Lisel Mueller’s Radiant Vision of the World

I first read these words in the basement level of a Chicago bookstore close to twenty years ago and I knew Lisel Mueller was a woman to be trusted:

In Passing

How swiftly the strained honey

of afternoon light

flows into darkness


and the closed bud shrugs off

its special mystery

in order to break into blossom:


as if what exists, exists

so that it can be lost

and become precious.


(“In Passing” is the introductory poem to  Lisel Mueller’s Pulitzer Prize winning volume, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems)

If the poet’s task is to render the meaning and experience of the world into words, then surely Mueller stands apart as one able to use an economy of language with tender austerity to capture the ordinary and the exemplary in nature and human life in a manner saturated with memory and beauty. I enjoy poetry of all kinds, and I am not one to criticize the complexity with which some poets approach their craft, but there is something about Mueller’s simplicity that keeps me coming back – she is a master of imagery. Her ability to use images has a deja-vu quality to describe truths that her readers have somehow always known, but have never been fully able to describe.

In one of her more well known poems, “Monet Refuses the Operation”, Mueller puts on the personae of Monet and, in a manner reminiscent of John Donne in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII” (i.e. “No Man is an Island”) she defiantly re-imagines what it means to see:


I will not return to a universe

of objects that don’t know each other

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent. The world

is flux, and light becomes what it touches…


For Mueller, especially here, donning the garments of the great impressionist, the world is an interconnected place full of light and wonder. Monet’s diminished eyesight hinted at a far greater and more transcendent vision that blurred the distinction between the human and natural spheres that the modern industrial world has sought so doggedly to bifurcate. I wholly commend listening to Mueller’s reading of her own poem and immersing yourself into a wold that is intimately familiar with itself:


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