The Need to Hold Still
By Lisel Mueller
Original and Current Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
Dilruba Ahmed writes:
"No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” While reading Lisel Mueller’s collection, The Need to Hold Still, I found myself mulling over Robert Frost’s well-known dictum. While writers may struggle to explain precisely how they arrive at such surprise, as readers we recognize it on a visceral level. As Emily Dickinson explains in another famous quote, this sense of discovery can make a reader feel “as if the top of [one’s] head were taken off.”
We experience that discovery in a few startling poems by Mueller, particularly two that take on the rich material of myth and allegory. In “Testimony,” for example, Mueller retells the story of the birth of Venus from the goddess’ perspective, rewriting a seaside fantasy into a cold, brutal reality. In Mueller’s version of the tale, an accusatory Venus reproaches a collective “you,” the painters and other artists who have historically depicted Venus’ birth as an eroticized event, or as one of singular beauty: “Telling the story, you omit / that in the beginning my hair was green / seaweed, before it turned / into the yellow silk you admire.” The charges continue: “you paint me floating ashore / with rose-tipped breasts,” and “you say I stepped into heated shoes / of glittering white sand.” Here, the goddess sets the record straight.
What poor eyewitnesses you are.
I remember it was a cloudy day,
a starved dog ran along the shore,
the rocks and shells cut into my feet.
No one was there. I was cold and lost.
The scraggly leaves all pointed
in one direction, toward the interior.
I had no other place to go.
Mueller’s use of persona allows her to recast—and to criticize from the female speaker’s point of view—the fantasy of a sensual, stranded beauty. The final declaration arrives with a sense of both inevitability and surprise, and Mueller establishes the persona’s authority through the accusatory tone, the series of brief declarations, and the specificity of images that counter the other, more pleasant version of the story: “starved dog,” “scraggly leaves,” and “rocks and shells” that “cut.”
Mueller’s skill at composing dense, compressed poems of human tragedy is perhaps best glimpsed in “The Story,” in which a storyteller depicts, in parable form, an incompatible couple seemingly fated for disaster.
You are telling a story:
How Fire Took Water to Wife
It’s always like this, you say,
They want to enter each other,
so he burns her as hard as he can
and she tries to drown him
It’s called love at first
and doesn’t hurt
but after a while she weeps
and says he is killing her,
he shouts that he cannot breathe
Here, a familiar narrative—a love story, a fable— becomes wonderfully strange. As explained in Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order, Mueller’s chosen metaphors—the female figure as water, and the male as fire— can be comprehended but are not easily encompassed. As a result, we are compelled to return to the poem again and again to more fully understand how one human might “burn” a beloved while trying to “be one,” or how even love can lead to conditions under which we “cannot breathe.”
In “The Story,” Mueller depicts intimacy and conflict by recasting humans as elements of nature, a strategy that animates the poem’s intensity and desperation, the characters’ passion and antagonism. Adding to the surprise in this poem is Mueller’s resistance to resolution, as her speaker exhorts the listening children to “make up [their] own / ending,” and then claims, “…they will, they will.”
In other poems in The Need to Hold Still, Mueller adopts the perspective of figures from myth and folktale to shed light on a character’s motivations, or to reveal the misgivings of characters we typically encounter from a distance. Framed by an epigraph from William Stafford—“So, the world happens twice— / once what we see it as; / second it legends itself / deep, the way it is”—Mueller’s collection draws on allegory to encourage us to more fully inhabit human experience. In particular, narrators in the book’s third section, a linked sequence called “Voices from the Forest,” invite us to reenter familiar folktales and myths to confront human qualities that may prove to be our weaknesses: curiosity, trust, and innocence. In this sequence, superficiality, fickleness, lust, and envy also take center stage.
In the sequence’s first poem, “The Voice of the Traveler Who Escaped,” for example, we hear from a character who failed to heed the warnings that the original tales were meant to provide, one who knows the terror of what happens when “…the witch / locks the door from the outside / and throws away the key” and now admonishes us to learn from his or her mistakes. The cautionary tone continues in the sequence’s second poem, “Warning to Virgins,” which alerts young women to the “unspecified beast” who may come to court them, a shape-shifting figure who sometimes appears as a “bear / who lumbers to the door / of two young beauties, to be brushed / and petted, and to eat / out of their hands.” In “A Voice from out of the Night,” Mueller’s speaker questions her attempt to inform and instruct, as the narrator seems to surrender to the idea that her words of warning are useless among the young and naive.
The eight poems in “Voices from the Forest” use folktale figures and extended metaphor to reveal our human weaknesses. “The Story” and “Testimony,” however, possess an urgency in the telling that is rarely duplicated in the other poems. And while Mueller’s “Voices from the Forest” sequence could have reinvented the form and content of classic material in ways that might startle the reader toward new insights, in some cases, what seem to be missing are the wonder and strangeness that compel us to return, again and again, to poems like “Testimony” and “The Story.”
Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book of poems, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), won the 2010 Bakeless Prize for poetry. Ahmed’s writing has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, and The Normal School. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives near Philadelphia. For more information, visit her website at www.dilrubaahmed.com. (Photo credit: Mike Drzal)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- Philip Booth for Before Sleep
- Isabella Gardner for That Was Then
- Mark Strand for Selected Poems
- Robert Penn Warren for Being Here
Poetry Judges that Year: Turner Cassidy, John Ciardi, Inge Judd, Betty E. Munger, John Frederick Nims, Robert Phillips, Louise Solano, Paul Zimmer
The Year in Literature:
- The Morning of the Poem by James Schuyler won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Maxine Kumin was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.
- Lisel Mueller (1924- ) was born in Hamburg, Germany.
- Mueller immigrated to the United States from Hamburg, Germany at the age of 15.
- Lisel Mueller profile at Poets.org
- Transcript of 1997 Mueller interview on Online NewsHour
- Illinois' Poet Laureate page
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