This is not fantasy, this is our life

I don’t know exactly when this poem by Lisel Mueller was written but it is clearly of the modern, high-tech age, when we seemed to be fast-forwarding into the type of world predicted by the science fiction writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Indeed, it seemed for a time as if reality was outstripping the possibilities of fiction, hence this poem and a musing of what could take the place of techno-imagination…


The End of Science Fiction

Lisel Mueller

This is not fantasy, this is our life.

We are the characters

who have invaded the moon,

who cannot stop their computers.

We are the gods who can unmake

the world in seven days.

Both hands are stopped at noon.

We are beginning to live forever,

in lightweight, aluminum bodies

with numbers stamped on our backs.

We dial our words like Muzak.

We hear each other through water.

The genre is dead. Invent something new.

Invent a man and a woman

naked in a garden,

invent a child that will save the world,

a man who carries his father

out of a burning city.

Invent a spool of thread

that leads a hero to safety,

invent an island on which he abandons

the woman who saved his life

with no loss of sleep over his betrayal.

Invent us as we were

before our bodies glittered

and we stopped bleeding:

invent a shepherd who kills a giant,

a girl who grows into a tree,

a woman who refuses to turn

her back on the past and is changed to salt,

a boy who steals his brother’s birthright

and becomes the head of a nation.

Invent real tears, hard love,

slow-spoken, ancient words,

difficult as a child’s

first steps across a room.

Lisel Mueller

From <>

There are four stanzas, the first two, shorter ones, briefly recap recent technological achievements of the human race, which, because of the title, lead the reader to the conclusion we are living in a world of science-fiction in reality; the second two, longer, stanzas ask what new genre could replace science fiction – but instead of really suggesting something new, the poem takes us back to classical, mythological and biblical references, so a rediscovery of the old, the traditional, the tried and tested, which might indeed be new to many people, but likely not to the intended readers of Mueller’s poem.

The marks of progress noted by the poet in the first half of the poem do not seem so unusual today – space exploration, computers, destructive capacity, medical advances, communications – these things are still moving forward, but we are still human.

But the second half of the poem suggests we should change our focus and reinvent what we have forgotten – the tales and traditions of ancient an former times. You can easily pick up the references to the tales of Adam and Eve, of Jesus Christ, of Aeneas and Anchises, of Jason and Medea, of David, and so on. Have we forgotten these traditions in the world of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter?

The Poetry Dude

In 1936, a child

Quite a number of poets I have featured here were badly, sometimes fatally affected by the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s – Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti and Leon Felipe were exiled, John Cornford and Federico Garcia Lorca were killed, Miguel Hernandez was imprisoned and died in prison. This poem from Lisel Mueller gives a different experience as the Spanish War happened when she was a child in Germany. Hitler’s Germany was, of course a great supporter of the Franco side in the Spanish Civil War, supplying extensive support in terms of financial aid, airpower and even some troops.
This poem gives Lisel Mueller’s feelings about finding out about the tragedy of the Spanish War later, as an adult (having fled Nazi Germany when a teenager).
The title Blood Oranges refers of course to one of Spain’s notable types of produce, the orange, but also the blood that was on the hands of Germany, that the poet was unaware of until much later. It is a belated recognition of the suffering in Spain and a tribute to the poets that lost their lives or their futures in the Spanish conflict.

Blood Oranges

In 1936, a child
in Hitler’s Germany,
what did I know about the war in Spain?
Andalusia was a tango
on a wind-up gramophone,
Franco a hero’s face in the paper.
No one told me about a poet
for whose sake I might have learned Spanish
bleeding to death on a barren hill.
All I knew of Spain
were those precious imported treats
we splurged on for Christmas.
I remember pulling the sections apart,
lining them up, sucking each one
slowly, so the red sweetness
would last and last —
while I was reading a poem
by a long-dead German poet
in which the woods stood safe
under the moon’s milky e
and the white fog in the meadows
aspired to become lighter than air.

Lisel Mueller

From <;

The first few lines justify the poet’s ignorance – she was a child, Spain was a far-off country with vague familiarities – Andalusia and the tango (but the tango is from Argentina, a child would easily mix these up). Then the poem takes a sinister turn, she recalls seeing Franco portrayed as a hero in the newspapers – the Franco who established a bloody and repressive military dictatorship that was to last almost 40 years.

Then there is a reference to a poet bleeding to death in Spain – a later realisation, this is probably Lorca, although it could be Cornford. The death of a poet in such a way must make a particular impact on other poets. The poem then goes back to Lisel Mueller’s own experience of that time, enjoying imported candy from Spain and reading the German romantic poets. There is a mixture of nostalgia and horror in the way in which the poet looks back on this time.

But in recognising this conflict and facing it head on in this poem, Lisel Mueller is finally able to demonstrate solidarity with the defeated peoples and poets of Spain, using the medium whu=ich brings them most honour.

The Poetry Dude

Someone was always leaving

This poem reads like a slice of experience from Lisel Mueller – scenes from a family road trip, repeated year after year, so that the changes become obvious, like in a series of photos of the same scene taken over an extended period of time. And it is a picture of the gradual abandonment of the countryside, the people of the small villages and settlements giving up on their rural lives and leaving for the city, where life is easier. And so the mark of humans fades and decays and over time, nature reclaims what humans tried to put in place.
Year after year, the scenic route perhaps becomes more scenic, but poignantly so, as human hopes and dreams become irrelevant.

Scenic Route

Someone was always leaving
and never coming back.
The wooden houses wait like old wives
along this road; they are everywhere,
abandoned, leaning, turning gray.

