Lisel Mueller Essay - Critical Essays


Lisel Mueller’s poetry is unassuming, spare, and solidly grounded in history, both public and private. Without the banners of feminism or other celebrated causes, Mueller has quietly and steadily recorded her impressions of life in the United States. Her perspective is unique, marked as it is by her immigration experience at the age of fifteen and the loss of her grandparents to the horrors of Nazi Germany. She writes of life events that are the causes for quiet celebration—a long, happy marriage, the birth and lives of her children, and the inevitable process of growing old.


Looking back, Mueller was not happy with most of the poems that she wrote in Dependencies. She said that they “seem overly decorated, too metaphorical.” Most critics agree that these poems are overly literary, but this is only a mark of the New Critics that Mueller studied so closely. The lead poem, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” presents the theme of interdependencies between human beings, a theme that appears often in her poetry. In this poem, Mueller uses a cave metaphor, reminiscent of Plato’s cave parable, to represent the journey of two companions through major life events. The speaker, presumably female, is the guide, and she speaks with the natural authority of one who has “been here before.” She knows where the ground is rock, where it is mud, where there are turn-offs. However, she reiterates her need for the other, the fact that “there are two of us here” in this cave, or on this journey through life.

Another important theme brought forth in this work is the continuity between generations of Mueller’s family. She writes of her pregnancy, a means of allowing the continuation of her and her spouse’s love. The birth of her child becomes part of healing the grief of her mother’s death; Mueller realizes that her own ability to love her daughter is a direct result of the love that she first experienced from her mother.

The Private Life

Many critics agree that in Mueller’s next full volume of poetry, The Private Life, she reveals her most characteristic voice and themes. In an interview with Stan Sanvel Rubin and William Heyen, Mueller identifies two important “springs” for her poetry: her domestic life with her husband and daughters, and the Vietnam War, which she says made her “think of the interdependency, certainly in our age, of the public and private life.” However, Mueller seldom alludes directly to the Vietnam War. The public life of World War II remains a greater immediate interest to her because of its more direct impact upon her family of origin.

“My Grandmother’s Gold Pin” begins as a charming explanation from a mother to a daughter about why the mother wears a particular pin so often. Each fleur-de-lis reminds the mother-speaker of objects in her grandparents’ home, their mannerisms, the music. When the mother comes to the center pearl in the pin, she is bitterly reminded of her grandparents’ death by starvation in an animal shed. Through this poem, Mueller illustrates that there can be no neat, clean separation between the public and private, past and present. The mother tells her daughter that this private memento, the pin, is

all I have left of an age when people believed the heart wasan organ of goodness, and light stronger than darkness,that death came to you in your proper time:An age when the dream of Man nearly came true.

The value of silence, the space beyond language or our immediate perceptions, is also an important theme introduced in The Private Life. “What the Dog Perhaps Hears” is a playful musing on all that people do not hear—the growth of a child, the unfurling of a snake, the birth of a baby bird pushing its way out of the shell. The final line “and we heard nothing when the world changed,” reminds us that so much takes place beyond the perception of the five senses.

The poem “The Private Life” begins with a flat statement: “What happens, happens in silence.” Things that happen in silence include what goes on inside other people’s heads, the death...

(The entire section is 1792 words.)