Mules of Love

by Ellen Bass
BOA Editions
87 pages $13.95
ISBN# 1-929918-22-4

Reviewed by Lesléa Newman

Ellen Bass is perhaps best known for her pioneering work with sexual abuse survivors (The Courage To Heal, I Never Told Anyone). But long before she wrote these books which changed so many women’s lives, she had published three volumes of passionate poetry, Of Separateness & Merging, I’m Not Your Laughing Daughter and Our Stunning Harvest. With Mules of Love, Bass has returned to her poetic roots, and we as readers are much richer for it.

It has become something of a cliché to say that a poet mixes the ordinary with the extraordinary, but Bass does just that-in extraordinary ways. Consider:

“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.”
(from “Everything on the Menu,” page 13)

What could be more miraculous than birth; what could be more mundane than garbage? Bass takes all of it, the guts and glory of life, and transforms her experiences into remarkable poetry that is beautifully written, easy to understand and complex in meaning and implication.

Bass’s subject is love, pure and simple-as if love could ever be pure or simple. Bass’s loves are many, her partner, Janet; her son and daughter; her former (male) partner; and herself. She is one of the most honest poets I have ever read and her poems are incredibly intimate. In “Poem to My Sex at Fifty-One” she describes herself:

“My waist thickened like pudding,
my rear end that once rode high
as a kite, now hanging like a
sweater left out in the rain…”(page 35)

In the same poem, Bass celebrates her “sex:” “that fleshy/plum is always cheerful. And new./A taut globe shining/in an old fruit tree.” (page 35)

And speaking of sex-and honesty-one of the most truthful poems I have ever read is titled (ironically) “The Sad Truth.”

“My lover is a woman. I cherish
her sex-the puffy lips of the vulva
like ripe apricot halves, the thin inner lips
that lie closed, gently as eyelids.”(page 39)

The poem goes on to praise the delicious aspects of female anatomy (and we all know there are many). The poet tells us she has been with her lover for sixteen years,

“Yet sometimes, I do miss a penis,
that nice thick flesh that hardens
to just the right consistency…

“And I’d enjoy it stuffed inside me
like a big wad of money in a purse.
I don’t want another lover, but
sometimes I recall it.” (page 39)

Bass knows life is not all back or white, either/or. Her poems define what Keats called “negative capability,” the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time. Though from these poems it is clear she is absolutely content with her lot in life and the choices she has made, she still misses an old love,

“…like a patriot exiled from the motherland,
a newborn switched in the hospital, raised
in the wrong family. Each year that passes
is one more I miss out on.”
(from “Can’t Get Over Her” page 44)

Though Bass proclaimed in the title poem of an early book published in 1973, “I’m Not Your Laughing Daughter,” I couldn’t help but think how marvelous it would be to be her laughing daughter:

“They pulled you from me like a cork
and all the love flowed out. I adored you
with the squandering passion of spring
that shoots green from every pore.”
(from “For My Daughter on her Twenty-First Birthday” page 47)

Bass’s heart is so vast, she even loves strangers, specifically insomniacs. In the last poem of the book, titled “Insomnia” she lists them:

“Some are too cold. Some
too hot. Some hungry. Some in pain.
Some are in hotels listening to people having sex
in the next room. Some are crying.” (page 81)

She ends this litany with a prayer:
“So here’s a prayer
for the wakeful, the souls who can’t rest:
As you lie with eyes
open or closed, may something
comfort you-a mockingbird, a breeze, the smell
of crushed mint, Chopin’s Nocturnes,
your child’s birth, a kiss,
or even me-in my chilly kitchen with my coat over my nightgown-thinking of you.” (page 82)

The next time I can’t sleep, I very well may turn to Mules of Love for comfort. Someone once said that a good poem is one in which the reader can walk around the block between each line. The poems in Mules of Love meet that criteria and then some. While reading the book, I found myself pausing to sit back, close my eyes and mull over a line, whether it contained a breathtaking image or a startling insight. Bass is not only a poet, she is a teacher, and what she wants us to learn or as the title of one of her poems says,

“The Thing Is”
“to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands…” (page 72)

Just as that is a lesson to be learned over and over again, I will turn to the poems in Mules of Love over and over again, for their beauty, their comfort, their wisdom and their power.

© 2000 Lesléa Newman