Lisel Mueller’s Alive Together: New And Selected Poems

Since Lisel Mueller’s Alive Together: New And Selected Poems was published in 1996 I’m a little late in discovering this work, a shame, because I’m really enjoying what I’ve read so far, about a third of the work. I have no idea how this book appeared on my Amazon Wish List, but I’m glad it did.

Though I’ve marked several short poems as favorites, some of my very favorites are long poems broken into small sections, so I thought I’d vary my usual habit of citing one or two short poems to represent the whole and quote short sections from these longer poems.

I enjoyed almost all of “MIDWINTER NOTES,” but my favorite section was:

Only after
Our garden became a graveyard
strewn with shriveled leaves
did the white stem rise

from the hermetic bulb,
displaying five lavender petals
Colchicum Autumnale –
a brilliant contradiction,
out of phase, like an angel
strayed into Time, our world.

Of course, this might have seemed particularly poignant because the bulbs are just beginning to appear here in the Pacific Northwest, welcome relief from Winter’s weakening grasp, but crocus have long been a personal favorite.

My very favorite, though, comes from another long poem entitled, “IMAGINARY PAINTINGS:”

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
too beautiful to touch.

There’s something very Zen like in both of these poems, but this one seems particularly so, reminding me of a whole series of cherry blossom poems. It’s hard to imagine a better symbol of Spring’s fecundity. And nothing says happiness quite as well as the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring.

Another favorite is the very different poem about Patricia Hearst, prefaced by a rather long footnote, reminding this reader that not everyone reading today would be familiar with Patty’s story:

CAPTIVITY On February 4, 1974, Patricia Campbell Hearst Was Abducted From Her Apartment In Berkeley, California, By Members Of The Symbionese Liberation Army, A Group Whose Total Membership Consisted Of Three Men And Five Women She Was Kept, Blindfolded, In A Dark, Five-Foot Closet For Fifty-Seven Days And Forced To Make Several Audiotapes, Which The Sla Released In Order To Extort Money From Her Parents, Purportedly To Feed The Hungry. She Was Given The Name Tania.

From The Fifty-Eighth Day On She Was Allowed To Share The Life Of The Others In Their Sparse, Secret Apartment And Subjected To Intensive Indoctrination. She Remained With The SLA Until Her Arrest On September Is, 1975, And Participated In At Least Two Bank Robberies. On Another Occasion She Sprayed Cranshaw Boulevard In Los Angeles With Bullets From A Submachine Gun To Cover A Comrade Apprehended For Shoplifting She Did Not Attempt To Escape, Even When Opportunities Presented Themselves. In Her Book, Every Secret Thing (1982), She Wrote About This Period, “I Had Crossed Over, And I Would Have To Make The Best Of It. To Live From Day To Day, To Do Whatever They Said, To Play My Part, And To Pray That I Would Survive.’

When Patricia Hearst Was Arrested, She Gave Her Occupation As Urban Guerrilla. She Was Convicted Of Bank Robbery And Received A Prison Sentence, Which Was Commuted By President Jimmy Carter On February 1, 1979.

The entire poem is moving, but it was section 5, that really hit me:

We could not forgive Patricia
for becoming Pattania. We wanted kitsch,
the easy split into black and white,
a story in which the heroine,
bruised but pure, throws off
the Tania skin, fake fur,
a mere disguise, a sham,
the stratagem of a faithful daughter.
We could not cope with the huge
complexities of the heart,
that melting pot of selves.
And so we put her on trial,
forcing her to surrender
once more, this time to us,
the jury of her peers.


But in the end she made up
her own story. Released
from prison, she gave us the slip
by receding into the dappled
indistinct tapestry
of the common crowd
and passing into the ever-after
of the free, anonymous life.

The line “We could not cope with the huge/ complexities of the heart,/ that melting pot of selves.
blew me away, it touches a truth that all of us have a hard time accepting. In fact, I could remember how conflicted I was by the incident, particularly since I’m sure I tend sympathize more with revolutionaries than I do capitalists.

Of course, this wasn’t too long after I’d served in Vietnam, and I understood better than many how easy it is to be transformed by your environment, particularly a violent environment, but, then, I’m on of those Liberals who’s seen too clearly how a child’s environment affects their view of the world, and the world’s view of them.

2 thoughts on “Lisel Mueller’s Alive Together: New And Selected Poems

  1. When I read the reference to flowering trees the first thing that popped into my mind was the Cherry Orchard at Shiloh, where they say the bullets knocked off so many blossoms it looked like snow.

    Touring that battlefield with my Dad gave me a different association with cherry blossoms than what most people have.

  2. I enjoyed all of these poems. And the Patty Hearst one was very interesting. It’s true how she has just fallen into anonymity now…I remember vividly when it was all happening.

What do you think?