Lisel Mueller’s poetry can only be described as inspired. She is one of those poets that is able to drown out the noise and clatter of the world with the elegant beauty of her words and ideas. When I first picked up her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Alive Together: New and Collected Poems, I opened to a random page and started reading. As my eyes absorbed the words, I gradually became less aware of the library buzzing around me, of my worry over exams, and eventually, even of my own identity. I was lost in her poem.
It is not just one, but all of Mueller’s poems that are capable of evoking such intense involvement of the reader. Her word choice is impeccable, her subject matter, thought-provoking, and though she writes in simple phrases, each of her poems smolders with a kernel of deeper meaning. This is one of the reasons Mueller’s friend and fellow poet Linda Nemec Foster was initially drawn to Mueller’s poetry.
“[Her poetry] was very deep yet it was very accessible. It wasn’t some obtuse, obscure, abstract poetry. It was really something you could sink your teeth into, but there was always a mystery deep in the core of her work.”
Mueller was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1924 and fled the country with her parents and sister in 1939 to escape the Nazi regime. She immigrated to Evansville, Indiana, and didn’t begin writing poetry until her mother died in 1953. But she never stopped.
Mueller’s book of poetry Alive Together, published in 1996, celebrates a lifetime of stunning poetry. The book is broken into sections according to the previous publication of most of the poems in separate books. The first section is comprised of her newest poems, published in Alive Together for the first time. This section is centered on stories of the past, her family history, and reflections on mortality—the roots and remains of one’s existence. The simple language of this section serves to emphasize the complex emotions that accompany the loss of Mueller’s country, parents, grandparents, and even her eyesight. However, many of her poems have hopeful undertones, often built upon the recurring images of music, springtime, and memories—the things that death and destruction cannot corrupt or change.
In her poem “Curriculum Vitae”—the first poem in the section—she gives her personal history. In 20 numbered stanzas she describes important pieces of her life journey. The poem begins with her birth.
1) I was born in a Free City, near the North Sea
2) In the year of my birth, money was shredded into
confetti. A loaf of bread cost a million marks. Of
course I do not remember this. (1-4)
This opening reminds readers that one is not born in a vacuum. Even on the day of her birth there were forces influencing her life which were echoes of the past—remnants of past people, past events. Her life is simply a continuation of all that have come before her.
The poem chronicles her family’s escape from Nazi Germany—a “history more deadly than earthquakes or hurricanes” (12-13), their move to America, and her adjustment to American culture. She explains her entry into the world of poetry as an almost-accident, a gut reaction to loss: “The death of the mother hurt the daughter into poetry” (25). Throughout the poem she uses generalized nouns to describe her family: “the mother…the city child…the grandparents…the daughter,” making it clear that her family is only one in many that was forced to leave their home, their loved ones, and create a new life in a new country.
In another poem in this section, “Place and Time,” Mueller compares one man’s loss of his North Dakota hometown to her own sadness at experiencing the loss and destruction of her home in Germany during World War II. Although the raw sorrow of these losses is made clear in the bitter-sweet nostalgia of the language, the poem is laced with hope. Mueller suggests that people and places we love don’t ever die or fade away while we retain memories of them.
…was almost apologetic,
...as if to say, the lives we live
before the present moment
are graves we walk away from.
Except we don’t. (22-33)
She goes on to describe the potent power of memory to resurrect lost times and places, and wonders if the man from North Dakota has a memory of his town—like the piano music she hears on the radio that brings her back to prewar Germany—which acts as a memory beacon, bringing him back his childhood home.
This sort of meditation on mortality and memory is a theme of this section. Various poems use the same simple language to describe different aspects of this subject. In “Pillar of Salt,” Mueller tells the heartbreaking story of her grandparents’ tragic deaths in World War II. In the poem, she contemplates the finality of death as a possible end to all memories. The poem concludes with a solemn stanza about death and loss—her grandparents’ and her own.
