Morning Poem: Ellen Bass’s “Pleasantville, New Jersey, 1955”

Galaxy_TreeSaw this poem posted on Poetry Daily yesterday. I love its exploration of the urban experience, of being able to connect with one’s surroundings (natural or otherwise) and find one’s place in the “spiraling galaxy” of which we are all a part. The poem is also an excellent lesson in sensory detail, specifically capturing the sights and sounds of the city. Enjoy!

Pleasantville, New Jersey, 1955

I’d never seen a rainbow or picked
a tomato off the vine. Never walked in an orchard
or a forest. The only tree I knew
grew in the square of dirt hacked
out of the asphalt, the mulberry
my father was killing slowly, pounding
copper nails into its trunk.
But one hot summer afternoon
my mother let me drag the cot onto the roof.
Bed sheets drying on the lines,
the cat’s cardboard box of dirt in the corner,
I lay in an expanse of blueness. Sun rippled
over my skin like a breeze over water.
My eyelids closed. I could hear the ripe berries
splatting onto the alley, the footsteps
of customers tracking in the sticky, purple mash.
I heard the winos on the wooden crates,
brown bags rustling at the throats of Thunderbird.
Car engines stuttered, came to life and died
in the A&P parking lot and I smelled grease and coffee
from the diner where Stella, the dyke, washed dishes
with a pack of Camel’s tucked
in the rolled-up sleeve of her t-shirt.
Next door, Helen Schmerling leaned on the glass case
slipping her fist into seamed and seamless stockings,
nails tucked in, to display the shade, while Sol
sucked the marrow from his stubby cigar,
smoke settling into the tweed skirts and mohair sweaters.
And under me something muscular swarmed
in the liquor store, something alive
in the stained wooden counter and the pungent dregs
of beer in the empties, my mother
greeting everyone, her frequent laughter,
the shorn pale necks of the delivery men,
their hairy forearms. The cash register ringing
as my parents pushed their way, crumpled dollar
by dollar, into the middle class.
The sun was delicious, lapping my skin.
I felt that newly arrived in a body.
The city wheeled around me—
the Rialto movie, Allen’s shoe store, Stecher’s Jewelry,
the whole downtown three blocks long.
And I was at the center of our tiny
solar system flung out on the edge
of a minor arm, a spur of one spiraling galaxy,
drenched in the light.

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