Mueller’s “The Exhibit”

I had an extremely difficult time picking a poem from the latter third of Lisel Mueller’s Alive Together: New And Selected Poems, which perhaps isn’t surprising since I felt much the same way about the first section of the book, new poems.

There is something magical about this poem that appeals to the child in me, the part I’ve been increasingly indulging in movies like Despicable Me and Up, two of my favorite movies in recent years.

THE EXHIBIT

My uncle in East Germany
points to the unicorn in the painting
and explains it is now extinct.
We correct him, say such a creature
never existed. He does not argue,
but we know he does not believe us.
He is certain power and gentleness
must have gone hand in hand
once. A prisoner of war
even after the war was over,
my uncle needs to believe in something
that could not be captured except by love,
whose single luminous horn
redeemed the murderous forest
and, dipped into foul water,
would turn it pure. This world,
this terrible world we live in,
is not the only possible one,
his eighty-year-old eyes insist,
dry wells that fill so easily now.

I suspect if the poem only consisted of the the phrases, “A prisoner of war/ even after the war was over” I would still love it, perhaps because I’ve recently been re-watching Apocalypse Now in preparation for re-reading The Heart of Darkness, and that seems to have stirred up some old feelings from Vietnam.

Nor do I believe it’s only the narrator’s uncle who wants to believe that “power and gentleness” can go hand in hand. It may be impossible not to see “this terrible world we live in,” especially if you’ve experienced war, but most of us desperately want to believe this is not the “only possible one.”

Lisel Mueller does a good job of balancing these two realities, which, for me, at least, makes her poetry irresistible.

Lisa Mueller’s Short Poems

I’m a little over two-thirds of the way through Lisel Mueller’s Alive Together: New And Selected Poems. I’ll have to admit I don’t find her earliest poems quite as appealing as the “New” poems that the book began with, and this has slowed my reading a little. As I’ve said before, I’ve never liked that approach (unless it’s a poet whose poems I’ve already been reading over the years, like, say, David Wagoner.) Personally, I much prefer to see a poet’s poetry evolve as it naturally did.

I was also surprised, as I mentioned in my first entry, that I still prefer her long, sequential poems to her shorter poems. Strange, since I seldom like long poems. That noted, I think these two short poems reveal qualities I particularly admire in Mueller’s poetry.

Though I don’t actually recall when, or why, I put Mueller on my Amazon Wishlist, I suspect it was at least partially because I like the concreteness of her poems, their immediacy:

DAUGHTER

My next poem will be happy,
I promise myself. Then you come
with your deep eyes, your tall jeans,
your narrow hands, your wit,
your uncanny knowledge, and
your loneliness. All the flowers
your father planted, all
the green beans that have made it,
all the world’s recorded pianos
and this exhilarating day
cannot change that.

I don’t think you can call yourself a modern poet or win a Pulitzer Prize unless you include some sad poems, but that’s not the dominant tone of her poems. Perhaps I like her poetry because it reminds me of The Blues — there’s always an awareness of the life’s inevitable sadness, but the poetry struggles to integrate, or overcome, this sadness, even if it’s for brief moments:

PICKING RASPBERRIES

Once the thicket opens
and lets you enter
and the first berry dissolves on your togue,

you will remember nothing
of your old life. You can stay
in that country of sun and
silence
as long as you like. To return,

you have only to look at your arms
and discover the long, red marks.
You will have invented pain,
which has no place there.

I read this as “blackberries,” not raspberries because this is the perfect description of how I feel during and after picking wild blackberries. Picking blackberries while dodging garter snakes is one of my oldest memories, and nothing, except perhaps sex, can rival the sheer joy of it. (Okay, I get pretty close to the same feeling eating huckleberries while hiking Mt. Adams or Mt Hood.) It’s only later when your pail is full that you look at your arms and realize you’ve scratched the heck out of them trying to get past the sticker bushes.

“Heaven, I’m in Heaven”

Reading Lisel Mueller’s

JANUARY AFTERNOON, WITH BILLIE HOLIDAY
For Studs Terkel


Her voice shifts as if it were light,
from chalk to parchment to oil.
I think of the sun this morning,
how many knives were flashed
through black, compliant trees;
now she has aged it with her singing,
turned it to milk thinned with water,
a poor people’s sun, enough
knowledge to go around.

I want to dance, to bend
as gradually as a flower,
release a ball in slow motion
to follow in the marvelous path
of an unfolding jet streak,
love’s expansive finger
across the cheek of the sky,
“Heaven, I’m in heaven…”

The foolish old songs were right,
the heart does, actually, ache
from trying to push beyond
itself, this room, the world,
all that can be imagined;
space is not enough space
for its sudden immensity …

I am not what you think
This is not what I wanted


Desire has no object, it simply happens,
rises and floats, lighter than air-
but she knows that. Her voice scrapes
against the innocent words of the song;
tomorrow is something she remembers.

led me to this uTube segment,



which led me to the lyrics:


Heaven, I’m in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek
Heaven, I’m in heaven
And the cares that hung around me through the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek
Oh I love to climb a mountain
And reach the highest peak
But it doesn’t thrill me half as much
As dancing cheek to cheek
Oh I love to go out fishing
In a river or a creek
But I don’t enjoy it half as much
As dancing cheek to cheek
Dance with me
I want my arms about you
That charm about you
Will carry me through…
To heaven, I’m in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, out together dancing
Out together dancing cheek to cheek

Of course I’ve heard of Billie Holiday, but she was closer to my father’s generation than mine, and I don’t think they ever owned any of her records. Still, the lyrics seemed remarkably familiar. Wondering where I’d heard the song, I looked it up in Wikipedia only to be amazed by how many artists had recorded the song.

It didn’t take much more reflection to realize that I’ve been listening to the song quite alot recently, Eva Cassiday’s version



Judging from this song’s continuing popularity, Lisel must be correct when she states, “The foolish old songs were right,” for it’s doubtful they could become classics unless they appeal to basic emotions that span the generations.

The most interesting line in the poem, at least for me, though, is “Desire has no object, it simply happens,/rises and floats, lighter than air-/ but she knows that.” It is, after all the song, and not dancing with a particular loved one, that appeals to us, that somehow manages to increase our desire for love all by itself, simply by being heard.

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.