Mules of Love. Ellen Bass. BOA Editions. American Poets Continuum Series, No. 73. Rochester, New York. 2002.
Today's book of poetry bought this book by Ellen Bass at the public library in Bryn Mawr, just outside of Philadelphia.
As a rule, Today's book of poetry only writes about books that we receive in the mail. But this is my house and I get to do what I want. So here is the rare exception.
Last year I was visiting an old friend and fine poet, Chui, in Bryn Mawr. He and his astonishing wife Patt live in a huge stone house filled to the brim with art. It's a monster beautiful home that is older than Canada.
As luck would have it his backyard abuts the grounds for the public library. I checked out the "Book Sale" room and scored a mountain of poetry. I bought as much as I could carry home on the plane. It was about 30 books.
I've read them all now and this is the one I want to tell you about because it is monster good.
Everything on the Menu
In a poem it doesn't matter
if the house is dirty. Dust
that claims the photographs like a smothering
love. Sand spilled from a boy's sneaker,
the faceted grains scattered on the emerald rug
like the stars and planets of a tiny
solar system. Monopoly
butted up against Dostoyevsky.
El techo, a shiny sticker, labeling the ceiling
from the summer a nephew studied Spanish.
Mold on bread in the refrigerator
is as interesting as lichen on an oak--
its minuscule hairs like the fuzz
on an infant's head, its delicate
blues and spring greens, its plethora of spores,
whole continents of creatures, dazzling our palms.
In a poem, life and death are equals.
We receive the child, crushed
like gravel under the tire.
And the grandfather at the open grave
holding her small blue sweatshirt to his face.
And we welcome the baby born
at daybreak, the mother naked, squatting
and pushing in front of the picture window
just as the garbage truck roars up
and men jump out, clanking
metal cans into its maw.
In a poem, we don't care if you got hired
or fired, lost or found love,
recovered or kept drinking.
You don't have to exercise
or forgive. We're hungry.
We'll take everything on the menu.
In poems joy and sorrow are mates.
They lie down together, their hands
all over each other, fingers
swollen in mouths,
nipples chafed to flame, their sexes
fitting seamlessly as day and night.
They arch over us, glistening and bucking,
the portals through which we enter our lives.
When I read these poem by Ellen Bass I feel hopeful.
Mules of Love reads like a long-play record you don't want to end. It is languorous and so flesh and bone human. Ellen Bass has wandered wise into my sphere as a reader and boy was I waiting for this. Here is a poet you really would want to sit down and have a glass of red with because you know her warm understanding of the world would elevate yours.
Remodeling the Bathroom
If this were the last
day of my life, I wouldn't complain
about the shower curtain rod
in the wrong place, even though
it's drilled into the tiles.
Nor would I fret
over water marks on the apricot
satin finish paint, half sick
that I should have used semigloss. No.
I'd stand in the doorway
watching sun glint
off the chrome faucet, breathing in
the silicone smell. I'd wonder
at the plumber, as he adjusted the hot
and cold water knobs. I'd stare
at the creases behind his ears and the gray
flecks in his stubble. I'd have to hold
myself back from touching him. Or maybe
I wouldn't. Maybe I'd stroke
his cheek and study
his eyes the amber of cellos, his rumpled
brow, the tiny garnet
threads of capillaries, his lips
resting together, quiet as old friends--
I'd gaze at him
as though his were the first
face I'd ever seen.
Clearly here at Today's book of poetry we have a bias for narrative poems. We are also suckers for a style we like to call Romantic Realism. Really hoping Ms. Bass doesn't object but that's where I'd throw her hat.
Think Thomas Hart Benton meeting Andrew Wyeth.
Happiness After Sorrow
No days were good, but some were worse.
I'd gotten as far as my door--reach out,
they always tell you--then had to pee.
Two steps toward the bathroom. But
what did peeing matter? I slid down
like a coat shrugged off. And slumped there,
on the edge of the frayed rug, I catalogued the worst
things that could happen to a parent. This--
my daughter stripping the medicine chest, rimming
the sink with plastic cylinders, her life
suspended in transparent amber--
was number three.
And then years pass. And you're making meatballs.
Exactly the way your family likes them.
A little bread crumbs. A little matzoh meal.
No egg. A dash of sherry.
You're browning them in a pan. Diana Krall's
singing "Peel Me a Grape." And you're happy.
The present is what you're crazy for,
each moment plump and separate as a raindrop
reflecting the world on its curved skin.
It happens. Our troubles familiar
as the peeling paint in the back
hallway, the stain on the couch
where the cat threw up.
We live with all the unbearable knowledge--
the hole in the ozone, the H-bomb,
and right now fathers are hurrying
children in their arms across barbed-wire borders.
After we weep, we fold the newspaper
and drive our kids to school.
How do we do it? How do we want
to make supper again? Squeezing
cold mush through my fingers, patting
it into pies. How does love keep
swelling in the cavities of our frail bodies,
how do these husks hold so much jagged
pleasure in their parched split skins?
I tip the pot, oily water rushes out
and steam rises. All I have lost
swirls around me. I scoop
the mist with my palms.
We passed Mules of Love around the office for weeks, reading it aloud, sometimes reading the same poem twice in a row, out loud. Every single poem made us like this poetry more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOREllen Bass has published several poetry collections, including Mules of Love (BOA Editions, 2002), a Lambda Literary Award winner; and The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book. She coedited with Florence Howe one of the first anthologies to highlight feminist poetry, the groundbreaking No More Masks! Her nonfiction books include the best-selling The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse and Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth. She has published poems in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Sun,Ploughshares, and of course, Rattle. Among her many awards is a Pushcart Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, the Larry Levis Prize from Missouri Review, and the New Letters Prize. Bass teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. Her new collection of poetry, Like a Beggar, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in early 2014. (ellenbass.com)
"The sudden intimacy of these poems will hold you to the page. Ellen Bass knows an awful lot and is ready to tell it all. Her poems will quicken the pulse, and as you read you will become anxious to discover more and more. But she can only tell you so much, one good line at a time, and that is more than enough."
"Reading Mules of Love gave me great joy. I found the poems striking, full, complete and beautifully crafted. Ellen Bass is a poet writing about quintessential beauty, and these poems are swollen with it. These radiant poems emerge from her Santa Cruz garden of life. Bass writes with a Dionysian ecstasy yet infuses it with the calm energy of a gardener's earthy-hands."
"Ellen Bass's voice is direct and unambiguous. These are intimate, confessional poems, yet in almost every instance they go beyond the specific details to strike a universal chord. A highly readable and touching book."
"Ellen Bass writes of ordinary life with a fierce a loving passion. Her honesty, her insights, and her mastery of language, particularly metaphor, make this book compelling to read."
Ellen Bass reading "Gate C22"
Cornelia Street Cafe