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Best Famous Lisel Mueller Poems

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by Lisel Mueller | |

What The Dog Perhaps Hears

 If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us, 
then silence is perhaps
the sound of spiders breathing
and roots mining the earth; 
it may be asparagus heaving, 
headfirst, into the light
and the long brown sound
of cracked cups, when it happens.
We would like to ask the dog if there is a continuous whir because the child in the house keeps growing, if the snake really stretches full length without a click and the sun breaks through clouds without a decibel of effort, whether in autumn, when the trees dry up their wells, there isn't a shudder too high for us to hear.
What is it like up there above the shut-off level of our simple ears? For us there was no birth cry, the newborn bird is suddenly here, the egg broken, the nest alive, and we heard nothing when the world changed.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Another Version

 Our trees are aspens, but people
mistake them for birches;
they think of us as characters
in a Russian novel, Kitty and Levin
living contentedly in the country.
Our friends from the city watch the birds and rabbits feeding together on top of the deep, white snow.
(We have Russian winters in Illinois, but no sleighbells, possums instead of wolves, no trusted servants to do our work.
) As in a Russian play, an old man lives in our house, he is my father; he lets go of life in such slow motion, year after year, that the grief is stuck inside me, a poisoned apple that won't go up or down.
But like the three sisters, we rarely speak of what keeps us awake at night; like them, we complain about things that don't really matter and talk of our pleasures and of the future: we tell each other the willows are early this year, hazy with green.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Immortality

 WE must pass like smoke or live within the spirit’s fire;
For we can no more than smoke unto the flame return
If our thought has changed to dream, our will unto desire,
 As smoke we vanish though the fire may burn.
Lights of infinite pity star the grey dusk of our days: Surely here is soul: with it we have eternal breath: In the fire of love we live, or pass by many ways, By unnumbered ways of dream to death.


More great poems below...

by Lisel Mueller | |

Scenic Route

 For Lucy, who called them "ghost houses.
" Someone was always leaving and never coming back.
The wooden houses wait like old wives along this road; they are everywhere, abandoned, leaning, turning gray.
Someone always traded the lonely beauty of hemlock and stony lakeshore for survival, packed up his life and drove off to the city.
In the yards the apple trees keep hanging on, but the fruit grows smaller year by year.
When we come this way again the trees will have gone wild, the houses collapsed, not even worth the human act of breaking in.
Fields will have taken over.
What we will recognize is the wind, the same fierce wind, which has no history.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Small Poem About The Hounds And The Hares

 After the kill, there is the feast.
And toward the end, when the dancing subsides and the young have sneaked off somewhere, the hounds, drunk on the blood of the hares, begin to talk of how soft were their pelts, how graceful their leaps, how lovely their scared, gentle eyes.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Alive Together

 Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
when I might have been Abelard's woman
or the whore of a Renaissance pop
or a peasant wife with not enough food
and not enough love, with my children
dead of the plague.
I might have slept in an alcove next to the man with the golden nose, who poked it into the business of stars, or sewn a starry flag for a general with wooden teeth.
I might have been the exemplary Pocahontas or a woman without a name weeping in Master's bed for my husband, exchanged for a mule, my daughter, lost in a drunken bet.
I might have been stretched on a totem pole to appease a vindictive god or left, a useless girl-child, to die on a cliff.
I like to think I might have been Mary Shelley in love with a wrong-headed angel, or Mary's friend.
I might have been you.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless, our chances of being alive together statistically nonexistent; still we have made it, alive in a time when rationalists in square hats and hatless Jehovah's Witnesses agree it is almost over, alive with our lively children who--but for endless ifs-- might have missed out on being alive together with marvels and follies and longings and lies and wishes and error and humor and mercy and journeys and voices and faces and colors and summers and mornings and knowledge and tears and chance.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Blood Oranges

 In 1936, a child
in Hitler's Germany,
what did I know about the war in Spain?
Andalusia was a tango
on a wind-up gramophone,
Franco a hero's face in the paper.
No one told me about a poet for whose sake I might have learned Spanish bleeding to death on a barren hill.
All I knew of Spain were those precious imported treats we splurged on for Christmas.
I remember pulling the sections apart, lining them up, sucking each one slowly, so the red sweetness would last and last -- while I was reading a poem by a long-dead German poet in which the woods stood safe under the moon's milky eye and the white fog in the meadows aspired to become lighter than air.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Immortality

