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Friday, February 18, 2011

Number 72: Lisel Mueller "Why I Need the Birds"

Why I Need the Birds

When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.

By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together —
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.

-- Lisel Mueller

Hap Notes: Lisel Mueller (born 1924) was born in Hamburg and came to America with her family in 1939 as they were fleeing Nazi Germany. English is her second language and she uses it as one who cherishes its metaphors and twists of phrase. She graduated from the University of Evansville where her father was a professor. She worked as a social worker, a receptionist, a library worker and a freelance writer and editor and translator. She was a teacher at Goddard College in their MFA writing program as well as at the University of Chicago and Elmhurst College.

Mueller's mother passed away in 1953 and she has said she started writing much of her poetry to express her grief. Those of us who have lost parents know that very deep and unusual sadness.

She's won many awards and grants including the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and the National Book Award. Her Pulitzer was for Alive Together: New and Selected Poems.

Mueller has a delicacy of phrasing that is quite unique. In the poem she shows us the world slowly revolving as the day progresses with the birds "always a little ahead" of her. The birds wake early and bring in the day, they nest in the trees at night "riding" the revolving planet with us. She notices that the birds are always around. It's amazing how many birds and creatures surround us while we are often unaware of their presence. The poem is full of curves, the curve of the earth, the rainbow and the birds a bit ahead of the curve.

By the way, I think we all really need the birds for a lot of things. Mueller's observance that they are present and watchful in their daily lives is probably something we could emulate more.

Her poems are full of common things uncommonly observed with a remarkable imagination. There is always a slight edge of sadness to her poems, I think. Her books of poetry are all tight with metaphor and the secrets of being human.

Here's a good Mueller quote: " Memory and poetry go together, absolutely. It is a matter of preserving and of remembering things."

You can find more Mueller here:

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