Ellen Bass’s poetry books include The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press) and Mules of Love (BOA Editions). Among her awards are the Lambda Literary Award, New Letters Poetry Prize, the Larry Levis Prize from Missouri Review, and the Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod. She teaches in the MFA poetry program at Pacific University.
Walking by Circle Market Late at Night
The city is quiet
as though it’s cried itself out.
Circle Market, its windows busy
with stickers for surfboard wax and bands
with names like Make-A-Mistake,
is dark now too. Last year
the owner was held up,
but he handed over the money
and wasn’t shot.
I sealed two twenties and a ten
in an envelope and walked to the corner.
We went there a lot
when the kids were little,
popsicles and nights we ran out of milk.
Mr. Song on his high stool
by the cash register, presiding
over the aisles, the dusty cans
of Campbell’s soup and Hamburger Helper,
Huggies and Ajax.
His body looked sunken now
and his eyes jerked over to the door
when he told me the man pointed
a gun at his wife—she’d been sitting
on a stack of the Sunday Chronicles–
and warned him not to reach
for the phone. After that
he wouldn’t let me pay for my pint
of Haagen Dazs and added
an ice cream sandwich on top–
for the child he said, even though
the youngest is grown and gone.
When I protested he slipped in
a Snickers bar and when I insisted
he couldn’t keep doing this,
he tossed in a handful of Chiclets.
Last summer when my friend was visiting,
I sent her instead, but he’d seen us
walking the dog together
and wouldn’t let her pay either,
sneaking in a pack
of American Spirit Lights and a yellow Bic.
The Greeks believed
every human act is perilous.
I can’t go in there anymore.
Ode to The God of Atheists
The god of atheists won’t burn you at the stake
or pry off your fingernails. Nor will it make you
bow or beg, rake your skin with thorns,
or buy gold leaf and stained-glass windows.
It won’t insist you fast or twist
the shape of your sexual hunger.
There are no wars fought for it, no women stoned for it.
You don’t have to veil your face for it
or bloody your knees.
You don’t have to sing.
The plums bloom extravagantly,
the dolphins stitch sky to sea.
Each pebble and fern, pond and fish
are yours whether or not you believe.
When fog is ripped away
just as a rust red thumb slides across the moon,
the god of atheists isn’t rewarding you
for waking up in the middle of the night
and shivering barefoot in the field.
This god is not moved by the musk
of incense or bowls of oranges,
the mask brushed with cochineal,
polished rib of the lion.
Eat the macerated leaves
of the sacred plant. Dance
till the stars blur to a spangly river.
Rain, if it comes, will come.
This god loves the virus as much as the child.