“When I Am Asked” by Lisel Mueller (repost)

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.

originally posted 06/15/15

“Why Bother” by Sean Thomas Dougherty

Because right now there is someone

Out there with

a wound in the exact shape

 of your words.


“Why Bother” by Sean Thomas Dougherty from The Second O of Sorrow (BOA Editions Ltd. 2018).

Lisel Mueller wrote:

Still, love is the impulse from which poetry springs. Even dark poems, Especially dark poems. To know the worst and write in spite of that, that must be love. To celebrate what’s on the other side of the darkness. Truly great poetry always sprung from love-in-spite-of, like love for a deeply flawed person.

And if it’s true as [William Carlos] Williams wrote, that people die from lack of what is found in poems, then poetry must not be trivial, peripheral, ivory-towerism as it is often accused of being; then we have a responsibility to speak to and for others. Certainly that means acknowledging suffering. But it also means to heal, to bring delight and hope; It implies consolation. How to console without being false, shallow or sentimental. I find that the hardest challenge.

Words for the Year is returning, at least for now … at least until we get to “the other side of the darkness.” Why bother? Because I cannot get Sean Thomas Dougherty’s words out of my mind. Because you or someone out there has “a wound in the exact shape / of (these) words.” Because right now it’s what I can do.

* Poets and publishers, I ask your lenience if in my haste to publish I may not immediately link to your websites and/or source material. Many of my posts will be from my phone where it is difficult to insert forwarding links; triage, if you will, in my rush to heal and console. I promise to edit posts in the near future to add book and/or bio links.

* Friends, I may be slow to reply to comments and emails. I’ll share more personal thoughts in the days ahead. But for now, please know how much I’ve missed you and how I desperately hope you are safe and healthy. Why bother? Because of you, gentle reader.

“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” ~ Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel



“Romantics” by Lisel Mueller & Question for Readers

Note from Christy: Do you know who read this poem on Garrison Keillor’s audiobook version of Good Poems? Please see questions that follow this post:

  Johannes Brahms and
Clara Schumann

The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

Lisel Mueller, “Romantics” from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. (Louisiana State University Press, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by Lisel Mueller.

* Question for my fellow poetry lovers:

Fellow poetry reader Bob S. asked on our post “Garrison Keillor, Good Poems, and “Bear In Mind” by John Martin if anyone had a listing of the readers for the audiobook version of Keillor’s Good Poems. (I found a partial list which I shared with Bob in the comments, but I couldn’t answer his primary question, which was…:) More specifically, does anyone know the female who read Lisel Mueller’s poem “Romantics”?

And a follow-up question: How important is it to you to be able to listen to a poem as you read along? I know many people enjoyed listening to Keillor read his daily poem choices at The Writer’s Almanac. Is that (being able to listen to poems) something that would be valuable to readers here? I sometimes link to YouTube videos of poets reading their material, but not regularly; would you like me to do more of that? Or what if I read a poem for you from time to time?

If you know who reads Mueller’s poem on the audio version of Good Poems, please let us know in the comments. And please feel free to share your thoughts on listening to poems. Thank you, friends, for your help. -Christy

“Hope” by Lisel Mueller

“Hope on Board” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers from She’s the One

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs
from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.

It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.


“Hope” by Lisel Mueller from Alive Together. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

“Alive Together” by Lisel Mueller

Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
when I might have been Abelard’s woman
or the whore of a Renaissance pope
or a peasant wife with not enough food
and not enough love, with my children
dead of the plague. I might have slept
in an alcove next to the man
with the golden nose, who poked it
into the business of stars,
or sewn a starry flag
for a general with wooden teeth.
I might have been the exemplary Pocahontas
or a woman without a name
weeping in Master’s bed
for my husband, exchanged for a mule,
my daughter, lost in a drunken bet.
I might have been stretched on a totem pole
to appease a vindictive god
or left, a useless girl-child,
to die on a cliff. I like to think
I might have been Mary Shelley
in love with a wrongheaded angel,
or Mary’s friend, I might have been you.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
statistically nonexistent;
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah’s Witnesses
agree it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who–but for endless ifs–
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.


“Alive Together” by Lisel Mueller from Alive Together. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996.