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Like a Beggar

Like a Beggar
by Ellen Bass
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2014
70 pages
Reviewed by Karen L. Erlichman

Poetry is like liturgy; at times I want to follow the order of things one piece at a time, allowing the flow of prose and images to carry me. Other times I want to open the book to a random page and see what speaks to my soul. Ellen Bass’s third book of poetry, Like a Beggar, is a beautiful collection of forty-six poems that lift up and illuminate themes of aging, loving, parenting, vulnerability, and spirituality.

Bass is a Jewish writer whose poetry will appeal to readers and writers from many faith traditions. She is able to tell a story with textured layers in a single poem that captures the tenderness of a relationship, a moment in time, or a particular stage of life. Bass also courageously takes on such charged topics as child abuse, sexuality, war, and other “paraphernalia of humans” (43, “Ode to the Fish”). In “Cold” she writes, “… For a moment / it seems possible that every frailty, every pain, / could be an opening, a crack that lets the unexpected / reach us. / How can I remember this / when I’m old and need so much” (27).

Like a Beggar includes stories of relationships with lovers, friends, and family members, and snapshots of grace in everyday acts. “Ode to Boredom” invites, “The world that had been rushing by so fast / slowed down, stopped. I stood still / in my bare feet, light falling through the doorway / at an angle that seemed never to change, / as though the low winter sun stretch out on the limestone / and fell asleep there” (39–40).

On her website, Bass shares audio files of poetry readings, with some from this collection (and earlier works). This is a wonderful way to hear her poems read in her own voice. Bass offers workshops and readings around the United States, including extended writing retreats with other poets.

Each poem lends itself beautifully to meditation, reflection, and journaling, and might also inspire your own writing. This collection will touch the hearts of spiritual directors and seekers who find seeds of holiness in poetry that can be planted in daily spiritual practice, on retreat, or in groups.

Karen Lee Erlichman, MSS, LCSW, lives in San Francisco, California, USA, where she provides psychotherapy, spiritual direction, supervision, and mentoring. She is a co-founder of Practistry.

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