The Need to Hold Still

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Lisel Mueller’s division of her poems into four groups is a compliment to the reader’s intelligence without overtaxing the reader’s ingenuity. The first section contains relatively personal poems dealing with relatively ordinary experiences. The second section presents conceits and fantasies. The third section’s one long poem is a fantasy, but with a reference point in ordinary experience. The final section’s poems interweave all three motifs: the art of the bard or storyteller is to make the fantastic part of everyday life.

The first poem, “For a Thirteenth Birthday” addresses a child who has mastered the noble world of Count Leo Tolstoy and is ready for the more common world of Theodore Dreiser. In “Another Version,” however, the adult speaker clings to the “Russianness” of life in the American countryside. “Drawings by Children” depicts the crude nobility of the world children draw. “Talking with Helen” implies that Helen Keller’s breakthrough into the world of words was a breakthrough into the world of childlike notions of nobility, while her multiple handicaps made her immune to the dreary adult world. In contrast, the speaker of “Beginning with 1914,” with full use of senses, can imagine a documentary film of her family’s sufferings in the midst of a World War.

Having proven that she understands the difference between child and adult, nobility and dreariness, Mueller takes a holiday in the world of fantasy, whimsy, and downright silliness. An observer of frantic dancers in a college gymnasium prefers to watch the birds dancing outside. Snow is anatomized: “rabbinical snow, a permanent skullcap,” the “snow” of poor television reception, and Elinor Wylie’s snow. Eggs are eaten with gusto because humans were once eggs themselves and cabbage is anthropomorphized so that its enthusiastic human devourer becomes a cruel cannibal.

The title poem concludes the second section more seriously. Ugly winter weeds are gathered by an equally ugly woman and brought into her home. They have “freedom from either/or” which she lacks. The dignity and significance of their spare, dry forms suggest, however, that she, too, has been through enough adversity to rest in a similar still and aesthetic patience.

Having employed adult and childlike voices in the first two sections, Mueller presents the eight-part “Voices from the Forest” in which either a precocious child or a childlike adult reduces an array of German fairy tales into typologies. Some the most interesting of these reductions are the all-purpose shapeshifter who warns virgins to beware of enchanted bears, frogs, dwarves, and beasts; the all-purpose beauty who warns that old age and reduction in status come to her kind, after the happy endings; and the sister of all enchanted ravens, swans, and fawns who confesses that she prefers her brothers in that form, under her control.

In the fourth section, adult, child, and storyteller combine to produce “The Triumph of Life: Mary Shelley.” The poem does not succeed, but its failure provides some hindsight for problems in the earlier poems and foreshadows...

(The entire section is 1294 words.)