“Gophers” by Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass


I’ve tried to kill the gophers. On stained
knees, up to my elbows in their earthen
tunnels, setting the green toothed trap, my human
scent masked with anise oil, then sweetened
with leaves of the sweet potato vine my neighbor maintains
they can’t resist, a rodent version of caviar and champagne.
But the dead must do some arcane
transmission of wisdom to the living. They’ve eaten
every fleck of leaf, sprung each trap with cool disdain.
They’re marvels, miniature Charlemagnes. Then
suddenly, I hear it—like a tiny microphone’s hidden
under the dirt. You couldn’t mistake this blazon
for anything else, like Louis Armstrong singing
It’s a Wonderful World. But when
the little fists of four leaf clover begin
to tremble, I’m confused not to feel the thrill of the hunt, the cocaine
rush in my veins. I pick up the shovel—I’ve slain
them like this—a hose down the hole, then bash their brains,
but my will wanes. It seems pointless to kill one denizen
when there must be dozens taking the A-train,
just trying to get to Sugar Hill. Listen.
It’s not an Elizabeth Bishop fish thing.
It’s not Galway’s bear or Stafford’s deer on the mountain,
not Kunitz’s whale or Donald Hall’s paean,
scratching the jowls of a cooked pig. I look into the grainy
hole the gopher’s dug with his skinny
incisors, this corridor between
worlds, and it’s the sound that stops me. That unseen
small tearing of the roots on such a serene
morning. I’m watching the grass shiver. I’m leaning
over, straining to hear it again.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010


Ellen Bass: “I wrote ‘Gophers’ in a scheme called ‘terminal alliteration,’ which sounds dire, but is a lot of fun. I rarely write in form, but my dear friend Dorianne Laux had just done a series of short poems with lines all ending with the same consonant sound and I was inspired to try it myself. I had a great time searching for all the ‘n’ sounds and then threw a bunch into the middle of the lines themselves. I really amused myself as I worked on it.” (web)

Rattle Logo