“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”

“Still, love is the impulse from which poetry springs. …

“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 it 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.

– Lisel Mueller

“The Blind Leading the Blind” by Lisel Mueller

Take my hand. There are two of us in this cave.
The sound you hear is water; you will hear it forever.
The ground you walk on is rock. I have been here before.
People come here to be born, to discover, to kiss,
to dream, and to dig and to kill. Watch for the mud.
Summer blows in with scent of horses and roses;
fall with the sound of sound breaking; winter shoves
its empty sleeve down the dark of your throat.
You will learn toads from diamonds, the fist from palm,
love from the sweat of love, falling from flying.
There are a thousand turnoffs. I have been here before.
Once I fell off a precipice. Once I found gold.
Once I stumbled on murder, the thin parts of a girl.
Walk on, keep walking, there are axes above us.
Watch for the occasional bits and bubbles of light —
Birthdays for you, recognitions: yourself, another.
Watch for the mud. Listen for bells, for beggars.
Something with wings went crazy against my chest once.
There are two of us here. Touch me.

“The Blind Leading the Blind” by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press.