Memory is the only
afterlife I can understand,
and when it’s gone, they’re gone.
Soon I will betray them.
Think of it as the solid pillar
dissolving, all that salt
seeping back into the sea. (45-51)
This sad image of her family’s legacy being lost with her life’s memories presents a different, more cynical aspect of death and remembrance.
The subjects of these poems are obviously heavily influenced by the Mueller’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1939. Her precise use of language may also be influenced by her move from Germany, and her subsequent education in English.
“I think [her style is characterized by] the fact that she was born in Germany, so she is using English as a second language,” said Nemec Foster. “She is very aware the kind of metaphor that is connected to a certain word, phrase or image. She’s really approaching English from a totally different perspective.”
In her poem “When I Am Asked,” Mueller tells how she began writing poetry, describing the English language as a close friend who was there for her after her mother’s death. Language helped her mourn the death of her mother, when the rest of the world around her seemed uninterested in her suffering.
I sat on a gray stone bench
…and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me. (16-21)
Another of Mueller’s favorite subjects is mythology. Several of the poems throughout the book reference fairy tales or legends. The poem “Voices from the Forest” is a long poem about this subject, and is separated into sections about different fairy tales, many of them reminiscent of traditional children’s stories like Hansel and Gretel. She warns the reader to resist the temptation of entering the inviting house in the forest, because of the inevitable perils that await.
It is only when you finish eating
and, drowsy and grateful, pull off your shoes,
that the ax falls or the giant returns
or the monster springs or the witch
locks the door from the outside
and throws away the key. (11-16)
Others parts of the poem seem to echo contemporary American culture, which glorifies youth and beauty, but when these qualities disappear with years, grows wary of the old woman that results.
Remember me, I was a celebrity,
the famous beauty…
when my blond hair
developed gray roots
and my waste thickened,
…I was accused of devouring children
and mutilating men;
…They cast me into the forest
but come to me secretly, in the dark,
in their times of trouble. (41-66)
This tale is an alternative telling of many children’s stories involving witches or old hags in the forest—conventionally the evil, plotting characters. Mueller suggests that they are simply old women, demonized for their altered appearance and knowledge of time past.
The poem “Why We Tell Stories” is a tribute to the kind of fairy tales and mythology that Mueller writes about, but it also pays homage to all forms of story-telling, and how they are important to the cultivation of human cultures. The poem begins with an answer to the question posed by the title, in what is some of the most beautiful language in the whole book.
Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground (1-5)
Beginning this way not only establishes the poem itself in the story-telling tradition, but also reflects the evolution of the world from plant life to human existence, and the collective consciousness retained from that development. Punctuation is very intentionally absent from the poem, as if to say people’s stories are not ever finalized with a period, but keep moving forever, carried on by their descendents—cyclical. The poem ends with an invitation for the reader to begin to tell their own story, and underlines the importance of the word and—which is used at the beginning of almost every stanza in the poem.
and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and (42-44)
This ending emphasizes the word and as a connective phrase that implies something must follow. It is the conformation that stories are cyclical, never formally beginning or ending. Like in “Curriculum Vitae,” she is showing that one’s life story does not fit neatly into the parameters of the years they lived, but extends before and after, overlapping with the stories of all others, and never ceasing to exist.
It is hard to believe that a woman who started writing poetry in her 30’s could later be recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for her work. What is even more amazing is the remarkable, unique quality that each poem possesses—like a fine wine or a piece of good chocolate, the deep richness of her poems doesn’t fully sink in until they are complete. However, the most extraordinary aspect of Lisel Mueller by far, is her incredible well-roundedness and personal contentment.
“The most important thing about Lisel Mueller—and I’ve never seen this with another poet—is how she balances her creative life, her professional life and her personal life,” said Nemec Foster. “She was married to…one man for over 50 years, had two wonderful children, and she was able to be a poet, a wife and a mother. She is my role model because there are very, very few people…who have done what Lisel has done and she has done it so brilliantly.”
So she has.