One More Poet and Poem for National Poetry Month

Among the many positive aspects of the Peninsula Pulse being published weekly is that it affords me the opportunity to feature one more poem in honor of National Poetry Month.

The poem below is from Lisel Mueller, who I had the opportunity to meet many years ago when I worked at Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore on Wabash Avenue in Chicago.

Lisel Mueller

Mueller was born in 1924 in Hamburg, Germany, and immigrated with her parents to the United States in 1939. Her father worked as a professor at the University of Evansville and his daughter would later graduate from the same institution.

After her marriage, Mueller and her husband built a home in Lake Forest, Ill., where they raised two daughters. Today, Mueller lives in a retirement community in Chicago.

Her collection The Private Life, published in 1975, was the Lamont Poetry Selection for that year; The Need to Hold Still, published in 1980, won the National Book Award for Poetry; and Alive Together: New & Selected Poems, published in 1996, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that year.

While her poem “Alive Together” is her best-known poem (and has been widely anthologized) I have always had a particular fondness for “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Perhaps because I celebrated a birthday this month that moved me closer to 60-years-of-age than 50-years-of-age, this poem came directly to my mind when I began thinking of this column.

I could provide some commentary to the following poem, but I think everyone will find it readily accessible and, if you are of the right age and temperament, you will find the theme tremendously satisfying. Enjoy!

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 dissolve
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.