What I loved most about Mueller's poems was their subtlety, packaged in plain language, about the human condition. She has said in interviews that she is fascinated with how we all come to be who we are in a particular era and place through the accident of birth and timing, and those themes show up in some of these poems.
My favorite poems from Lisel Muellers The Need To Hold Still: For a Thirteenth Birthday- This poem, the first in the collection, takes the form of an extended allusion to Theodore Dreisers novel Sister Carrie. Her poems will second the real world, we learn, with a language as plain as money. Another Version- Sister Carrie is of course set in turn-of-the-century Chicago, the same city that the nonagenarian Mueller calls home today. Those pastoral qualities are on display in this fine poem, in which Mueller poetically imagines an American life framed in the timbres of a Chekhov play, with aspens substituted for birches and possums for wolves. When she writes about how the neighbors perceive her family of German emigresthey think us characters in a Russian novel,we sense a certain American unconcern with the world beyond its borders. Fiction- This short sonnet-like poem makes use of the trope of the book as metaphor: Going south, we watched spring / unroll like a proper novel: But that plural subject in the first line and that imprecise verb in the second line alert us theres more to this poem than words on a page. In the second stanza, the word read suggests its homonym red and, with astonishing rapidity, the poems palette transforms. Beginning with 1914- I dont know if theres something called bio-cinematic poetry, but there should be, and this poem its proud anthem. The Cook This is ekphrastic poetry par excellence; the masculine voice of the poet impregnating the feminine image, Vermeers Milkmaid. Muellers poem Signs can be read as an eerie analog to that story. The Need To Hold Still The title poem of the collection reads as an introduction to the twilight of life. In sentiment, it reminds of Monsieur Legrandins lamentation as he dines with Prousts young narrator: And you see this, my boy, there comes in all our lives a time when the weary eyes can endure but one kind of light, the light which a fine evening like this prepares for us in the stillroom of darkness, when the ears can listen to no music save what the moonlight breathes through the flute of silence. There were, though, a few that left me cold, or that I found wanting: Drawings by Children Daughter This Sadness, This Happiness Not Only The Eskimos Night Song Still, The Need to Hold Still is an immensely enjoyable collection of poetry. I particularly appreciate how Mueller calls forth her subjects in plain but beautiful language: They know without knowing that death is red, its petals thinner than the thin skin of their crackling crepe paper fevers These three lines come from Muellers poem Poppy. Poetry is a little like paint. Another thing I like about her poems is the fact that rarely does she allow form to trump her subjects, but, when such is required, she does so with a zest. The word 'vast', for instance: The long drawn-out idea of the word vast contracts into four brief letters already obsolete Or how about Muellers poem Eggs, which quite frankly revolts, but in which I nonetheless detect a certain roundness of form, or circling indicative of the subject itself: Mothershape, how we love you! I mentioned, in some of my favorite poems above, Muellers allusions. reminded me of similar poetic imagery in Richard Wilburs A Summer Morning, a poem composed two decades earlier, in which a cook hard at work for her employers pauses in front of the kitchen window: Then, with the bread-knife lifted, stands and hears, The sweet efficient sounds Of thrush and catbird, and the snip of shears Where, in the terraced backward of the grounds, A gardener works before the heat of the day. As mentioned above, Mueller, in this collection, seems to lean slightly toward winter tableaux, but theres a feeling inside me that shes a poet of summer. I find the imagery of the summer morning an especially fruitful way to convey the sense of calm composure that radiates from her poems, no matter the coming days long hours or thickened snuffle. Perhaps the poem which does the feeling the most justice is One More Hymn to the Sun where we read these lines: She never gave up on you though it took you billions of years to learn the alphabet and the shadow you cast on the ground changed its shape again and again This bespeaks patience, surely one of the most enduring qualities on display in The Need to Hold Still. It used to be that all classes of men and women read and recited poems like those to be found in this collection. Its contumely, I think, to describe any poet with a serious artistic sensibility as patriotic, but you do get the sense, quite often, that Mueller writes from the privileged perspective of someone who has known both what it is to be an American and not to be an American.
You can stay in that country of sun and silence as long as you like.
I tried to return this book to the library today but I couldn't let it go.
Going south, we watched spring unroll a proper novel: forsythia, dogwood, Rose.
Poet and translator Lisel Mueller was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1924.