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Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Pulitzer-prize winning poet Lisel Mueller's gentle, steady voice was shaped by a harsh history.

by Nell Casey

In her poem "Necessities," the first in her 1986 collection Second Language, Lisel Mueller muses on our need for progress. She writes, "Imagine our lives without it; . . . all streets looping back on themselves; life as a beckoning road an absurd idea." Eventually the poem circles around to the idea of language as a primal necessity:

Even now, the old things first things,
which taught us language. Things of day and of night.
Irrational lightning, fickle clouds, the incorruptible moon.
Fire as revolution, grass as the heir
to all revolutions. Snow
as the alphabet of the dead, subtle, undeciphered.
The river as what we wish it to be.
Trees in their humanness, animals in their otherness.
Summits. Chasms. Clearings.
And stars, which gave us the word distance,
So we could name our deepest sadness.

Mueller, born in Hamburg, Germany, came to the United States when she was 15 years old. Her father was a political refugee under Hitler who was arrested--and, amazingly, released--by the Gestapo. He escaped to America in 1937. Mueller followed two years later, along with her mother and sister. She has lived in this country ever since. Among the many gifts she has wrested from this difficult early history: an "unusually happy" 58-year marriage, two daughters, a dazzling writing career, a Pulitzer Prize for her collected volume Alive Together, and a meticulous appreciation for words.

Mueller's poems and translations are infused with a sense of opportunity. Every word is chosen with precision and grace. Take, for example, this imagined meeting with Mueller's mother in "The Garden":

I bring my mother back to life,
her eyes still green, still laughing,
She is still not fashionably thin.

She looks past me
for the girl
she left her old age to.
She does not recognize her
in me, a graying woman
older than she will ever be.

How strange that in the garden
of memory where she lives
nothing ever changes;
the heavy fruit
cannot pull the branches
any closer to the ground.

Mueller speaks always in a steady, gentle tone--even when describing the death of her beloved husband, Paul Mueller, in 2001 or the partial loss of vision she has suffered over the last 20 years. Mueller no longer writes, in part because of her diminishing vision. She treats this circumstance with the same tough realism--compellingly at odds with the ethereal nature of her poetry--as the other hardships in her life.

The truth is that Mueller has always fashioned triumph out of tragedy. Her career began officially, as she describes it, when her mother died in 1953. It wasn't until she was 41, however, that she published her first collection, Dependencies. Hers, then, has been a career of extremes--slow to start and develop but quickly, abundantly acknowledged.

Over the course of her writing life, Mueller has won the National Book Award, the Lamont Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and, of course, the Pulitzer. Still, this avalanche of recognition has not led her to believe that her poetry will render her immortal. "I don't think I ever fooled myself about the fact that books of poetry come and go," she says. "And it was sort of a fluke that I won the Pulitzer because most people who have won the big prizes have been published by the big presses. That makes a difference in how well known you are. I was only ever published by the university presses. I never tried to go anywhere else. My husband was always proud of that. He always said, 'She didn't know anyone!'"

And if memory would allow itself to be bent, how would Mueller herself like to be recalled by us? Allowing her to choose her own legend is a favor, it seems, she is owed for the care with which she has rendered the people--imagined and real--who have populated her work. "Oh, I consider Alive Together my swan song," she laughs, amused by the grandiosity. "Might as well go out on a high note!"

Nell Casey is the editor of the national bestseller, Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and of An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, out in November 2007. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and son.

© 2007 by Nell Casey. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

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