Place and Time

By Lisel Mueller b. 1924 Lisel Mueller

History is your own heartbeat.                
                   —Michael Harper 

Last night a man on the radio,
a still young man, said the business district
of his hometown had been plowed under.
The town was in North Dakota.
Grass, where the red-and-gold           
Woolworth sign used to be,
where the revolving doors
took him inside Sears;
gone the sweaty seats
of the Roxy—or was it the Princess—
of countless Friday nights
that whipped his heart to a gallop
when a girl touched him, as the gun
on the screen flashed in the moonlight.
Grass, that egalitarian green,
pulling its sheet over rubble,
over his barely cold childhood,
on which he walks as others walk
over a buried Mayan temple
or a Roman aqueduct beneath
a remote sheep pasture
in the British Isles. Yet his voice,
the modest voice on the radio,
was almost apologetic,
as if to say, what’s one small town,
even if it is one’s own,
in an age of mass destruction,
and never mind the streets and stones
of a grown man’s childhood—
as if to say, the lives we live
before the present moment
are graves we walk away from.
 
Except we don’t. We’re all
pillars of salt. My life began
with Beethoven and Schubert
on my mother’s grand piano,
the shiny Bechstein on which she played
the famous symphonies
in piano reductions. But they were no
reductions for me, the child
who now remembers nothing
earlier than that music,
a weather I was born into,
a jubilant light or dusky sadness
struck up by my mother’s hands.
Where does music come from
and where does it go when it’s over—
the child’s unanswered question
about more than music.
 
My mother is dead, and the piano
she could not take with her into exile
burned with our city in World War II.
That is the half-truth. The other half
is that it’s still her black Bechstein
each concert pianist plays for me
and that her self-taught fingers
are behind each virtuoso performance
on the stereo, giving me back
my prewar childhood city
intact and real. I don’t know
if the man from North Dakota has
some music that brings back
his town to him, but something does,
and whatever he remembers
is durable and instantly
retrievable and lit
by a sky or streetlight
which does not change. That must be why
he sounded casual about
the mindless wreckage, clumsy
as an empty threat.

Lisel Mueller, "Place and  Time" from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1996 by Lisel Mueller. Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press.

Source: Alive Together: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1996)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Lisel Mueller b. 1924

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Living, Time & Brevity, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Arts & Sciences, Music, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Lisel  Mueller

Biography

Poet and translator Lisel Mueller was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1924. The daughter of teachers, her family was forced to flee the Nazi regime when Mueller was 15. They immigrated to the US and settled in the Mid-west. Mueller attended the University of Evansville, where her father was a professor, and did her graduate study at Indiana University. Her collections of poetry include The Private Life, which was the 1975 Lamont . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Time & Brevity, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Arts & Sciences, Music, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.