“Immortality” by Lisel Mueller

In Sleeping Beauty’s castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the
world.
So do the servants in the kitchen,
who don’t even rub their eyes.
The cook’s right hand, lifted
an exact century ago,
completes its downward arc
to the kitchen boy’s left ear;
the boy’s tensed vocal cords
finally let go
the trapped, enduring whimper,
and the fly, arrested mid-plunge
above the strawberry pie,
fulfills its abiding mission
and dives into the sweet, red glaze.

As a child I had a book
with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice
how fear persists, and how
the anger that causes fear persists,
that its trajectory can’t be changed
or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly;
that this slight body
with its transparent wings
and lifespan of one human day
still craved its particular share
of sweetness, a century later.

—Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New & Selected Poems, 1996. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA. Copyright 2001 by Lisel Mueller.

“Virtuosi” by Lisel Mueller

     In memory of my parents

People whose lives have been shaped
by history—and it is always tragic—
do not want to talk about it,
would rather dance, give parties
on thrift-shop china. You feel
wonderful in their homes,
two leaky rooms, nests
they stowed inside their hearts
on the road into exile.
They know how to fix potato peelings
and apple cores so you smack your lips.

 

The words start over again
hold no terror for them.
Obediently they rise
and go with only a rucksack
or tote bag. If they weep,
it’s when you’re not looking.

 

To tame their nightmares, they choose
the most dazzling occupations,
swallow the flames in the sunset sky,
jump through burning hoops
in their elegant tiger suits.
Cover your eyes: there’s one
walking on a thread
thirty feet above us—
shivering points of light
leap across her body,
and she works without a net.

Lisel Mueller, “Virtuosi” from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1996 by Lisel Mueller. 

“When I Am Asked” by Lisel Mueller

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 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.

Lisel Mueller, “When I am Asked” from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1996 by Lisel Mueller.

“Imaginary Paintings” by Lisel Mueller

1. How I would Paint the Future

A strip of horizon and a figure,
seen from the back, forever approaching.

2. How I would Paint Happiness

Something sudden, a windfall,
a meteor shower. No –
a flowering tree releasing
all its blossoms at once,
and the one standing beneath it
unexpectedly robed in bloom,
transformed into a stranger
to beautiful to touch.

3. How I would Paint Death

White on white or black on black.
No ground, no figure. An immense canvas,
which I will never finish.

4. How I would Paint Love

I would not paint love.

5. How I would Paint the Leap of Faith

A black cat jumping up three feet
to reach a three-inch shelf.

6. How I would Paint the Big Lie

Smooth, and deceptively small
so that it can be swallowed
like something we take for a cold.
An elongated capsule,
an elegant cylinder,
sweet and glossy,
that pleases the tongue
and goes down easy,
never mind
the poison inside.

7.  How I would Paint Nostalgia

An old-fashioned painting, a genre piece.
People in bright and dark clothing.
A radiant bride in white
standing above a waterfall,
watching the water rush
away, away, away.
– Lisel Mueller, Alive Together

“A Day Like Any Other” by Lisel Mueller

Such insignificance: a glance
at your record on the doctor’s desk
or a letter not meant for you.
How could you have known? It’s not true
that your life passes before you
in rapid motion, but your watch
suddenly ticks like an amplified heart,
the hands freezing against a white
that is a judgment. Otherwise nothing.
The face in the mirror is still yours.
Two men pass on the sidewalk
and do not stare at your window.
Your room is silent, the plants
locked inside their mysterious lives
as always. The queen-of-the-night
refuses to bloom, does not accept
your definition. It makes no sense,
your scanning the street for a traffic snarl,
a new crack in the pavement,
a flag at half-mast – signs
of some disturbance in the world
because your friend, the morning sun,
has turned its dark side toward you.

– Lisel Mueller, “A Day Like Any Other”