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Friday, April 29, 2011

Number 140: Lisel Mueller "Place and Time"

Place And Time

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

Hap Notes: The small town in which I grew up, in Illinois, is the sad husk of a place that I remember as so colorful and vital. I moved back there to take care of my mother when she was dieing of cancer and after she passed away, for a while, I was the companion to a woman in her 90s (Bertha, who took care of me when I was a child.) The three of us all lived in a different town even though it was in the same geographic space. All of us had memories of a place we loved. I shudder to think what younger people will remember with all the fast-food chains and discount stores (K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Loewe's, etc. in a long row with their vast parking lots) and sad empty buildings downtown. The town still lived, in gorgeous color, for each of us, and maybe it will for the discount store generation, too. Who knows?

I know that I got to live in all three towns as my mother would talk about the "Teddy Bear" ice cream truck and Bertha would talk about the community gardens during WWII and the Princess Candy Kitchen (a candy store that will always live, because I never saw it, as an ideal.) So now I'm carrying those shared memories with me. I suppose the discount store generation will get to hear them, too. And the candy store/comic book store I loved as a kid is still there. I always say where there is candy and comic books, there is hope. And poetry.

Mueller is right, we are all pillars of salt; the people who look back at the destruction of our towns like Lot's wife at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I remember when I was a kid, reading the Bible, and she was told NOT to look back, I wondered why did she? Did she want to see the place destroyed? Was she curious about what exactly God was going to do to the place? Did she have a fond memory or two of her daughters growing up there, of her cooking something for dinner and Lot coming home to have a pleasant supper with his family? Was life always horrible there or was there a shady palm or two and a friendly date and honey vendor on the town square? Was she going to miss some parts of town? We are all sometimes compelled to look back. (Uh, by the way, I'll just mention that the whole "Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah" is one of the most amazing (and freakiest) parts of the Old Testament. Read the whole story-it's got everything- sex, violence, mystery, compassion.)

In Mueller's case, it's the destruction of war. But, as she so aptly points out, destruction is somewhat of an illusion because we all hold the places we love in our memories. The destruction of a small town in North Dakota might seem unimportant, even to those that knew it, but it says a lot about humans that we wantonly destroy things, and yet, can still love, remember and keep safe the things that are important in our hearts and minds.

Of course, there's much more in the poem- always is when it's a good one.

Here is where we have talked about Mueller before:

P.S. The masthead is a painting I did of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It's a bad photo of a mediocre painting which is now out in the shed being enjoyed by the local bugs. I knew it was good for somethin'.

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