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, “Bess” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems. Copyright © 1970 by William Stafford. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota,
Source: The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 1998)
More Poems by William E. Stafford