Book Review: The Human Line by Ellen Bass

The Human Line by Ellen Bass
Copper Canyon Press

In this powerful collection of poetry, Ellen Bass invites the reader to participate in a reawakening of sentience, a renewal of seraphic credentials.

How often we hear religious leaders deal in perfunctory, enigmatic, clandestine phrases and homilies that carry very little meaning, if any, for the uninitiated. Expressions like “washed in the blood” or “unconditional love” or “moved by the spirit” can seem vague and somewhat famished. And how do we apply them in a world filled with trauma, devastation and disappointment? It would be impossible to reduce The Human Line to a single purpose or theme, and yet it feels focused and consistent in its unflinching love of the human race. Bass manages to find lyricism and wry, genuine humor in a life fraught with frailty, stupidity, abuse and catastrophe. And, this is important, she doesn’t deal in abstractions, but details. In Subway in Madrid, she describes a middle-aged matron who delivers a strange message to two giggling teenage girls : Sois Preciosas (You are precious, i.e. valuable). They ignore her, probably not understanding…“ but one may remember those words /when a boy enters her, /spilling his river of stars, and the other, / the first time he slaps her.” This is a clear indicator of The Human Line’s undeniable rush of power and pathos. Bass has a penchant for placing the gorgeous smack-dab beside the repugnant. She does not let us, or herself, or God (…god of Joan of Arc, god of Crazy Horse, Lady Day, bringing us to our knees…. God of plutonium and penicillin, drunk, sleeping on the subway grate…) off the hook. She embraces (which is not to say enjoys) the painful and horrendous, still finding exquisite comfort in quiet, plain, epiphanies. The Human Line raises difficult, cosmological questions with fearless, humble, divulgence and intelligence. Her frankness can be stunning. Overwhelming. Yet she never loses sight of what poetry needs to be. Her poetry is meticulous, controlled, suffused with memorable, resonant imagery, and wry wisdom with the immediacy of an icy, naked plunge.

The Human Line is a raw, magnificent, volatile collection that will reach you in ways you’d never imagined, and grace you with shudders and guffaws.


Filed under: Book Review, Poetics, Prose