Desert Island Books: Ellen Bass and Maxine Hong Kingston

I'm preparing for a move, and in a month I will become a bit of a vagabond for the summer before my boyfriend and I settle into our new place. As such, the majority of my possessions have to go into storage, including my print books. (I have yet to acquire an e-reader.) Contemplating packing has also made me think about what books I need on hand for the summer, and (fortunately) both are slender volumes brimming with good writing. These are the two texts I would want ship-wrecked with me, as the old cliche goes.

Mules of Love by Ellen Bass

This collection made me fall in love with poetry in a serious way. Marking her comeback to poetry after an almost two-decade hiatus, Bass focuses on her domestic life--sex with her partner, talking to her neighbors, and caring for her children. It's a book about trying to be warm, open, loving, and happy. The text shows compassion, not only for Bass' intimates but also for the reader. The poet concludes the collection by reaching out to the reader in "Insomnia," the final lines of which are, "As you lie with eyes / open or closed, may something / comfort you... even me--in my chilly kitchen / with my coat over my nightgown--thinking of you." Such warmth and hope is too rare in poetry, and (for me) Bass' aesthetic is spot-on. While every piece in Mules of Love shows strong craft, I particularly like "God and the G-Spot," "Remodeling the Bathroom," "Basket of Figs," and "Tigers and People."

To Be the Poet by Maxine Hong Kingston

In this mini-memoir, Kingston discusses a spring during which she puts away prose-writing to try her hand at poetry. However, she does not see writing poetry as simply working with a genre but rather as a way of life in which one attempts to live joyfully, openly, and in the moment. Buddhist principles permeate the narrative, which features scattered fragments of poems, humorous stories, and meditations. To Be the Poet is a manifesto about capturing happiness, and for me it has functioned in the same way Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke has for others. The first section of the book is particularly gripping, and you can hear Kingston read from the text at UC Berkley in the video below.

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