The Thing Is


The road to High Head Castle, first built in the Middle Ages and then destroyed by fire in 1947.

The thing is
to love life
to love it even when you have no
stomach for it, when everything you’ve held
dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands
and your throat is filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you so heavily
it’s like heat, tropical, moist
thickening the air so it’s heavy like water
more fit for gills than lungs.
When grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
How long can a body withstand this? you think,
and yet you hold life like a face between your palms,
a plain face, with no charming smile
or twinkle in her eye,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

–Ellen Bass

I read this poem every day when I was in Cumbria. It has an incantatory power for me, an extraordinary coupling of life’s deep pain with that “plain face” of hope. Thank you to my friend Linda for passing it along to me.


Remains of High Head Castle, Cumbria

6 Comment

  1. I read this poem often, wishing Ellen Bass was my mother, my sister, my friend. This is one of my favorite poems of all time. Hopeful, despite hard things in life. So hopeful.

  2. Maureen says:

    To come across this today, when I am missing my brother who died in May, is to receive a gift, a gift of hope that I will pass on to my friends at Our Cancer. Thank you.

  3. Thank you Terresa and Maureen. This is one for those who know about grief.

  4. Janet says:

    Thank you for posting the images surrounding the Lodge. They bring back sweet memories. I was concerned about the well being of the place when I read of the floods “of biblical proportions,” as one resident called them. Thanks also for the very useful poem. I have copied it to my hard drive so I can retrieve it at those inevitable moments. Is the 12th line transcriped accurately — perhaps “an obesity of grief”? Great metaphor.

  5. phineas says:

    My thanks for the evocative photos of rural Cumbria. Notice in the photo of the abandoned chateau that the hedges are being well maintained.

    The poem teaches me that I personally have never been grief-stricken.

  6. Thanks Phineas for stopping by. And to Janet, big thanks for catching the error in transcription. It is indeed “an obesity of grief.” Great catch from an exacting and well trained historian.

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