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Ellen Bass. Mules of Love.

A book review by Suki Wessling

Mules of Love. Ellen Bass. BOA Editions, 2002. 90 pages. $13.95.

There's something about Ellen Bass's latest book of poems, Mules of Love, that makes you glad she's not writing about you. If she did, what would she see? Her friendly neighbor's yellowed teeth “like the crazed / enamel of an old vase.” The plumber's face adorned with “eyes the amber of cellos... / the tiny garnet / threads of capillaries.” The obese man next to her on the plane, who can barely buckle his seatbelt, yet “doesn't have to ask for an extender / for which I imagine him grateful.”

On the other hand, perhaps we all should receive a poem from Ms. Bass, who writes of her lover, “and like pulling a fat shining trout from the river / she pulled the river out of me. That's / the way I want to know God.” Who dedicates gorgeous poems to her children. Who considers how she could have stopped the suicide of a man she once had casual sex with. Who writes a poem for sufferers of insomnia everywhere, awake all together, linking “hands / around the world.” Who seems able to see everyone---“the bus driver mumbling through ill-fitting teeth, / the grocery store clerk with tufts of hair sprouting from his ears”---making love.

These poems, as Billy Collins is quoted in one poem, are “mighty strong poems,” carrying details from the grotesque to the sublime with equal care and love. In the opening piece, Bass describes poems as “the portals through which we enter our lives.” In this case, the portal is through the earth, grounded and real. This is not a book for those who don't want to see beauty in the ugliest of details: Here she talks a potential suicide down from a ledge. There she compares her own vulva---as she later does a penis---to an eager dog. She reminds us that we, the imperfect and downright ugly, can have sex. And that sex allows us to forgive each other those imperfections that she illuminates---and caresses and dresses up---in her poems. And Bass doesn't shirk from portraying the more complex aspects of love and sexuality: how she after seventeen years of a lesbian relationship still occasionally misses a penis, “that nice thick flesh that hardens / to just the right consistency.” How she worries about the future, regrets the past. Her guilt is “indelible,” her troubles “familiar / as the peeling paint in the back / hallway.”

Bass writes poems about people. These are poems that contemplate the larger questions of life only as products of the smallest details: the beauty of a flower comes from its resemblance to an asshole; contemplating the G-spot leads to God; a mundane argument between lovers is matched to the extinction of tigers; a foot massage paves the way for the tranquillity “to read Hawking's patient discussion / about whether the universe is expanding, / contracting, or staying the same.” The scale of this work is small; from it we look up to see the immensity of our lives and our universe. Worrying about us like a mother, Bass, through her minutiae, writes to remind us that love will save us.

Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.

Suki Wessling photo Suki Wessling is a poet and fiction writer living in Coastal California. She wrote her first novel on purple notebook paper in the third grade, and turned it in for extra credit. After dropping out of high school, she earned degrees from Stanford University and the University of Michigan. She started a successful website design business in the early days of the Web, and now runs Chatoyant, a small poetry press (www.chatoyant.com), while taking care of her young son and awaiting the next. She plans to get a publicity photo of herself at her present age done on event of her first published book.