The Muse of Work

By Ellen Bass

Featured Image: “Portrait of Mrs Marie Jeanette de Lange” (1900) by Jan Toorop

If I could choose my muse,
she’d have red hair, short, spikey,
and green cateye glasses with rhinestones at the tips.
She’d wear a sleeveless white blouse, ruffled
over shallow scallop-shell breasts.
Can you see how young she is?
I think she’s the girl Sappho loved,
the one with violets in her lap.


When she opens the door, a flurry of spring,
apple blossoms and plum, sweeps in.
But I’ve been assigned the Muse of Work.
It turns out she’s a dead ringer for my mother
as she scrambles the eggs, sips black coffee,
a Marlboro burning in a cut-glass ashtray.
Then she opens the store. The wooden shelves shine
with amber whiskeys and clear vodkas,
bruise-dark wine rising in the slender necks.
She fills in gaps where they’ve made a sale
so the rows are even, each pint and half-pint slipped into its slot.
The phone’s ringing, she’s repeating,
Good morning Hy-Grade Liquors, the refrain of a familiar song,
jotting down the order on a carboned pad.
What makes a thing beautiful?
My mother wears a dark jumper and a fresh shirt each day,
pats under her arms with talcum,
sweeps her lips with Cherries in the Snow.
She goes directly to the fifth of pale sherry she knows you want,
slipping it into a brown paper bag, sized precisely.
There’s the smell of newsprint and stale beer in the empties.
The cash register rings its tinny cymbal. In her most distinctive gesture
my mother steps out of the walk-in ice box
with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon,
bumping the door closed with her hip,
slinging the crate onto the counter.
There’s something I need, something
I want to ask her. But I know to wait
until she’s finished with the customer.
Fifty years later, my mother dead,
when I search for the words to describe
a thing exactly—the smell of rain
or the sound a glass makes
when you set it down—I’m back there
standing in the corner of the store, watching her
as she takes the worn bills,
smoothes them in her palm.


Ellen Bass is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her most recent book is Indigo (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Her poems appear frequently in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and many other journals. She coedited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks!, and cowrote The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. She teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.

Originally appeared in NOR 11.

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