Saturday, April 12, 2008


Ellen Bass is an award winning author and poet, residing in Santa Cruz, California. She has published six collections of her poetry. You may possibly have heard Garrison Keillor reading some of her work. If you would like to see and hear her reading some of her own poetry, you may do so on YouTube. Go to the bottom of page 3, continued on page 4. You may also read more about her at

The poem I would like to bring to you today is from her book, The Human Line, Copper Canyon Press.

Asking Directions in Paris

Ou est le boulevard Saint Michel?
You pronounce the question carefully,
And when the native stops,
shifting her narrow sack of wine and baguettes,
lifting her manicured hand,
you feel a flicker of accomplishment.
But beyond that, all clarity dissolves,
for the woman in the expensive shoes
and suit exactly the soft gray
of clouds above the cathedral does not say
to the right, to the left, straight ahead,
phrases you memorized from tapes
as you drove around your hometown
or mumbled into a pocket Berlitz on the plane,
but relays something wholly unintelligible,
some version of: On the corner
he is a shop of jewels in a fountain
when the hotel arrives on short feet.

You listen hard, nodding,
as though your pleasant disposition,
your willingness to go
wherever she tells you,
will make her next words pop up
from this ocean of sound,
somewhat the way a dog hears its name
and the coveted syllable walk.
If you're brave enough, or very nervous,
you may admit you don't understand.
And though evening's coming on and
her family's waiting, her husband lighting
another Gauloise, the children setting the table,
she repeats it again, another gesture
of her lovely hand, from which you glean
no more than you did the first time.
And as you thank her profusely
and set off full of groundless hope,
you think this must be how it is
with destiny: God explaining
and explaining what you must do,
and all you can make out is a few
unconnected phrases, a word or two, a wave
in what you pray is the right direction.


nina at Nature Remains. said...

That's a wonderful poem, Bobbie. I haven't read Ellen Bass--but must--I like her very much.
I'm sorry you did not see beavers or eagles on your outing this week--but admire you for going there--so many would not have tried.

Anonymous said...

Bobbie: I really like this poem. This sort of thing has certainly happened to me as I try to use my very limited French! I like how she equates it with us trying to understand God's plan. He must get so frustrated!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. A most enjoyable poem. Great that you honor NPM.