Ellen Bass: I Wake Thinking about Depleted Uranium



Lying here, looking out at the day—so much

the way I left it when this part of the Earth

turned away last night—not as one spurned,

but as a woman in bed might turn her back

to her lover, only to draw in closer

to the body’s curve. In early light

the bare limbs of the great pines

look painted on the sky—

a Japanese monk, his brush thick

with sumi ink. Only now I start thinking

of depleted uranium, shaken over Iraq,

a cook gone berserk with the salt,

a crazed mother dusting talcum on her infant,

raining it down over the chubby thighs, belly, face,

the delicate nostrils, burying the child in fine powder.

Except it’s not. It’s not any of these things:

this poison with a half-life the age of the Earth.

Babies born without heads, lumps of flesh.

Soldiers returned with burning semen.

I had condoms filled with frozen peas in my freezer,

one widow said, the only way I could bear it.

These days it’s dangerous to wake,

to try to make meaning,

as when a parent stumbles away

from the small raw grave

and someone mutters, She’s with God now.

It takes four days for the dust to swirl

around the planet, to reach these pines,

their praying branches,

as though it were a blessing

they were about to receive.




Ellen Bass’s most recent book is Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014).  Her poems appear frequently in The New Yorker and The American Poetry Review. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University.

This poem is from The Human Line. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Press Canyon, 2007.

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