction includes the groundbreaking The Courage to Heal. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz jails, and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.

Port Townsend, Washington

"Bass’s work―about marriage and parenting, illness and recovery, small daily pleasures―cultivates an exuberance that’s born of, and balanced by, close watchfulness."
The New York Times

“A bold and passionate new collection… Intimacy is rarely conveyed as gracefully as in Bass’s lustrous poems.” —Booklist

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