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.


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:


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:


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
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.

Barnacle Goose at Ridgefield

Yesterday was my semi-annual tooth-cleaning appointment in Vancouver, and, as usual, I left at 6:00 to get some birding in before my lunch with old friends and my dental appointment.

Unfortunately it was dark and cold, but I was still enjoying rather common birds like this unusually aggressive Red-Winged Blackbird.

I loved this pose; hopefully the next time I see it it will be brighter so I can get a sharper image.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Luckily it seemed a little brighter when I sighted this pair of Green-Winged Teal,

pair of Green-Winged Teal

and these personal favorites, Northern Pintails,

two male Northern Pintails

sporting their two-toned bills, their subtle, pin-striping, and those long, elegant tails they’re named after.

I wasn’t ready, though, for this bird, the one with the solid white face:

Barnacle Goose

In fact, I didn’t recognize it, not surprising since it’s not in a single one of my small collection of bird books.

I stopped and asked the ranger if he knew what it was, and when I showed it to him he acted surprised and asked if I had really taken the picture there. He knew immediately it was a Barnacle Goose, commoner in the Norh East but rare here. In fact, he thought it was the first one ever sighted at Ridgefield. He jumped in his truck, drove the wrong way down the one-way road, and came back to confirm that was, indeed, a Barnacle Goose.

Cool. Nice way to start a long day.

Ruston Way Walk

With another break in the weather, Leslie and I took a walk on Ruston Way yesterday. I really wasn’t expecting to see much because of how many people walk the beach when it’s sunny, but I took my camera out of habit.

Most of what we saw was what I’d expect to see, like this male Common Goldeneye.

male Common Goldeneye

About half way through our walk, though, I heard a strange bird call and scanned along the beach with my 400mm telephoto lens and spotted a small flock of Black Turnstones,

Pair of Black Turnstone

the first time I’ve ever seen them locally. Although they were in a relatively isolated part of the beach with no one else around, they basically ignored me, allowing me to get the best shots I’ve ever managed to get.

Black Turnstone

In the process, I even managed to get a shot of this Killdeer,


whose call is surely what attracted me to the flock in the first place. Days like this remind me just how lucky I feel to live here.