On Lisel Mueller


On Lisel Mueller

My mother likes epigraphs. I find them all over her books. In the earlier books especially, they appear on front pages and introduce each new section, they are hand-inscribed to me on title pages. Often, they quote favorite poems: lines of Stafford, Stevens, Michael Harper.

And so I begin a discussion of her work by recalling some lines by Bertolt Brecht. The poem I have in mind is “An die Nachgeborenen” (“To Those Born Later”), Brecht’s testimony to the experiences of those sent into flight in the 1930s, exiles who found themselves “changing countries more often than shoes” as they vainly sought secure ground in fascist Europe. I have known Brecht’s poem since I was young, because my mother alluded to it in her writing and her conversation. It invoked the lives of her parents, particularly her father’s uncertain, peripatetic existence as a political refugee, a country-changing pattern that finally landed him (like Brecht) in the United States. My grandmother and their two daughters sailed from Germany to join him in 1939, weeks before the war began.

She quotes “To Those Born Later” at least three times in her own work. It provides the epigraph to “On Reading an Anthology of Postwar German Poetry,” included in the poem selection here. Brecht’s shoe metaphor is borrowed for “Voyager,” a poem about her father included in Second Language. In Waving from Shore, she begins a prose poem called “Triage” thus: “Bertolt Brecht lamented that he lived in an age when it was almost a crime to talk about trees, because that meant being silent about so much evil.”

“Triage” is from the 1980s. Apart from its opening, it has nothing to do with mid-century European migrations; in fact it is about homelessness — and about trees — in Reagan-era Chicago. So much of her poetry ponders Brecht’s dilemma: is cherishing the pleasures of everyday life, or lamenting its normal griefs, always an evasion of our times’ more terrible facts? This question also haunts the lyric mode in which she found her voice. Her great themes — history, memory, the saving powers of language and of family love — arise as she confronts it, searching for a place of truthful testimony. Always, she acknowledges the workings of chance: the calamitous shadow concealed in the bright stroke of luck, the snare eluded by the foot stepping forward. Missing that snare, we know it is bound to snap others. It’s no accident that she often borrows mythic voices of female travelers: the success stories (Psyche, Venus stepping unseen by Botticelli onto a desolate beach) and the failures (Lot’s wife). All are haunted by the fear of a false position, which is also a fear of forgetting the past, once one arrives in safety.

She did not forget Germany and was not silent about its evil; nor did she ignore violence and inequality in America. Among her papers is a 1966 essay, never published, about life at home in Hamburg in 1938; the fear in the house when her father, desperately looking for work outside Germany, quietly came back to visit — times that should have been joyful but that were filled with dread of arrest and anxiety about the future. Terrible still to her ears was “that voice,” the “hysterical” voice of Hitler that ranted every Sunday of that year on the radio, interrupted by the “low-in-the-throat thunder” of the crowd, that voice which she still could not bear to hear on American TV in the 1960s. Images from this essay eventually appeared in her poems “Beginning in 1914” and “Curriculum Vitae.” In the latter’s final line she writes, “So far, so good,” but her poems never fall into a suburban complacency. Amid the “great leap” of family love in a tree-shaded lot in the Midwest, she counts blessings strictly, keeping faith with memory and writing insistently of history’s unvoiced and unlucky, of history then and history now.

Asked to select fifteen poems by Fifth Wednesday Journal, I decided against some popular favorites. Poems such as “When I Am Asked,” “Monet Refuses the Operation,” and “Alive Together” can be found fairly easily online. I looked for poems showing her seemingly effortless gift for metaphor — her knack for transformation learned probably through the folklore she loved and which, for all its wit, shares folklore’s native power. Perhaps inevitably I felt pulled to the books she wrote in my childhood, The Private Life (1976) and The Need to Hold Still (1980). I find they have barely aged. The Private Life begins by invoking one of the first campus killing sprees, the Texas Tower shootings, of the type so common now that we rehearse our responses with drills. The neglected towns of “Highway Poems” still languish on our rural roads, awaiting their due. And the story is still of migrants who change countries more often than shoes, forced to face chance in the latest dark times.


Jenny Mueller is the younger of Lisel’s two daughters and serves as Lisel’s literary contact. Jenny has published two books of poetry, Bonneville and State Park, both from Elixir Press. Currently she is assisting Fence Digital with the posthumous publication of work by the late Brian Young. Jenny lives in St. Louis and is Professor of English at McKendree University.