Ellen Bass - Poetry - Mules of Love Previous1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 Next — Home


Mules of Love

I Love the Way Men Crack

I love the way men crack
open when their wives leave them,
their sheaths curling back like the split
shells of roasted chestnuts, exposing
the sweet creamy meat. They call you
and unburden their hearts the way a woman
takes off her jewels, the heavy
pendant earrings, the stiff lace gown and corset,
and slips into a loose kimono.
It’s like you’ve both had a couple of shots
Of really good scotch and snow is falling
In the cone of light under the street lamp—
large slow flakes that float down in the opalescent glow.

They tell you all the pain pressed into their chests,
their disappointed penises, their empty hands.
As they sift through the betrayals and regrets,
their shocked realization of how hard they tried,
the way they shouldered the yoke
with such stupid good faith,
they grow younger and younger. They cry
with the unselfconsciousness of children.
When they hug you, they cling.
Like someone who’s needed glasses for a long time—
and finally got them—they look around
just for the pleasure of it: the detail,
the sharp edges of what the world has to offer.

And when they fall in love again, it only gets better.
Their hearts are stuffed full as éclairs
and the custard oozes out at a touch.
They love her, they love you, they love everyone.
They drag out all the musty sorrows and joys
from the basement where they’ve been shoved
with mitts and coin collections. They tell you
things they’ve never told anyone.
Fresh from loving her, they come glowing
like souls slipping into the bodies
of babies about to be born.

Then a year goes by. Or two.
Like broken bones, they knit back together.
They grow like grass and bushes and trees
after a forest fire, covering the seared earth.

For My Daughter on Her Twenty-First Birthday

When they laid you in the crook
of my arms like a bouquet and I looked
into your eyes, dark bits of evening sky,
I thought, of course this is you,
like a person who has never seen the sea
can recognize it instantly.

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.

You dug me out like a well. You lit
the deadwood of my heart. You pinned me
to the earth with the points of stars.

I was sure that kind of love would be
enough. I thought I was your mother.
How could I have known that over and over
you would crack the sky like lightning,
illuminating all my fears, my weaknesses, my sins.
Massive the burden this flesh
must learn to bear, like mules of love.


Bearing Witness

                        for Jacki Phoenix

                        If you have lived it, then
                        it seems I must hear it.
                                    --Holly Near

When the long-fingered leaves of the sycamore
flutter in the wind, spiky
seed balls swinging, and a child throw his aqua
lunch bag over the school yard railing, the last thing,
the very last thing you want to think about
is what happens to children when they’re crushed
like grain in the worn mortar of the cruel.

We weep at tragedy, a baby sailing
through the windshield like a cabbage, a shoe.
The young remnants of war, arms sheared and eyeless,
they lie like eggs on the rescue center’s bare floor.

But we draw a line at the sadistic,
as if our yellow plastic tape would keep harm
confined. We don’t want to know
what generations of terror do to the young
who are fed like cloth
under the machine’s relentless needle.

In the paper, we’ll read about the ordinary neighbor
who chopped up boys: at the movies we pay
to shoot up that adrenaline rush—
and the spent aftermath, relief
like a long-awaited piss.

But face to face with the living prey,
we turn away, rev the motor, as though
we’ve seen a ghost—which, in a way, we have:
one who wanders the world,
tugging on sleeves, trying to find the road home.

And if we stop, all our fears
will come to pass. The knowledge of evil
will coat us like grease
from a long shift at the griddle. Our sweat
will smell like the sweat of the victims.

And this is why you do it—listen
at the outskirts of what our species
has accomplished, listen until the world is flat
again, and you are standing on its edge.
This is why you hold them in your arms, allowing
their snot to smear your skin, their sour
breath to mist your face. You listen
to slash the membrane that divides us, to plant
the hard shiny seed of yourself
in the common earth. You crank
open the rusty hinge of your heart
like an old beach umbrella. Because God
is not a flash of diamond light. God is
the kicked child, the child
who rocks alone in the basement,
the one fucked so many times
she does not know her name, her mind
burning like a star.


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