This poem is Lisel Mueller summing up her life, with a heady mix of world-changing events and personal, mundane experience. She was born in Germany in the 1920s and moved to the US in the 1930s with her parents. This poem sets out to summarise and highlight the events and experiences which were most important over her whole life. And as seniors often do, it has an element of taking stock, was this a life worth living…
1) I was born in a Free City, near the North Sea.
2) In the year of my birth, money was shredded into
confetti. A loaf of bread cost a million marks. Of
course I do not remember this.
3) Parents and grandparents hovered around me. The
world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws.
4) A cornucopia filled with treats took me into a building
with bells. A wide-bosomed teacher took me in.
5) At home the bookshelves connected heaven and earth.
6) On Sundays the city child waded through pinecones
and primrose marshes, a short train ride away.
7) My country was struck by history more deadly than
earthquakes or hurricanes.
8) My father was busy eluding the monsters. My mother
told me the walls had ears. I learned the burden of secrets.
9) I moved into the too bright days, the too dark nights
10) Two parents, two daughters, we followed the sun
and the moon across the ocean. My grandparents stayed
behind in darkness.
11) In the new language everyone spoke too fast. Eventually
I caught up with them.
12) When I met you, the new language became the language
13) The death of the mother hurt the daughter into poetry.
The daughter became a mother of daughters.
14) Ordinary life: the plenty and thick of it. Knots tying
threads to everywhere. The past pushed away, the future left
unimagined for the sake of the glorious, difficult, passionate
15) Years and years of this.
16) The children no longer children. An old man’s pain, an
old man’s loneliness.
17) And then my father too disappeared.
18) I tried to go home again. I stood at the door to my
childhood, but it was closed to the public.
19) One day, on a crowded elevator, everyone’s face was younger
20) So far, so good. The brilliant days and nights are
breathless in their hurry. We follow, you and I.
A life expressed in 20 points, that would be an interesting exercise for anyone to try and emulate. Two points of geographical and societal context. Eight points of childhood innocence, hope and love, finishing with danger and disruptive change. Two stanzas of transition, love and move into adulthood. Three stanzas of life goes on, normal experience (I love point 15 ” Years and years of this”, some would find this depressing, I find it reassuring). Three stanzas of the reality and realization of aging. And the final stanza is the summing up, So far, so good, and time moves on.
The poem is sensitive and touching in its content and inventive in its structure, set out like an executive memo with short, succinct points. This keeps it accessible and reminds us that the important things in our lives are not just the big momentous events, but also the continuity of small almost unnoticed progressions (Years and years of this).
The Poetry Dude