by Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass

The first time I saw my boyfriend’s penis,
I thought the shaft would be covered with hair,

like the grassy knoll of my own sex.
My grandmother plucked the last feathers

off the capon, its skin slippery, follicles
little crater shaped bumps. I once wrung

the neck of a naked bird fallen from its nest,
a shard of shell still stuck to its down. Nakedness

of the newborn, smeared with vernix and blood,
the tough swirled cord pulsing, splayed like a frog

on the sunken belly of the mother. Nakedness
of my mother’s body cooling, blood receding

from her nail beds, fingers turning ivory. After death,
the jaw falls open, exposing the naked tongue, dry

and prickled as a cactus paddle. When the Torah
is lifted from the ark, it’s an honor to take off

its silver crown and breastplate, velvet cloak and robe.
After the day’s portion is read, it’s an honor to dress

the naked Word again. Laura shaved her head
so she wouldn’t have to watch her hair fall prey

to the teeth of the comb, leave a pool on her pillow.
Manet painted Luncheon on the Grass, cherries

and yellow pears tumbling from the basket.
The two men are dressed, complete with ties

and coats, the woman is naked. In the seventies
The Total Woman advised wives

to greet their husbands at the door bound
in Saran Wrap. I knew a woman who liked

to clean house naked. If someone rang the bell,
even a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses in white shirts

and black laced shoes, she answered it like that.
It was her house, she said. My husband was

her husband’s therapist. When her husband
killed himself, my husband quit his practice.

That was long ago, my ex-husband’s dead too.
When we were married he wanted me to sleep naked.

I said my shoulders got cold. So he took my
flannel nightgown and cut it off under the armpits.

We laughed so hard you’d have thought
we’d stay together. Once I passed a woman

hiking in the hills of Santa Cruz, naked
except for white athletic shoes. When my children

were small they loved to be naked. My son
stood on his chair at the dinner table, his tiny penis

poised above his plate. I was in a hotel in Missouri
flipping through the stations on TV. Half the shows

were women flashing their breasts, jamming
themselves in front of the camera or on all fours

being fucked from behind. The other half were
fundamentalists ranting against them. I love to lie

down next to Janet’s naked body. Her heat
is the closest thing I know to the sun.

So many years ago we rolled naked
down the dunes in Death Valley. The perfect

cones of her breasts, dusted with grains of sand.
When Eleanor’s daughter could not recover,

her heart was lifted out of her chest, cupped
naked in the air, and planted in a Chilean

business man. Years later, she met him.
When they embraced she felt her daughter’s heart

beating against her breast. The nakedness of houses
when people have moved out, square shadows

where pictures were taken from the wall, pennies
and paperclips, insect carcasses. Sacramento

red brown dirt without rice shoots or walnut trees,
waiting naked for the next crop of houses and malls.

Naked hunger. Naked fear. When you look into a face
and see the need, naked as peeled fruit. Naked prayer

you don’t believe in, but pray anyway
because you can’t help it, naked, stupid

in your hope. Your daughter is dancing in a cage,
her naked thighs that once pushed out between

your naked thighs, now wrap around a silver pole
while men hold their naked hunger in their naked

palms to escape their naked pain. But you can’t stop
thinking about her naked toes the first time you

took her to the sea.

Last updated September 21, 2022