The Need to Hold Still
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 difficulties in the remaining poems. Mueller has some excellent conceits in which there are no ideas and some excellent ideas which she cannot flesh out. This poem is one of the latter. It does not give insight into Mary Shelley nor does it develop Mueller’s theme of adult-child-storyteller, but such a figure could be personified in Mary Shelley.
“Testimony,” “The Artist’s Model, ca. 1912,” and “The End of Science Fiction,” are more successful presentations of the adult-child as storyteller. “Testimony” is the vague but nevertheless vivid complaint of the first sea creature to walk on land. The Artist’s Model has seen her body mutilated by the history of modern art from its “real” beauty to its fragmentation, conversion into blocks, addition of extra eyes and a horn, reduction to giant lips or nipples, and finally evaporated into an absence, a space. The speaker in “The End of Science Fiction” laments that the science fiction world is already here and so, for variety and freshness, storytelling should return to the Greco-Roman myths.
The long-range view of history undergirding these three poems is beyond a child’s grasp, but the views expressed by the speakers are also not from an adults perspective. It is perhaps not too farfetched to suggest that the relationship between researching poet and unreliable speaker is comparable to Robert Browning’s historical character monologues. “What Will You Do” and “Why We Tell Stories” have exactly the right rhetoric for the end of the book but, as with “The Triumph of Life: Mary Shelley,” the ideas do not flesh out. If the world has gone wrong, as the trio of lamenting Browning-like poems indicate, what will humankind do? The answer is direct enough; start over. Why do humans tell stories? To help humankind start over. The child is the father and mother of the storyteller and the storyteller has the past and future in his grasp. That theme does more than justice to the collection of poems. All the poems, however, do not always rise to the theme.
In “For a Thirteenth Birthday” the point of taking a child from Tolstoy to Dreiser was adequately made in the first two stanzas. The stanzas sketching the nature of reality and praising Dreiser are superfluous. “Drawings by Children” is wonderful on the starkness of child-drawn skies, but the stanzas on self-portraits and houses are weak.
“Postcards from All Over” is lovely in its conceit of an array of friends abroad sending back picture postcards, but the cards literally and figuratively pile up with no idea to pull the poem together. “Talking to Helen” and “The Triumph of Life: Mary Shelley” do not add much imagination to the research. These poems present metrical exegesis on the known biographical facts.
Finally, “Picking Raspberries” will serve to illustrate the problem of these lesser poems and something of the problems of the major ones. The childhood experience of being so greedily involved in picking berries that painful scratches are not noticed until later is a wonderful idea for a poem. Only the poem is lacking. Mueller reaches for a notion of otherworldliness and loss of memory. The motifs of greed as an anesthetic, the moment of pleasure-pain balance, and the confusion over the strangeness of the experience are not referred to in the poem at all.
The weakest of Mueller’s poems are abstract commonplaces—a middle range of profound treatment of the trivial and trivial treatment of the profound. Even her best poems have some dead spots, lines rendered anticlimactic and dull by both form and substance, all the more irritating because she can clearly write wonderful lines and fine poems. “Nefertiti’s head/and Mozart’s piano float to the top/side by side, like contemporaries” shows her all-too-common mannerism of dropped voice and anticlimax.
Mueller is impatient with form. The mainstream metrical voice is a couplet of 6-8 syllables in the first line and fewer in the second, resulting in anticlimax, afterthought, amplification, repetition. The three most notable attempts to break out of this pattern are hardly experimental, with three-syllable lines and single words as lines.
Mueller clearly is not quite sure of her readers. She assumes everyone knows who “Kitty and Levin” are and what Elinor Wylie has to do with snow but not that readers know the life of Mary Shelley, for which she provides a prose headnote. Lisel Mueller is clearly a delightful, well-read person, given to both profound thinking about the human condition and forays into whimsy and fantasy. The attempt to do both at once presents difficulties for her. One does not so much await Mueller’s next new volume as wish for this one to be pored over and revised as Mueller’s own good taste could dictate.