Someone always traded
the lonely beauty
of hemlock and stony lakeshore
for survival, packed up his life
and drove off to the city.
In the yards the apple trees
keep hanging on, but the fruit
grows smaller year by year.

When we come this way again
the trees will have gone wild,
the houses collapsed, not even worth
the human act of breaking in.
Fields will have taken over.

What we will recognize
is the wind, the same fierce wind,
which has no history.

Lisel Mueller

From <;

The first two stanzas evoke what the poet has already seen by passing through this place year after year – the process of decay and isolation has increased, the buildings are becoming more dilapidated, the fruit becoming smaller. The final two stanzas look forward, to the end of human imprints on this remote countryside, and nature reclaiming its territories. And the wind, that force of nature which humans could never tame, will remain, blowing across the land as it always has and always will, always in the present, leaving no trace for history.


The Poetry Dude

It lies in our hands in crystals

Lisel Mueller’s poems often spring from ingenious wordplay, and the realisation of associations between surprisingly unrelated concepts. I put this down to the fact that she was not a native English speaker, and only really began to learn English as a teenager when coming to America from Germany. It does make for interesting poems, perhaps not too profound, perhaps too accessible, but pleasing nevertheless.
In this poem, the title is the key – the body of the poem functions as a development of the comparison made in the title – love is like salt.

Love Like Salt


It lies in our hands in crystals
too intricate to decipher
It goes into the skillet
without being given a second thought
It spills on the floor so fine
we step all over it
We carry a pinch behind each eyeball
It breaks out on our foreheads
We store it inside our bodies
in secret wineskins
At supper, we pass it around the table
talking of holidays and the sea.

From <;

For her next assignment – Nostalgia is like Engine Oil…

The Poetry Dude

What happened is, we grew lonely

Today’s poet, Lisel Mueller, did not have English as her native language, since she was born in Germany and only came to the USA in her mid teens when her family decided to escape from Nazi Germany. So this might explain why a number of her poems shine a light on some of the idiosyncracies of the English language, almost invisible to a native speaker, but obvious to someone with a fresh eye. And of course, by writing these poems, she opens our eyes to these curiosities of language.
The poem is entitled “Things”, about as anodyne a title as you could wish for, but what it does is highlight our use of the names of human body parts in referring to common inanimate objects. This is very cool.

What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

From <;

As well as calling attention to this feature of our language, the poet gives it a human purpose, of comfort, security and familiarity.

This is a poem in which the content is all; there is no symmetrical structure, or clever rhyme scheme or rhythmic metre. But there is still plenty to enjoy.

The Poetry Dude

I was born in a Free City, near the North Sea

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…

Curriculum Vitae

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
of adolescence.

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
of love.

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
than mine.

20) So far, so good. The brilliant days and nights are
breathless in their hurry. We follow, you and I.
Lisel Mueller

From <;


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).

Nice poem.

The Poetry Dude

Your father’s mustache

Poetry is the medium in which inventive, expressive use of language is most at the forefront. Usually this is in support of conveying an idea, a feeling, a situation or an emotion, but sometimes the use of language is the whole point of the poem. Today’s poem is a case in point. Enjoy Lisel Mueller’s “The Possessive Case”…

The Possessive Case

Your father’s mustache
My brother’s keeper
La plume de ma tante
Le monocle de mon oncle
His Master’s Voice
Son of a bitch
Charley’s Aunt
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
The Prince of Wales
The Duchess of Windsor
The Count of Monte Christo
The Emperor of Ice Cream
The Marquis de Sade
The Queen of the Night
Mozart’s Requiem
Beethoven’s Ninth
Bach’s B-Minor Mass
Schubert’s Unfinished
Krapp’s Last Tape
Custer’s Last Stand
Howards End
Finnegans Wake
The March of Time
The Ides of March
The Auroras of Autumn
The winter of our discontent
The hounds of spring
The Hound of Heaven
Dante’s Inferno
Vergil’s Aeneid
Homer’s Iliad
The Fall of the City
The Decline of the West
The Birth of a Nation
The Declaration of Independence
The ride of Paul Revere
The Pledge of Allegiance
The Spirit of ’76
The Age of Reason
The Century of the Common Man
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
Portnoy’s Complaint
Whistler’s Mother
The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi
The whore of Babylon
The Bride of Frankenstein
The French Lieutenant’s Woman
A Room of One’s Own
Bluebeard’s Castle
Plato’s cave
Santa’s workshop
Noah’s ark
The House of the Seven Gables
The Dance of the Seven Veils
Anitra’s Dance
The Moor’s Pavane
My Papa’s Waltz
Your father’s mustache

– Lisel Mueller

From <;


So here is the poet having fun with language, by basically listing out examples of the use of the possessive case. It is light, it is fun, there is no message or big idea in the poem, but you can read it with a smile on your face and just enjoy the fun of it.

It is one of those poems where the simplicity of the idea may make you think, “Well I could have written that…”, which is true until you think of the process – 1) have the idea 2)find the examples, 3)put them together in an order which makes sense rhythmically and ends up in the place they started 4) revise, revise, revise. In fact, there is a lot of poetic art in a piece like this.

I have a couple of minor issues with the poem – the spelling of mustache in the first line bothers me, it looks wrong, but perhaps it is just that it is the American spelling; and I am pretty sure the spelling of Vergil is wrong, I think the accepted spelling is Virgil, for the great writer of the Aeneid.

Also note how each grouping has a theme – the first stanza is family relationships, the second is titles of nobility, and so on through the poem – it all adds to the fun.

Its nice to have a poem with a lighter note from time to time

The Poetry Dude