 In Sleeping Beauty's castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the world.
So do the servants in the kitchen, who don't even rub their eyes.
The cook's right hand, lifted an exact century ago, completes its downward arc to the kitchen boy's left ear; the boy's tensed vocal cords finally let go the trapped, enduring whimper, and the fly, arrested mid-plunge above the strawberry pie fulfills its abiding mission and dives into the sweet, red glaze.
As a child I had a book with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice how fear persists, and how the anger that causes fear persists, that its trajectory can't be changed or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly: that this slight body with its transparent wings and life-span of one human day still craved its particular share of sweetness, a century later.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Bedtime Story

 The moon lies on the river
like a drop of oil.
The children come to the banks to be healed of their wounds and bruises.
The fathers who gave them their wounds and bruises come to be healed of their rage.
The mothers grow lovely; their faces soften, the birds in their throats awake.
They all stand hand in hand and the trees around them, forever on the verge of becoming one of them, stop shuddering and speak their first word.
But that is not the beginning.
It is the end of the story, and before we come to the end, the mothers and fathers and children must find their way to the river, separately, with no one to guide them.
That is the long, pitiless part, and it will scare you.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Monet Refuses The Operation

 Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, to soften and blur and finally banish the edges you regret I don't see, to learn that the line I called the horizon does not exist and sky and water, so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see Rouen cathedral is built of parallel shafts of sun, and now you want to restore my youthful errors: fixed notions of top and bottom, the illusion of three-dimensional space, wisteria separate from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you the Houses of Parliament dissolves night after night to become the fluid dream of the Thames? I will not return to a universe of objects that don't know each other, as if islands were not the lost children of one great continent.
The world is flux, and light becomes what it touches, becomes water, lilies on water, above and below water, becomes lilac and mauve and yellow and white and cerulean lamps, small fists passing sunlight so quickly to one another that it would take long, streaming hair inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light! Our weighted shapes, these verticals, burn to mix with air and change our bones, skin, clothes to gases.
Doctor, if only you could see how heaven pulls earth into its arms and how infinitely the heart expands to claim this world, blue vapor without end.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Moon Fishing

 When the moon was full they came to the water.
some with pitchforks, some with rakes, some with sieves and ladles, and one with a silver cup.
And they fished til a traveler passed them and said, "Fools, to catch the moon you must let your women spread their hair on the water -- even the wily moon will leap to that bobbing net of shimmering threads, gasp and flop till its silver scales lie black and still at your feet.
" And they fished with the hair of their women till a traveler passed them and said, "Fools, do you think the moon is caught lightly, with glitter and silk threads? You must cut out your hearts and bait your hooks with those dark animals; what matter you lose your hearts to reel in your dream?" And they fished with their tight, hot hearts till a traveler passed them and said, "Fools, what good is the moon to a heartless man? Put back your hearts and get on your knees and drink as you never have, until your throats are coated with silver and your voices ring like bells.
" And they fished with their lips and tongues until the water was gone and the moon had slipped away in the soft, bottomless mud.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Reading The Brothers Grimm To Jenny

 Jenny, your mind commands
kingdoms of black and white:
you shoulder the crow on your left,
the snowbird on your right;
for you the cinders part
and let the lentils through,
and noise falls into place
as screech or sweet roo-coo,
while in my own, real, world
gray foxes and gray wolves
bargain eye to eye,
and the amazing dove
takes shelter under the wing
of the raven to keep dry.
Knowing that you must climb, one day, the ancient tower where disenchantment binds the curls of innocence, that you must live with power and honor circumstance, that choice is what comes true-- oh, Jenny, pure in heart, why do I lie to you? Why do I read you tales in which birds speak the truth and pity cures the blind, and beauty reaches deep to prove a royal mind? Death is a small mistake there, where the kiss revives; Jenny, we make just dreams out of our unjust lives.
Still, when your truthful eyes, your keen, attentive stare, endow the vacuous slut with royalty, when you match her soul to her shimmering hair, what can she do but rise to your imagined throne? And what can I, but see beyond the world that is, when, faithful, you insist I have the golden key-- and learn from you once more the terror and the bliss, the world as it might be?


