"The Exhibit" (contained in Lisel Mueller's collection Second Language ) blends history and 1986 mythology to express the lingering grief and denial that still haunt an elderly man who survived being a prisoner of war. Using the unicorn metaphor, the poet shows how the horrible public event of world war has a lasting detrimental effect on private life and how our present lives are determined and shaped by the past. Mueller often writes autobiographical poems which include members of her family, and "The Exhibit" is about an uncle living in East Germany many years after the world wars of the twentieth century. The poem does not specify whether the uncle was a prisoner during the first or second world war, but his age could well place him in WWI. We know, however, that Lisel Mueller's own life was directly affected by WWII and that many of her poems stem from the events of the Holocaust. Regardless of which world war is the reference here, the meaning is the same—war takes its toll not only on the body, but on the mind, leaving decades of appalling memories for survivors and often causing them to turn to imagination and myth for comfort.
"The Exhibit" implies the atrocities of war without ever mentioning particular acts. Mueller is able to convey the horrors of conflict essentially by talking about its opposite. As a symbol of both strength and gentleness, the unicorn exemplifies the world as it should be. By highlighting the mythical creature's virtuous behavior and its undeniable purity, the poet actually signifies everything that the real world is not.
The first two lines in "The Exhibit" give us the setting for the poem and confirm the obvious implication of the title. It takes place in an art museum in East Germany. While the country may not seem significant at this early point in the poem, it becomes paramount to our understanding the mindset of the uncle, who will turn out to be the central "character" in the work.
The mention of the unicorn in the painting may also seem minor in the second line, but the mythological creature will become the metaphor used as the major theme throughout the poem. Unicorns have a long history in the legends of various peoples around the world. They have appeared in assorted forms in Roman, Greek, Norse, and other mythologies, sometimes portraying the features of a small goat and sometimes of a large horse with a flowing white mane and white hooves. Regardless of the predominant physical shape the unicorn takes in the tales, one feature is common across cultures and time periods: the white spiral horn protruding upright from its forehead. Also in all legends, unicorns are emblems of purity, and stories center around their lives among virgin goddesses. Although the unicorn would fight ferociously when cornered, it could be tamed by the loving touch of a virgin. Their horns were said to offer protection against poison and could purify a contaminated stream when dipped into it. Overall, the unicorn symbolizes a beast with strength and power who can be—and most often is—very gentle.
The third line gives us our first glimpse into the mind of the uncle who explains to those around him that the unicorn "is now extinct." The initial reaction here may be amusement at the naive mistake made by a man who apparently believes unicorns actually existed once and are now extinct, as other real animals have become over time. By the end of the poem, however, we understand that simple naivete does not justifiably explain the uncle's notion that these creatures once lived on earth.
In line 4, the speaker and whoever else is present correct the uncle, telling him that "such a creature / never existed." Even though he does not dispute their words, they know that "he does not believe us." At this point, we may still assume that the man is innocently ignorant of the unicorn's existence only in legends and that his belief in them does not stem from any need or preference. Rather, he simply appears not to have his zoological history in order.
Lines 7 and 8 introduce a new possibility into the uncle's thoughts and indicate that something much more than simple naivete or ignorance is going on in his mind. While the words "power and gentleness" are a direct reference to the attributes of the unicorn, the unicorn, in turn, becomes a twofold metaphor for the rest of the poem. In these two lines, it represents the manner in which a world leader or political figure should rule—with strength, but also with gentleness and kindness. This, of course, is in direct contrast to the corrupt dictatorship of Adolph Hitler in Europe during the early twentieth century. The uncle is "certain power and gentleness / must have gone hand in hand (once)" because he cannot allow himself to believe that humankind has always been victimized by tyrants whose strength emanates not from gentleness, but from selfishness and cruelty.
Line 9 helps us further understand the emotional plight of the uncle: he has survived the horrors of being a prisoner of war. Line 10 signifies the lasting grip that the physical and emotional strain still has on his mind. Even though the actual fighting is over, the uncle is yet a "prisoner" of its terrible toll, and he will never emotionally escape from those grim memories. Lines 11 and 12 make up the second part of the unicorn's twofold metaphor. Here, the uncle himself is the reference because he "needs to believe in something / that could not be captured except by love." Recall that the unicorn could fight savagely when it had to, but was then calmed by the touch of a virgin. During the war, the uncle had been captured by the enemy, a source of great bitterness and pain. He needs to know that there exists a creature—if not a man— who could remain free from persecution and not fall "victim" to anything but the love of a gentle, pure woman. The idea of "love" here, however, does not mean only the romantic affection shared between two people. Instead, it encompasses a world-love, or a general peace and friendship among masses of people and between nations.
These lines refer to the legendary single horn of the unicorn, so brilliantly white that it appeared "luminous." It was so pure in nature that it could bring peace to any calamities in the forests, whether they were battles between men, between beasts, or between men and beasts. Lines 15 and 16 reiterate the magical power of the horn that "dipped into foul water, / would turn it pure."
In line 17, "this terrible world we live in" is diametrically opposed to the make-believe world of the unicorn. Here, the speaker acknowledges her own awareness of and grief over the terrible suffering that so many people have endured (or not survived) at the hands of diabolic leaders.
These two lines connect directly to line 17 but are presented from the perspective of the uncle again. He cannot believe that the "terrible world"— the one he has been told is real—is "the only possible one." His denial, however, does not come in the form of verbal protest or in any words at all. The speaker knows that her uncle clings to the possibility of a better world only because "his eighty-year-old eyes insist." This line, of course, is the first mention of the uncle's age. We have likely assumed that he was an older man, but now we know that the grief brought on by world war has been with him for not only many years, but for decades, and that he will carry that sorrow to his grave.
The last line of the poem also refers to the uncle's eyes and indicates simply that his tears come easily now. The word "now" seems to imply that the older he gets the more he cries. We may assume, then, that the longer he lives in "this terrible world" the more he must resign himself to accept that a world in which "power and gentleness" go "hand in hand" has never existed, and, most likely, never will.