Emigrant – a person who leaves their homeland.
Lisel Neumann’s family left Germany in the mid-1930s, moving to Italy, and then France, because her father was a political dissident. By 1939, he had found work in America as a professor at Evansville College in Indiana, and 15-year-old Lisel, with her mother and sister, fled Europe to join him.
She wrote some poetry in college, but planned to become a social worker. In 1943, Lisel Neumann married Paul Mueller, an editor, and they had two daughters, Lucy and Jenny.
Lisel Mueller (1924 – ) began writing poetry more seriously in 1953, and went on to win the National Book Award for Poetry in 1981 for The Need to Hold Still, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1997 for Alive Together: New & Selected Poems.
I was first attracted to her work by this poem:
Monet Refuses the Operation
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
I have always been extremely near-sighted, but this wasn’t discovered until I was eight years old, so my first pair of glasses were a real shock. I had no idea that other people saw the world so differently than I did.
Monet went “through the looking glass” in reverse, and discovered this alternate view in his fifties. His art gives all those blessed with “perfect” vision a glimpse of a softer, more fluid world.
Escaping her homeland; moving from one country to another, looking for refuge; then across an ocean to a new world where she had to learn English in her mid-teens — these events have all given Lisel Mueller a unique vision which she expresses in vivid poems that go straight to the heart.
When I Am Asked
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,
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 broken
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.
She writes about coming to a strange country, the difficulties of learning a new language and new customs, and the struggle to keep connections to the past while living in a very different present.
Your Tired, Your Poor
“I cannot ask you to paint the tops
of your bare mountains green
or gentle your coasts to lessen
my homesickness. Beggar, not chooser,
I hand you the life you say I must leave
at the border, bundled and tied.
You riffle through it without looking,
stamp it and put it out the back
for the trash collector. ‘Next,’ you call.
“I am free. I stand in the desert,
heavy with what I smuggled in
behind my eyes and under my tongue:
memory and language, my rod and staff,
my leper’s rattle, my yellow star.”
2 ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE
The underpaid you teacher
prints the letters t, r, e, e
on the blackboard and imagines
forests and gardens springing up
in the tired heads of her students.
But they see only four letters:
a vertical beam weighed down
by a crushing crossbar
followed by a hook,
and after the hook, two squiggles,
arcane identical twins
which could be spying eyes
or ready fists, could be handles,
could be curled seedlings, could take root,
could develop leaves.
3 CROSSING OVER
There comes a day when the trees
refuse to let you pass
until you name them. Stones
speak up and reveal themselves
as the poor of your new country.
Then you see that the moon
has chosen to follow you here
and find yourself humming the music
you stuffed your ears against.
You dream in rhyme, in a language
you never wanted to understand.
When you pick up the telephone,
the voices from home arrive
sighing, bent by the ocean.
Their letters bear postage stamps
that surprise you with their strange, bright birds.
Here, we can see Mueller’s remarkable mastery not only of language, but the tensions and gender politics of American society.
The Laughter of Women
The laughter of women sets fire
to the Halls of Injustice
and the false evidence burns
to a beautiful white lightness
It rattles the Chambers of Congress
and forces the windows wide open
so the fatuous speeches can fly out
The laughter of women wipes the mist
from the spectacles of the old;
it infects them with a happy flu
and they laugh as if they were young again
Prisoners held in underground cells
imagine that they see daylight
when they remember the laughter of women
It runs across water that divides,
and reconciles two unfriendly shores
like flares that signal the news to each other
What a language it is, the laughter of women,
high-flying and subversive.
Long before law and scripture
we heard the laughter, we understood freedom
Mueller on how the circumstances of her life are reflected in her work:
“I am always haunted by the sense that I could have been someone else, there but for the grace of God go I, that kind of thing, and that’s a reason I chose as my title poem, or as a title for the book, the poem ‘Alive Together,’ which is in the book and was written quite a few years ago, and which is a kind of catalogue of all the people I was thinking of who I might have been at various times in history, and the miracle and the accident that it is that any of us are who we are.”
“Though my family landed in the Midwest, we lived in urban or suburban environments. It was only after my husband and I built our house in Lake County, Illinois, near Libertyville, that my consciousness changed. On the first morning in our new home I woke up to the mooing of cows. Cows under my window, thirty-five miles northwest of Chicago! But there they were, rubbing against the fence that separated our one-acre lot from our neighbor’s 200-acre estate, and they were Holsteins, the only cows I knew from vacations in the flat North German countryside of my childhood. That was my initiation, and after 40 years in this house I know what time of day it is by the way the light slants. I am intimately familiar with the names and habits of the wildflowers and the birds that live in our hawthorns and aspens. We all live together, in the world and in my poems.”
Sources and Further Reading:
- “Monet Refuses the Operation” – from Second Language, © 1996 by Lisel Mueller, (Louisiana State University Press) – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/236810
- “When I Am Asked” – from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © 1996 by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press) – http://exceptindreams.livejournal.com/487316.html
- “Your Tired, Your Poor” – from Second Language, © 1986 by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press) – http://saintmarty-marty.blogspot.com/2014/07/july-5-jubilee-time-lisel-mueller-your.html
- “The Laughter of Women” – from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems,© 1996 by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press) – http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-laughter-of-women/
- Dependencies, © 1965 Lisel Mueller (University of North Carolina Press)
- Life of a Queen (chapbook), © 1970 Lisel Mueller (Juniper Press)
- The Private Life, © 1976 Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press)
- Voices From the Forest (chapbook), © 1977 Lisel Mueller (Juniper Press)
- The Need to Hold Still, © 1980 Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press)
- Second Language: Poems, © 1986 Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press)
- Waving From the Shore: Poems, © 1989 Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press)
- Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, © 1996 Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press)
- (Translator) The Selected Later Poems of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Princeton University Press, 1980.
- (Translator) Circe’s Mountain, Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.
- Learning to Play by Ear: Essays and Early Poems, © 1990 Lisel Mueller (Juniper Press)
- Academy of American Poets – https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/lisel-mueller
- The Poetry Foundation – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/lisel-mueller
- enotes: Lisel Mueller Biography – http://www.enotes.com/topics/lisel-mueller
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud