Posts filed under ‘Lisel Mueller’

Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny

Lisel Mueller


Jenny, your mind commands
kingdoms of black and white:
you shoulder the crow on your left,
the snowbird on your right;
for you the cinders part
and let the lentils through,
and noise falls into place
as screech or sweet roo-coo,
while in my own, real, world
gray foxes and gray wolves
bargain eye to eye,
and the amazing dove
takes shelter under the wing
of the raven to keep dry.

Knowing that you must climb,
one day, the ancient tower
where disenchantment binds
the curls of innocence,
that you must live with power
and honor circumstance,
that choice is what comes true–
oh, Jenny, pure in heart,
why do I lie to you?

Why do I read you tales
in which birds speak the truth
and pity cures the blind,
and beauty reaches deep
to prove a royal mind?
Death is a small mistake
there, where the kiss revives;
Jenny, we make just dreams
out of our unjust lives.

Still, when your truthful eyes,
your keen, attentive stare,
endow the vacuous slut
with royalty, when you match
her soul to her shimmering hair,
what can she do but rise
to your imagined throne?
And what can I, but see
beyond the world that is,
when, faithful, you insist
I have the golden key–
and learn from you once more
the terror and the bliss,
the world as it might be?

I discovered Lisel Mueller just a little over a month ago, and have been fascinated by her work ever since. Her poems are direct and vivid, combining intelligence with accessibility, ideas with whimsy, and informed by both a richness of imagination and a great depth of emotion.

Today’s poem is a good example, in that it manages to be both humorous and touching. It’s a lovely evocation of fairy tales, but it’s also an exploration of childhood innocence, of the balance that every parent tries to find between protecting their child from the world and preparing him / her for it. We value and preserve the innocence of children, Mueller suggests, not only for reasons of nostalgia (“we make just dreams / out of our unjust lives”) but also, possibly, because it gives us something to live up to, inspires us to be truer to ideals that we, as grown-ups, know to be false.

How true this is of fairy tales is questionable, but it transforms the poem, for me, into a deeper meditation on idealism – on the way we cling to our principles, knowing they don’t hold true in the world, but believing in them anyway for “the terror and the bliss” of keeping “the world as it might be” in sight. It is a testament to Mueller’s gift that Jenny is thus at once a vividly evoked little girl and a symbol for some larger, more abstract principle, some idea or value that we protect from the brute realities of the world as though it were a child.

Every time I read this poem, I’m reminded of Auden’s Lullaby. Perhaps because here too we see the counterpoint between frailty and feeling, between the make-believe of idealism and the reality of human affection. Here too we find a reassurance that operates not by denying our doubts but by accepting them. And perhaps because Mueller, like Auden, combines a tone of overall tenderness with phrases honed to the sharpness of truth (“you must live with power / and honor circumstance – / that choice is what comes true”).


May 25, 2007 at 2:32 am 2 comments