My colleagues and I often review recently acquired books by our library—most often fiction—for this blog, but this post, in honor of April, National Poetry Month, focuses on a few selected poems. Poetry, as Auden so famously wrote, “makes nothing happen.” And yet, it offers us powerful insights about the human condition in a language that is not only beautiful but also precise—a most welcome antidote to the enveloping haze of uncertainty many of us experience at this historical moment. Poems do justice to the range of human emotions—from sadness to fear to hope—that we feel but may not be able to articulate, to name. They are also reminders of our human connections, many of them intangible these days and sorely missed. Projecting the human voice, poems create intimacy: in the words of John Ashbery, “the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.” Reading human history through poetry’s sharp prism, we acknowledge our collective angst but also our joys and glories, past and to come.
The first stanza in Billy Collins’ “Books” takes us into a place we know well:
From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night,
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovani Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.
Our library, the building, is closed, but that “gigantic chord,” that “hum,” binds us all. That “chord” may also be perceived as the worldwide web; we are fortunate to be living in an era when the internet gives us access to texts of all kinds. One resource among many is the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which offers us an abundance of riches, poems from across the globe. (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/)
In our virtual library, let us reach for Alive Together, New and Selected poems (1992) by Lisel Mueller (1924-2020). Born in Germany, Mueller, at the age of fifteen, fled the Nazis and, along with her family, settled in the American Midwest. The traumatic upheaval and the adjustment to a new country and language are among the motifs of her poetry, as in the 1992 poem “Curriculum Vitae”: “My country was struck by history more deadly than earthquakes or hurricanes.” And yet, in the face of adversity, she remarks on those common sources of inner strength we can draw upon to retain our sense of self and dignity as human beings. In “Your Tired, Your Poor,” for example, we hear an imaginary dialogue played out between a refugee and the immigration officer. He tells her to leave her previous life “at the border, bundled and tied.” She witnesses him “riffling” through her life “without looking, /stamp it and put it out the back/ for the trash collector.” Yet, the refugee knows better. Standing free “in the desert,” she has managed to “smuggle in” what is most precious: “behind my eyes and under my tongue:/ memory and language.”
Mueller went on to win multiple awards, including the Pulitzer. She made her home for forty years near Libertyville in Lake County, Illinois, a setting that inspired her frequent meditations on living in the Midwest. In “Letter to California,” she reminds us of the seemingly never-ending winter, which “swallows two seasons and throws its shadow over a third.” The final lines of the poem, however, tell a different story:
…..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.
Domestic life, in Mueller’s poetry, loses its banality and is observed anew. In “Things,” she comments on human loneliness, which can be a source of imaginative reconstruction of the ordinary:
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 out shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own…
Not far from Mueller on the shelf, we find W.S. Merwin. In “Before a Departure in Spring,” he invites us to celebrate the coming of spring and its exuberant burst of colors:
Once more it is April with the first light sifting
through the young leaves with dew making the colors
remember who they are the new pink of the cinnamon tree
the gilded lichens of the bamboo the shadowed bronze
of the kamani and the blue day opening
as the sunlight descends through it all like the return
of a spirit touching without touch and unable
to believe it is here and here again and awake….
This spring, with all its beauties, is accompanied by tremendous anguish and heartache.
Perhaps a glance at previous harsh times in history can offer us a bit of solace. Carl Sandburg’s “The Long Shadow of Lincoln: A Litany” opens with an epigraph, a quotation from the President’s message to the Congress on December 1, 1862. Lincoln’s words are strangely applicable to our own times: “We can succeed only by concert…The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new so we must think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.”
Indeed, our challenge is to “think anew” but also, as Sandburg suggests in the opening line of his poem:
“Be sad, be cool, be kind.”