William Stafford

William Stafford, “Bess”

I pulled down a copy of William Stafford’s The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems and noticed a dog-eared page in the middle of the book. It’s not like me to turn over a sheet like that, and in this case it looked like I had twisted two pages downward, as if emphatically.

I don’t recall reading this poem, “Bess,” let alone marking it, but based on the subject, I can only assume I must have read it in the throes of my stage 4 diagnosis and treatments. Depending on which day I read the poem, I might have marked it out of recognition, aspiration, irony, or disdain — I don’t remember with which emotion I reacted, but any of them would have been honest.


Ours are the streets where Bess first met her
cancer. She went to work every day past the
secure houses. At her job in the library
she arranged better and better flowers, and when
students asked for books her hand went out
to help. In the last year of her life
she had to keep her friends from knowing
how happy they were. She listened while they
complained about food or work or the weather.
And the great national events danced
their grotesque, fake importance. Always

Pain moved where she moved. She walked
ahead; it came. She hid; it found her.
No one ever served another so truly;
no enemy ever meant so strong a hate.
It was almost as if there was no room
left for her on earth. But she remembered
where joy used to live. She straightened its flowers;
she did not weep when she passed its houses;
and when finally she pulled into a tiny corner
and slipped from pain, her hand opened
again, and the streets opened, and she wished all well.

William Stafford