Ellen Bass
Their Naked Petals

While Sophie lay in perfect symmetry
between death and life, I pictured da Vinci’s
Vitruvian man stretched within the hoop of existence.
Her blood was summoned out of her body and wheeled
through a mechanical angel that breathed
it back from the blue of night sky
to the iron red of oxygen. While she lay still—
a copy of herself—drugged beyond an eyelid’s
flicker, a stray synapse firing, nothing
to waste a joule of strength, 
I picked the tenderest string beans
on my son’s farm, thick fringe hanging
under leafy awnings,
some green, some a purple deep
as the dyes of royalty.
When the pods are young each is so slight.
We harvested for hours to fill a lug,
mounding the slender bodies as the sun blazed.
We dug up beets, rude lumps
the gophers inscribed with their incisors.
We carried melons against our breasts,
fragrant with sugar and time. We all know
one life is not worth more than another,
but who does not beg for mercy?
Who does not want to be the one
who slips through the fence
when the god on watch turns away to take a piss?
The phone in my pocket rang and rang
and with each call the odds fell.
I was already sweating as I started in
on the black-eyed Susans. Rows so yellow
it seemed such brightness could not have ruptured
from the dun-colored soil.
Tolstoy gave us the scene: Levin walking the streets
the morning after Kitty says she’ll marry him.
He’s dazzled by everything he sees—children
on their way to school, pigeons flying from a roof,
a hand arranging cakes in a shop window.
How is it that fear can also burnish the world?
The flowers opened their naked petals, shivering
gold in the hot breeze. I cut
only the freshest, centers packed with florets.
I stripped the leaves from the stems,
set them in water. One bucket and then another.
As the day wore on, the heat mounted, the light slanted
into my eyes. All I could see was the shadow
of the jagged corolla, blinded as I was by a sun
that I understood, for a moment, was a mortal fire
that would have its own death.
I remember the tough hairy stems. I remember
the green stain on my hands.
I remember my son with his face in his hands, my hand
on his shoulder, the bare muscle of his arm, his hardened palms.
And while Sophie lay still, unknowing as dirt,
we kept on—the gleaming eggplant, 
the humble cabbages, the scarves of heat.

Found In Volume 42, No. 06
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Ellen Bass
About the Author

Ellen Bass’s books include Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon, 2014), The Human Line, and Mules of Love. She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973).