It Is The Singular Gift

Lisel Mueller (1924 – 2020)

Poetry, for me, is the answer to, ‘How does one stay sane when private lives are being ransacked by public events?’ It’s something that hangs over your head all the time.

Lisel Mueller


by Lisel Mueller

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs
from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.

It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

Why We Tell Stories


by Lisel Mueller

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


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

Let Love Be Brought To Ignorance Again

Lisel Mueller
Lisel Mueller

A Prayer For Rain

by Lisel Mueller

Let it come down: these thicknesses of air
have long enough walled love away from love;
stillness has hardened until words despair
of their high leaps and kisses shut themselves
back into wishing. Crippled lovers lie
against a weather which holds out on them,
waiting, awaiting some shrill sign, some cry,
some screaming cat that smells a sacrifice
and spells them thunder. Start the mumbling lips,
syllable by monotonous syllable,
that wash away the sullen griefs of love
and drown out knowledge of an ancient war—
o, ill-willed dark, give with the sound of rain,
let love be brought to ignorance again.


Rain is in the forecast this week here in Minneapolis. It will be a cold rain when it comes.  The kind of rain that will eat away at the snow piles that remain,  help wash away the salt and dirt of winter,  deteriorate the piles of dog poo that had congregated beneath the snow and now have resurfaced in back yards.  It won’t be until the second or third rain that spring truly arrives in Minnesota.  The kind of rain that changes the way the world smells, a smell of hope and growing things, the smell of soil coming back to life.

The sonnet above by Mueller is masterful.  It is a framework for emotion, memories and pictures, rendering in each reader a different message.  It says a lot but not too much.  It is just opaque enough to allow the reader to be pulled in whatever direction their mind is taking them at the time.  I like poetry that resembles a Rorschach test, it has a definite imprint you can see in black and white, but what it is exactly, is up to the individual to interpret.

This is not my idea, it is a concept rooted in history. The German mystic and poet Justinus Kerner (1786 – 1862) wrote and drew a series of complex ink blots captioned with accompanying poems. His work preceded Rorschach. Kerner’s work was popular towards the end of the 19th century.   Kerner’s idea became the basis for children’s games such as “Gobolinks” and “Blottentots” in the United States, “Klecks,” in Germany, and “Blotto,” in the United Kingdom. In all of these games, the players made inkblot pictures and then wrote short poems, interpreting how the picture moved them. How wonderful to make art and poetry a game in which everyone can play, before we become reserved and shy with words.

Justinus Kerner Inkblots and Poem


by Lisel Mueller

“Don’t cry, its only music,”
someone’s voice is saying.
“No one you love is dying.”

It’s only music. And it was only spring,
the world’s unreasoning body
run amok, like a saint’s, with glory,
that overwhelmed a young girl
into unreasoning sadness.
“Crazy,” she told herself,
“I should be dancing with happiness.”

But it happened again. It happens
when we make bottomless love—
there follows a bottomless sadness
which is not despair
but its nameless opposite.
It has nothing to do with the passing of time.
It’s not about loss. It’s about
two seemingly parallel lines
suddenly coming together
inside us, in some place
that is still wilderness.
Joy, joy, the sopranos sing,
reaching for the shimmering notes
while our eyes fill with tears.

Something Secret Is Going On

L Mueller
Lisel Mueller (1924 – 2020)

“My husband says spring will be early.
He says this every year,
And every year I disagree.
He needs me, the dark side of the planetary equation.
Together we make the equinox.”

Lisel Mueller

Love, Like Salt

by Lisel Mueller

It lies in our hands in crystals
too intricate to decipher

It goes into the skillet
without being given a second thought

It spills on the floor so fine
we step all over it

We carry a pinch behind each eyeball

It breaks out on our foreheads

We store it inside our bodies
in secret wineskins

At supper, we pass it around the table
talking of holidays and the sea.

I read the obits of poets.   Google has learned this about me and I don’t have to search it out, the key words – death, poet and Pulitzer are so ingrained on my behind the scene profile that it automatically serves it up to me on daily briefings.   Lisel Mueller is not a name I was familiar prior to this week, but when she died at the glorious age of 96 this past month, I stumbled across her obit and then sought out her poetry.   I so enjoy finding a poet that I have never heard of before that within reading a few of their poems I instantly find a poem I can’t wait to share with a friend, so perfect are the words to their inner life.

Mueller was forced to flee the Nazi’s when she was fifteen and she lived out the rest of her life in the Midwest, mostly Illinois. She won the Pulitzer in 1976, a talented translator as well as poet, she richly deserved the recognition for her nuanced and sentimental poetry.   Mueller’s poetry dwells in quiet places we all exist.  It is what I most appreciate in a poet, the ability to illuminate the simple and make simple the complex.

Sometimes, When The Light

By Lisel Mueller

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angle
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

You know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.