Characteristically compelling and articulate, Lisel Mueller’s poems in Waving from Shore are largely about strategies for survival. Language, music, and memory are central elements. Through them, Mueller summons clarity and renewal from uncertainty and bereavement. Language, she writes, is sometimes the only thing that will grieve our losses with us. And music will often speak when language does not. A saxophonist on a downtown street plays “A voice made human, a language / all of us, shoppers, browsers / and purse-snatchers understand.”
Mueller is interested in finding resolution in disparate experiences of the world and in synchronizing distant occurrences in a single life. In “Cavalleria Rusticana,” an evening display of fireflies recalls an earlier time and place.
All the fireflies in the world
are gathered in our yard tonight,
flickering in the shrubs
like an ostentatious display
of Christmas lights out of season.
But the music in the air
is the music of heat, of August—
cicadas scraping out
their thin, harsh treble
like country fiddlers settling in
for a long night. I feel at home
with their relentless tune,
minimalist, like the Eighties.
Events repeat themselves,
but with a difference that makes all
the difference. As a child
one summer night in Verona
at my first opera,
I watched a swarm of matches
light up the Roman arena
until we were silent. It was as if
music were a night-blooming flower
that would not open
until we held our breath.
Then the full-blown sound,
the single-minded combat
of passion: voices sharpening
their glittering blades on one another,
electing to live or die.
It was that simple. The story was
of no importance, the motive lost
in the sufficient, breathing dark.
If there was a moon I don't remember.
“Cavalleria Rusticana” published in Waving from Shore: Poems by Lisel Mueller. Copyright © 1989 by Lisel Mueller. All rights reserved.
In delicate but firm verse, Mueller communicates scenes and emotions with satisfying fullness. “All Night” returns to a recurring theme of the potential in silence, sleep, late-night hours.
All through the 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
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.
“All Night ” published in Waving from Shore: Poems by Lisel Mueller. Copyright © 1989 by Lisel Mueller. All rights reserved.
Lisel Mueller is as precise in her observations of the physical world as she is responsive to the currents of an inward life. This is a strong and memorable collection.
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.
Found an Error? Tell us about it.