In her poem “Necessities,” the first in her 1986 collection Second Language, Lisel Mueller muses on our need for progress. She writes, “Imagine our lives without it; . . . all streets looping back on themselves; life as a beckoning road an absurd idea.” Eventually the poem circles around to the idea of language as a primal necessity:
Even now, the old things first things,
which taught us language. Things of day and of night.
Irrational lightning, fickle clouds, the incorruptible moon.
Fire as revolution, grass as the heir
to all revolutions. Snow
as the alphabet of the dead, subtle, undeciphered.
The river as what we wish it to be.
Trees in their humanness, animals in their otherness.
Summits. Chasms. Clearings.
And stars, which gave us the word distance,
So we could name our deepest sadness.
Mueller, born in Hamburg, Germany, came to the United States when she was 15 years old. Her father was a political refugee under Hitler who was arrested—and, amazingly, released—by the Gestapo. He escaped to America in 1937. Mueller followed two years later, along with her mother and sister. She has lived in this country ever since. Among the many gifts she has wrested from this difficult early history: an “unusually happy” 58-year marriage, two daughters, a dazzling writing career, a Pulitzer Prize, and a meticulous appreciation for words.
“By the time I started writing, English was almost like a first language for me. I never wrote in German. This gave me an advantage,” the 82-year old Mueller explains from her home in Chicago. “It made me more conscious.” In fact, this reversal of tongues—English drawing closer while her native German drifted farther away—made her more enamored with both languages. (“German has taken on for me the magic of a second language,” Mueller once wrote in a personal essay. “Ever so slightly distanced, it teases with a faintly exotic glamour.”) In addition to writing six books of poetry, much of it collected in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Alive Together, she has also translated several books by the German poet and fiction writer Marie Luise Kaschnitz.
“Translating was very tough and, therefore, very exhilarating for me,” Mueller says. “You have to find an equivalent for emotion and setting. Those are the most difficult things because you can’t do that literally.” Mueller’s poems and translations are infused with a sense of opportunity. Every word is chosen with precision and grace. Take, for example, this imagined meeting with Mueller’s mother in “The Garden”:
I bring my mother back to life,
her eyes still green, still laughing,
She is still not fashionably thin.
She looks past me
for the girl
she left her old age to.
She does not recognize her
in me, a graying woman
older than she will ever be.
How strange that in the garden
of memory where she lives
nothing ever changes;
the heavy fruit
cannot pull the branches
any closer to the ground.
Mueller speaks always in a steady, gentle tone—even when describing the death of her beloved husband, Paul Mueller, in 2001 or the partial loss of vision she has suffered over the last 20 years. “I’m blind for reading, really,” she explains plainly, almost as if she were describing someone else. “I use an enlarging machine. And I have two friends who come read to me.”
Mueller also no longer writes, in part because of her diminishing vision. She treats this circumstance with the same tough realism—compellingly at odds with the ethereal nature of her poetry—as the other hardships in her life. “I do miss writing,” she replies when asked the obvious question. “But I simply don’t have the images coming to me anymore that would start a poem. The language no longer flows. I would have to force it and come up with some artificial things, and that’s not my way. I’m someone who has learned to put up with things as they are. Because of the blindness, because of what happened to my husband, because of leaving the country that I was born in and coming here—I accommodate myself.”
The truth is that Mueller has always fashioned triumph out of tragedy. Her career began officially, as she describes it, when her mother died in 1953. Mueller was nearly 30 years old, a detail that adds to the remarkable measure of her accomplishments. “My mother died in June. That summer, I felt a great desire to express my grief and feelings in a poem,” she explains. “And I did. I no longer have that poem. It wasn’t very good. But that is when I knew I wanted to be a poet.”
Quickly thereafter, Mueller began publishing in literary journals, including Poetry and The New Yorker. It wasn’t until she was 41, however, that she published her first collection, Dependencies. Hers, then, has been a career of extremes—slow to start and develop but quickly, abundantly acknowledged.
Over the course of her writing life, Mueller has won the National Book Award, the Lamont Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and, of course, the Pulitzer. Still, this avalanche of recognition has not led her to believe that her poetry will render her immortal. “I don’t think I ever fooled myself about the fact that books of poetry come and go,” she says. “And it was sort of a fluke that I won the Pulitzer because most people who have won the big prizes have been published by the big presses. That makes a difference in how well known you are. I was only ever published by the university presses. I never tried to go anywhere else. My husband was always proud of that. He always said, ‘She didn’t know anyone!’”
Mueller does, however, reach for the eternal in a more philosophical way. Throughout her poetry, memory is invoked as a possibility for an afterlife—it is what allows the dead to live on. Here, Mueller conjures an unnamed loved one in “After Your Death”:
The first time we said your name
you broke through the flat crust of your grave
and rose, a movable statue,
walking and talking among us.
Since then you’ve grown a little.
We keep you slightly larger
than life-size, reciting bits of your story,
our favorite odds and ends.
Of all your faces we’ve chosen one
for you to wear, a face wiped clean
of sadness. Now you have no other.
You’re in our power. Do we
terrify you, do you wish
for another face? Perhaps
you want to be left in darkness.
But you have no say in the matter.
As long as we live, we keep you
from dying your real death,
which is being forgotten. We say,
we don’t want to abandon you,
when we mean we can’t let you go.
For Mueller, the past is also stubborn and mysterious. In an essay called “Return,” she meditates on memory as it comes back to her throughout a visit to Hamburg in her adulthood. “When I stand in front of the red brick apartment building I lived in for six years, I feel only strangeness,” she writes. “Though I am sure I have the right building, it doesn’t quite look as I have remembered it. . . . I look up at the second-floor windows and try to resurrect the child I was, to will her image into being, watch her move through the four small rooms, past the black grand piano with its fringed, silk-embroidered shawl, make her look at me so I can meet my long-ago self, feel the loss of a life. But it does not work. . . . The child is a puppet. I feel nothing for her. The real child lives inside me, and though I do not understand why, she is more alive in her house of memory away from here.”
And if memory would allow itself to be bent, how would Mueller herself like to be recalled by us? Allowing her to choose her own legend is a favor, it seems, she is owed for the care with which she has rendered the people—imagined and real—who have populated her work. “Oh, I consider Alive Together my swan song,” she laughs, amused by the grandiosity. “Might as well go out on a high note!”