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Poetry Reviews 2016-11-30T17:31:06+00:00

Like a Beggar

“Bass’s deftness as a poet is breathtaking in Like a Beggar. By which I mean: I am left breathless reading these poems and witnessing her control of the line. Then, I am equally awed by my own breathlessness, which Bass, of course, has elicited artfully through her control. Reading each poem I feel as though I have been walking up and down the hills of Esalen with her. Like a Beggar, sings with the clarity of a single voice alone in a large concert hall and with the gravitas of a full chorus in the finale of a sold out opera. These poems are large in their ambitions and precise in their observations.”—The Rumpus

“Ellen Bass, co-editor of the ground- breaking anthology of women’s poetry No More Masks! and self-help best-seller The Courage to Heal, reminds us of the vast universe that poets create from small, sharply-observed moments. In her third collection, Like a Beggar, Bass builds the epic from the ordinary and celebrates the ordinary as exceptional. Filled with odes and lyrical, prayer-like meditations, Like a Beggar ‘love[s] the truth.’ In the first poem ‘Relax,’ Bass warned, ‘Bad things are going to happen;’ and they do, in this book, in life, but Bass renders them livable and beautiful. After gruesome details describing the killing of a chicken, Bass reminds us, ‘looking straight at the terrible,’ of the ‘one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.’ Like a Beggar is an exuberant celebration of living in the world.” —Lilith

“In her fifth book of poetry, Bass addresses everything from Saturn’s rings and Newton’s law of gravitation to wasps and Pablo Neruda. Her words are nostalgic, vivid, and visceral. In contemplation of slaughtered chickens, a fly, jellyfish, and the ‘thousand-pound heart’ of the blue whale, Bass arrives at the truth of human carnality rooted in the extraordinary need and promise of the individual. Through Bass’ eyes, a pearly orchid is not unlike the milky thighs of a woman—’blood blooming through her veins’—and the thorax of the wasp ‘expanding and contracting’ has the power to make us aware of our ‘own shallow breath.’ In the exoskeleton of a wasp and in the earth that once fell ‘ever so slightly . . . toward the apple,’ Bass shows us that we are as radiant as we are ephemeral, that in transience glistens resilient history and the remarkable fluidity of connection. By the collection’s end—following her musings on suicide and generosity, desire and repetition—it becomes lucidly clear that Bass is not only a poet but also a philosopher and a storyteller.” —Briana Shemroske, Booklist

“The poetic voice of Ellen Bass seems to elicit a humble, inviting covenant between poet and reader: Come as you are, learn from me what you will. Drawing inspiration from the intimate tone of this book, I’m inclined to treat this not as a formal review, but rather as an opportunity to talk about a work that I found, read and loved—or perhaps, just perhaps, one that found, read and loved me. . . . Like a Beggar, is described as the ‘ongoing exploration of life’s essential question: how do we go on?’ These poems show a myriad of answers; some might be the poet’s, others might be shared, but the fundamental elements are recognized in the human condition. . . . There is a power to hope and a power to admit: ‘But to this angel of wishes I’ve worshiped / so long, I ask now to admit / the world as it is.’ In all its complexity, it is life bared to the bone, seen through the eyes of a poet who removes distance to give us what she can of tools for survival.” –Nicole M. Bouchard, The Write Place At the Write Time

“Exquisitely wrought in language and imagery, Ellen Bass’s third collection meditates on sequencing images.  Her poems open in one place and close elsewhere. . . . The reader follows Bass through each line to arrive at the closing image, a place made more beautiful in facing what came before. . . .Bass’s work reminds us of the hard jobs, the frigid waiting to catch sight of something magnificent, but Like a Beggar suggests that sometimes we catch what we already had in our hands. We feast there, on her ending images that resonate outward with the wisdom of gratitude. . . .The imagery in Like a Beggar is gorgeous.” —Laura Madeline Wiseman, Ploughshares

Like a Beggar is Ellen Bass’s most recent collection. It is, hands down, the most engaging, compelling and emotionally moving collection of poems I’ve read this past year. Every so often, I have the good fortune to read poems that resonate so deeply, they are living things that leap right off the page and sing the language of my soul. Like a Beggar does that for me. . . .This book is written with the heart and soul of a virtuoso artist and the sensibilities of a highly skilled artisan. (Stealing an image from one of her poems) Ellen Bass uses plain language to create scintillating imagery that sparkles and shines in the way a blacksmith might pound glowing red, nearly molten metal into sturdy but beautiful wrought-iron implements that endure daily use and the test of time with grace.” —Michael Gillian Maxwell, MadHat Drive-By Book Reviews


 The Human Line

“Ellen Bass’s frighteningly personal poems about sex, love, birth, motherhood and ageing are kept from mere confession by the graces of wit, an observant eye, an empathetic heart, and just the right image deployed at just the right time. The Human Line is full of real stunners.”—Billy Collins

“Ever since her first book, I have admired the tough, urgent, and wildly human poems of Ellen Bass. The Human Line deepens my regard for her necessary and indelible voice.” —Thomas Lux

