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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Poetry XLII -- Never the Same Twice :: Lisel Mueller

“  When I am asked
    how I began writing poems,
    I talk about the indifference of nature.  ”

Alone, these words are fantastic.  Right?  Brilliant.  Sure.  Genius?  …

(See?  I’ve got this thing with “genius,” going back, as far as I can tell, to the day I learned my dad prayed that none of his kids would be one.  (Dad:  prayer answered.)  I guess I bring it up again because there seems to be this indelible connection between the definition—at least in practice—of genius and that of art—art being, or any work thereof, as difficult to define as genius is to identify or, maybe more so, explain.)

…  But it’s the rest of the poem that brings this thing really around to make a glorious connection I didn’t anticipate.  Perhaps it’s this convergence—or the millions just like it that happen all over the world all the time—that drew me in and bubbled up that word—“genius”—again from its little locker back there.

Here’s the poem:

When I am Asked
by Lisel Mueller – Pulitzer Prize winner, 1996

When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.

It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
everything blooming.

I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the day lilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or unbroken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.

I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.

It’s those last three lines, right? —that metaphysical power of words—particularly for those who know how, even a little, to really use them?

So I picked out the book, Mueller’s Alive Together, just an hour or so ago from a box of my books I picked out from a mountain of them out in my garage.  (I think this is the benefit of having sold all my bookshelves: I can’t just pick out all the same old books because I have no idea where they are.)  This is another of the books I inherited back at the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy from my predecessor.  Unlike the others, this one is full of that teacher's annotations.  Normally, this would bother me, particularly as I’m generally so averse to writing in books that it took me three-quarters of a semester before I started highlighting my law books.

Anyway, by way of the poem above, the experience of reading by way of another reader’s reading, and an interesting thing I heard at church this morning—remarkably apropos—I think I’m a step closer to understanding the confluence of genius in art (if nowhere else).

Hugh Nibley, a once religious studies and linguistics professor at Brigham Young University, was the source of the quotation that caught my attention.  I don’t have the quotation in front of me, nor have I found it online, but here’s the gist of it:  That scripture isn’t the words before us, penned by the prophets, but the experience of reading those words.

That’s pretty big, particularly religiously—well, if you’re one who happens to read scripture, anyway—but nearly as much so for the reader of literature, the viewer of art, and, most approachably, the listener of music.  When I’m trying to pin down why it is I think a certain work, or a certain artist, is genius, it usually begins with not the substance of the art itself, but the ineffable experience that blooms or emerges or ka-pows right there in that intangible space somewhere between my senses and the work.  Even afterward, trying to rationalize it, trying to objectify it, remove that emotional response, I can never separate myself from that initial experience, which brings me to the next of the poems from Mueller:

A Farewell, A Welcome
               After the lunar landings
Good-bye pale cold inconstant
tease, you never existed
therefore we had to invent you

               Good-bye crooked little man
               huntress who sleeps alone
               dear pastor, shepherd of the stars
               who tucked us in               Good-bye

Good riddance phony prop
con man moon
who tap-danced with June
to the tender surrender
of love from above

Good-bye decanter of magic liquids
fortuneteller par excellence
seduce  incubus medicine man
exiles’ sanity       love’s sealed lips
womb that nourished the monstrous child
and the sweet ripe grain Good-bye
               We trade you in as we traded
               the evil eye for the virus
               the rose seat of affections
               for the indispensbile pump
we say good-bye as we said good-bye
to angels in nightgowns                 to Grandfather God

Good-bye forever Edam and Gorgonzola
cantaloupe in the sky
night watchman, one-eyed loner
wolves nevertheless
Aae programmed to howl             Good-bye
               forbidden lover good-bye
               sleepwalkers will wander
               with outstretched arms for no reason
               while you continue routinely
               to husband the seal, prevail
               in the fix of infant strabismus
good-bye ripe ovum        women will spill their blood
in spite of you now          lunatics wave good-bye
accepting despair by another name

Welcome new world to the brave old words
peace    Hope     Justice
truth Everylasting             welcome
ash-colored playground of children
happy in air bags
never to touch is never to miss it

Scarface hellow we’ve got you covered
welcome untouchable     outlaw
with an alias in every country
salvos and roses               you are home
our footprints stamp you mortal


I was going to put up one more of her poems (this one inspired by Martin Gardner, no less!), but I think I’ll leave it here.  


  1. Love this, the first poem, especially. I might take it another step beyond Mueller, though. It's not just language that grieves with us, but we grieve with language. The magic of words isn't just that I can write down or say what I feel, but that someone, possibly years down the road and thousands of miles away, can pick up what I wrote and experience something similar to what I felt, no matter how they might have felt emotionally before picking up the piece. In the end, maybe the connection's empathy. We humans can feel it, and it allows for writing, whereas time/nature can't.

  2. Yes. And I would argue further that if not for a need to communicate and share, language would do nothing for our own souls.

  3. ah! i feel a lessening of the aesthetic hunger that has been gnawing at me for months now. the first poem, delicious to speak aloud!

    thank you for sharing.


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