by Lisel Mueller | |

Why We Tell Stories

 For Linda Foster


I
Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground

and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers

and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened

and learned to speak

2
We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us

and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles 
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees

3
Because the story of our life 
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and


by Lisel Mueller | |

Things

 What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.
We fitted our shoes with tongues as smooth as our own and hung tongues inside bells so we could listen to their emotional language, and because we loved graceful profiles the pitcher received a lip, the bottle a long, slender neck.
Even what was beyond us was recast in our image; we gave the country a heart, the storm an eye, the cave a mouth so we could pass into safety.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Night Song

 Among rocks, I am the loose one,
among aarows, I am the heart,
among daughters, I am the recluse,
among sons, the one who dies young.
Among answers, I am the question, between lovers, I am the sword, among scars, I am the fresh wound, among confetti, the black flag.
Among shoes, I am the onw with the pebble, among days, the one that never comes, among the bones you find on the beach the one that sings was mine.


by Lisel Mueller | |

A Day Like Any Other

 Such insignificance: a glance
at your record on the doctor's desk
or a letter not meant for you.
How could you have known? It's not true that your life passes before you in rapid motion, but your watch suddenly ticks like an amplified heart, the hands freezing against a white that is a judgment.
Otherwise nothing.
The face in the mirror is still yours.
Two men pass on the sidewalk and do not stare at your window.
Your room is silent, the plants locked inside their mysterious lives as always.
The queen-of-the-night refuses to bloom, does not accept your definition.
It makes no sense, your scanning the street for a traffic snarl, a new crack in the pavement, a flag at half-mast -- signs of some disturbance in the world because your friend, the morning sun, has turned its dark side toward you.


by Lisel Mueller | |

All Night

 All night the knot in the shoelace 
waits for its liberation, 
and the match on the table packs its head 
with anticipation of light.
The faucet sweats out a bead of water, which gathers strength for the free fall, while the lettuce in the refrigerator succumbs to its brown killer.
And in the novel I put down before I fall asleep, the paneled walls of a room are condemned to stand and wait for tomorrow, when I'll get to the page where the prisoner finds the secret door and steps into air and the scent of lilacs.


by Lisel Mueller | |

Five For Country Music

 I.
Insomnia The bulb at the front door burns and burns.
If it were a white rose it would tire of blooming through another endless night.
The moon knows the routine; it beats the bushes from east to west and sets empty-handed.
Again the one she is waiting for has outrun the moon.
II.
Old Money The spotted hands shake as they polish the coins.
The shiny penny goes under the tongue, the two silver pieces weighted by pyramids will shut down the eyes.
All the rest is paper, useless in any world but this.
III.
Home Movie She knows that walk, that whistle, that knock.
It's the black wolf who sticks his floured paw underneath the door.
She tries not to open.
One look at his face and she'll drop the gun.
He will pick it up and turn it on her where she waits, her eyes shining, her hands over her head.
IV.
Golden Boy Whitewashed, the eyes refuse you.
And so the mouth must be serene, the muscles play, the body take an easy stance to divert you from the two boarded-up chambers where someone has died.
V.
Washing Day Each year her laundry line gets lighter.
One by one they disappear, ten little Indians.
They take their socks, their jeans, their stiff plaid shirts.
Above the Ford on its concrete blocks, striped and zippered, her cotton dress flutters on and on.


by Lisel Mueller | |

The Laughter Of Women

 The laughter of women sets fire
to the Halls of Injustice
and the false evidence burns
to a beautiful white lightness

It rattles the Chambers of Congress
and forces the windows wide open
so the fatuous speeches can fly out

The laughter of women wipes the mist
from the spectacles of the old;
it infects them with a happy flu
and they laugh as if they were young again

Prisoners held in underground cells
imagine that they see daylight
when they remember the laughter of women

It runs across water that divides,
and reconciles two unfriendly shores
like flares that signal the news to each other

What a language it is, the laughter of women,
high-flying and subversive.
Long before law and scripture we heard the laughter, we understood freedom.