“There are lovely poems in The Human Line, poems that live up to the splendid title, with all that it implies of our continuity in grief and joy. There are poems that cut deep into our sense of self and of primal relationships.”—Carolyn Kizer

“I read The Human Line straight through to the end. Ellen Bass is such a trustworthy guide—a grown woman awake to the certainty of death, to the irreconcilable losses, and to the daily imperfect reprieve of love. These are poems of quiet joy and true comfort. I read the book to the end, and then started, from the beginning, again.”—Marie Howe

“Ellen Bass is a poet who writes out of an exuberant love of life and of language. She is no stranger to either pain or joy, and is unafraid of either. The poems in The Human Line tracking her mother’s dying tear my heart out, the love poems suture it with sensuality and tenderness, the ‘big picture’ poems that recognize our place in nature and the cosmic order (or disorder) make my heart expand, and the comedy tickles it. . . . I strongly applaud Ellen Bass, a poet for all seasons.” —Alicia Ostriker

The Human Line raises difficult, cosmological questions with fearless, humble, divulgence and intelligence. [Bass’s] frankness can be stunning. Overwhelming. Yet she never loses sight of what poetry needs to be. Her poetry is meticulous, controlled, suffused with memorable, resonant imagery, and wry wisdom with the immediacy of an icy, naked plunge. The Human Line is a raw, magnificent, volatile collection that will reach you in ways you’d never imagined, and grace you with shudders and guffaws.”—Christopher Soden

The Human Line is an apt title for Ellen Bass’s new book of poetry, with its clear, understated diction and imagery, its balanced portraits of humans in relationship to each other and the environment. . . . Bass offers poetry that we need to hear now, poetry that renders a complex but accessible portrait of what it is to be human. Her poetry consoles and stands up for what is necessary, nourishing, life-enhancing, and just. It is a well-made prayer for peace in the guise of art.”—Marilyn Kallet, American Book Review

“Political poetry is famously difficult to compose, and well-intentioned writers have been rightly taken to task for doing it clumsily. Here Bass elegantly shows how it can be done. . . . So here’s to Ellen Bass, with her finely tuned, gutsy empathy and her unique way of reminding us that our world is seriously wounded, in need of ‘a whole lotta love.'”—Barbara Berman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Bass makes the personal political and the political personal, and she does it with an unerring poetic ear.”—Calyx

“The book as a whole works much the same way as the opening poem, focusing first on the ordinary, but then evolving to a higher, richer level of experience. Bass moves the reader from poems about her mother’s death, through the details of her own childhood into ever-widening concerns of the human condition . . . her metaphorical language simply takes one’s breath away. . . .”—Redactions

“What Randall Jarrell said about life can be said about the poems in The Human Line: they move with ‘an unforced joy, an unwilling sadness’. . . . The Human Line is an accomplished work.” —Tam Lin Neville, The Harvard Review

“It´s been said that lightning strikes even a good poet only four or five times in a life. These poems are charred by that fire. It has burned out the sentimentality and highlighted Bass´s strong suit: the metaphor that startles into empathy. . . . The Human Line is a book I intend to keep within reach for years to come.” —Vito Victor, The Pedestal


Mules of Love

“The sudden intimacy of these poems of Ellen Bass will hold you to the page. She 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.” —Billy Collins

“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 in the same way she describes her heart: ‘like a suitcase you need to sit on to close’. 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.” —Diane Wakoski

“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.” —Maxine Kumin

“Ellen Bass writes of ordinary life with a fierce and loving passion. Her honesty, her insights, and her mastery of language, particularly metaphor, make this book compelling reading.”—Linda Pastan

“Ellen Bass sees into the life of things with a quiet power, creating a poetry that goes straight to the heart. Bass is a poet of the elemental, always struggling to manage the science and biology of life with the mysteries of religion, philosophy and consciousness. In doing so, she helps us to appreciate the small miracles of this common life that we often take for granted. It’s as if she is so startled to be alive, she can’t help asking every moment to stop and let her examine it, ask it a question. In this age of violence and disconnection, as we spend more and more time looking for a technological fix, this kind of poetry is a necessary reminder of who we are, why we’re here and where we are going, each day bountiful, spacious, precious. It is a poetry that opens our eyes so that we see our lives as a continuum of such days. Ellen Bass has created a woman who stands on the edge of her life, looking for the moment that might change us all.” —Dorianne Laux

“Bass fills her book with poems that are inclusive and energetic, Whitmanesque . . . . Throughout the book, Bass makes careful, effective use of figurative language; each poem moves in small waves of metaphor. . . . What sets [the poems in Mules] apart is Bass’s stunning use of language and the ability to render with absolute clarity and a lack of pretentiousness, the poignancy and quirkiness of life.” —B.J. McGrath

“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. . . . 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. . . . She is one of the most honest poets I have ever read and her poems are incredibly intimate. . . . I will turn to the poems in Mules of Love over and over again, for their beauty, comfort, wisdom and power.” Leslea Newman, Windy City Times