you were still flying

If you remember the pictures you crayoned as a child, or have seen one recently, perhaps this wistful Lisel Mueller (1924-) poem will resonate with you, too.

“Drawings by Children”


The sun may be visible or not
(it may be behind you,
the viewer of these pictures)
but the sky is always blue
if it is day.
If not,
the stars come almost within your grasp;
crooked, they reach out to you,
on the verge of falling.
It is never sunrise or sunset;
there is no bloody eye
spying on you across the horizon.
It is clearly day or night,
it is bright or totally dark,
it is here and never there.


In the beginning, you only needed
your head, a moon swimming in space,
and four bare branches;
and when your body was added,
it was light and thin at first,
not yet the dark chapel
from which, later, you tried to escape.
You lived in a non-Newtonian world,
your arms grew up from your shoulders,
your feet did not touch the ground,
your hair was streaming,
you were still flying.


The house is smaller than you remembered,
it has windows but no door.
A chimney sits on the gable roof,
a curl of smoke reassures you.
But the house has only two dimensions,
like a mash without its face;
the people who live there stand outside
as though time were always summer–
there is nothing behind the wall
except a space where the wind whistles,
but you cannot see that.


your long, sleek-voweled words fill my mouth like ripe avocado

A poem to the strange wonder that is California from Lisel Mueller (1924- ), who was living in the Midwest when she wrote this–and still is, I believe.

“Letter to California”

We write to each other as if
we were using the same language,
though we are not. Your sentences lap
over each other like the waves
of the Pacific, strictureless;
your long, sleek-voweled words
fill my mouth like ripe avocados.
To read you is to dismiss
news of earthquakes and mud slides,
to imagine time in slow motion.
It is to think of the sun
as a creature that will not let anything
happen to you.

          Back here
we grow leeks and beans and sturdy
roots that will keep for months.
We have few disasters; i.e.,
no grandeur to speak of. Instead
we engage in a low-keyed continuous struggle
to get through the winter, which swallows
two seasons and throws its shadow
over a third. How do you manage
without snow to tell you that you are mortal?
We are brought up short by a wind
that shapes our words; they fall
in clean, blunt strokes. The birds here
are mostly chickadees
and juncos, monochromes
bred to the long view
like the sky under siege of lead
and the bony trees, which hold
the dancer’s first position
month after month. But we have
our intimations: now and then
a cardinal with its lyric call,
its body blazing like a saint’s
unexpectedly gaudy heart,
spills on our reasonable scene
of brown and gray, unconscious of itself.
I search the language for a word
to tell you how red is red.

from Second Language

The children come to the banks to be healed

I was just on the phone with my dear friend Killeen and randomly asked her for a poet recommendation because I needed inspiration for tonight’s post. She suggested the German poet Lisel Mueller (1924-), whose work I had never read until 30 minutes ago. And now I find myself liking so many of her poems that I can’t choose just one. So here are two shortish pieces by her. (Thanks Killeen!)

“Bedtime Story”

The moon lies on the river
like a drop of oil.
The children come to the banks to be healed
of their wounds and bruises.
The fathers who gave them their wounds and bruises
come to be healed of their rage.
The mothers grow lovely; their faces soften,
the birds in their throats awake.
They all stand hand in hand
and the trees around them,
forever on the verge
of becoming one of them,
stop shuddering and speak their first word.

But that is not the beginning.
It is the end of the story,
and before we come to the end,
the mothers and fathers and children
must find their way to the river,
separately, with no one to guide them.
That is the long, pitiless part,
and it will scare you.


What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.