This poem from Lisel Mueller starts off with Disneyesque whimsy inspired by the tale of Sleeping Beauty, but then takes us back to the wonder of a child on seeing the image of this tale in a story book. It is a celebration of the simple joys of childhood innocence and a reminder of what we lose as adults as we develop more sophisticated, perhaps more cynical or more knowing sensibilities.
The title is about the subject of the poem but also possibly the aspiration of the poet. And that reminds me of the famous quote from Woody Allen:
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
So here is Lisel Mueller on Immortality…
In Sleeping Beauty’s castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the
So do the servants in the kitchen,
who don’t even rub their eyes.
The cook’s right hand, lifted
an exact century ago,
completes its downward arc
to the kitchen boy’s left ear;
the boy’s tensed vocal cords
finally let go
the trapped, enduring whimper,
and the fly, arrested mid-plunge
above the strawberry pie,
fulfills its abiding mission
and dives into the sweet, red glaze.
As a child I had a book
with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice
how fear persists, and how
the anger that causes fear persists,
that its trajectory can’t be changed
or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly;
that this slight body
with its transparent wings
and lifespan of one human day
still craved its particular share
of sweetness, a century later.
The first stanza takes us to the castle where Sleeping Beauty has lain comatose for one hundred years, the poet assumes, probably rightly that all her readers are familiar with the story, either from a children’s storybook or from the Disney Movie. So 100 years has passed since Sleeping Beauty has been pricked with the enchanted thorn and the prince has now awakened her with a kiss. So not only Sleeping Beauty, but everybody in the castle returns to life and carries on exactly where they left off 100 years previously. Mueller does not focus on Sleeping Beauty, she talks of the cook and the kitchen boy and then homes in n fly which has been waiting all this time to swoop on to a strawberry pie and start feasting on its sugary glaze.
The second stanza then becomes personal to the poet. We are no longer in the enchanted castle, we are in the mind of the poet as she recalls the fascination she had with a picture of that scene in a story book, how she had been so enraptured by the image of the fly hovering above the strawberry pie, craving its sweetness for 100 years. The middle of the stanza emphasizes remembering her childhood innocence, ignorant of the mechanisms of fear and anger, and so that much more open to the sense of wonder of a magical picture in a captivating story book.
And a good reminder to all of us to be childllke from time to time and look at the world to see it with new eyes.
The Poetry Dude