“Any reader looking to be challenged, comforted, questioned, enveloped, and seen needs to pick up a copy of Indigo immediately. It will certainly be hard to put back down again.”
What Ellen Bass invites the reader to discover and ultimately embrace through Indigo is nothing less than extraordinary: the beauty and tenderness that exists within, and as a result of, loss. Unsurprisingly, Bass must first break the reader’s heart so they can experience such communion. A cup of black coffee, a mound of potatoes, hatching larvae, and crushed sage, to mention only a few, are the otherwise everyday images in her arsenal that force us to experience a heart-wrenching kind of gratitude, breathless and necessary in this modern age in which empathy is in a state of emergency.
Bass ends her poems in a way that leaves the reader crying (legitimately), reeling, and desperately clawing at the corner of the page, hungry for more. In “Black Coffee,” she accomplishes just that:
“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.”
The author has seemingly found the ideal balance between praise, elegy, and narrative. This divine trinity informs each poem in Indigo, whether the speaker is tackling love, aging, death, or the minor aspects of living we take for granted like pulling on a sock or taking the dog for a walk.
And to be clear, there is absolutely nothing “minor” about how these topics are treated by Bass; she is a sniper, a hired assassin who wields her deathly precision through unabashed intimacy. She understands that the simple scenes of life offer a grace that is deserving of not only longer meditation, but of deep thankfulness. Arguably, Indigo provides the reader with exactly what they need to survive 2020.
“Enough” is Bass’s magnum opus. Only ten pages in, the reader cannot help but feel hypnotized and simultaneously bulldozed, in the best way possible, by this poem:
“. . . And yet . . .
this little hat of life, how will I bear
to take it off while I can still reach up?”
Here the speaker converses with their two halves: the desire to live and the desire to die, which they find are ultimately the same. The fragility of a “little hat” is a fitting metaphor for the monstrosity that is the entire life of a human person; often, as this poem resoundingly declares, one realizes how this monster was really just a moment—not a life, but a breath. Bass’s speaker recognizes: “Oh, blame life. That we just want more.” The embrasure of how what makes us human also makes us flawed is touching, timely, and gorgeous in its un-complicated presentation.
While Bass evidently loves rhyme, both internal and end, and imagery above all else, the reader notices profoundly that Indigo’s most ingenious conclusions are often reached through blank verse and unadorned language. Perhaps this is why Bass has consistently been such a giant (a gentle giant!) in the poetry realm.
Bass continues to be a lighthouse in a stormy sea for marginalized voices and the LGBTQ+ community with Indigo. A refreshingly honest, compassionate, and thoughtful collection of love poems are integral to her book’s blinding success. In “I look over and there she is,” the speaker, by virtue of complete mindfulness, creates a captivating ode to her partner’s presence. Though the lovers are apart—one is reading, while the other, the speaker, is observing—the list-like poem ties the pair together, making the environment they share the glue which binds them.
“. . . She is
breathing, moving molecules
of air aside, inhabiting
space that could go empty
Each lover’s own distance, their solitude, drives the emotional intensity of this 18-line poem. The “space” mentioned by the speaker becomes something sacred— holy, even, under Bass’s expert eye. It is space that is liminal and constant; coveted and respected; near and far. This space is the relationship between the lovers—it is their lifeline. Rilke said, “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.” The reader may assume that the speaker in this poem and the author, too, would agree with Rilke.
Indigo was one of the (few?) treasures of 2020. As poetry is always a silver lining, it would be remiss to emphasize how Indigo and its author Ellen Bass stand out, or more like jump out, among their peers both this year and in the poetry world. Any reader looking to be challenged, comforted, questioned, enveloped, and seen needs to pick up a copy of Indigo immediately. It will certainly be hard to put back down again.