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.