Second Language is the fourth volume of work from the highly acclaimed poet Lisel Mueller. The second language of the title, English, supplanted Mueller’s native language when she came to the United States from Hitler’s Germany at age fifteen. But other second languages are at work here as well. The poems in this collection have to do with memory and metaphor, two forces that enable us to interpret our experience. Each is in a sense a second language, and in Mueller’s employ each gains expression in an imaginative and humanistic voice. In “English as a Second Language,” the various meanings of Second Language come together lucidly and effectively.
The underpaid young teacher
prints the letters t, r, e, e
on the blackboard and imagines
forests and gardens springing up
in the tired heads of her students.
But they see only four letters:
a vertical beam weighed down
by a crushing crossbar
and followed by a hook,
and after the hook, two squiggles,
arcane identical twins
which could be spying eyes
or ready fists, could be handles,
could be curled seedlings, could take root,
could develop leaves.
From “English as a Second Language” published in Second Language: Poems by Lisel Mueller. Copyright © 1986 by Lisel Mueller. All rights reserved.
Other poems in Second Language consider the idiosyncrasies of the heart, the secrets and surprises of our inner lives, and the passing of time. Mueller also writes about aging and how it yields new interpretations of life.
This strong new collection is a skillful weaving of layers of language by a mature and accomplished poet.
Lisel Mueller was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1924. She has published six books of poetry with LSU Press, including Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (1996), which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize; Waving from Shore (1989); Second Language (1986); The Need to Hold Still (1980), winner of the National Book Award; The Private Life, the 1975 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Dependencies (1998). Her writing honors include the Carl Sandburg Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She lives near Chicago, Illinois.
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