The Monday Poem: ‘Immortality’ by Lise Mueller

The Monday Poem is brought to you by Professor Jim Gormley of the English Department. Enjoy!

Immortality

In Sleeping Beauty's castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the
world.
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.

—Lisel Mueller

Poet and translator Lisel Mueller was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1924. The daughter of teachers, her family was forced to flee the Nazi regime when Mueller was 15. They immigrated to the US and settled in the Mid-west. Mueller attended the University of Evansville, where her father was a professor, and did her graduate study at Indiana University. Her collections of poetry include The Private Life, which was the 1975 Lamont Poetry Selection; Second Language (1986); The Need to Hold Still (1980), which received the National Book Award; Learning to Play by Ear (1990); and Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (1996), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her other awards and honors include the Carl Sandburg Award, the Helen Bullis Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She has also published translations, most recently Circe’s Mountain by Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1990).

Mueller’s work frequently treats history, as well as the folk and fairy tales she studied as a graduate student. As she wrote, “I write a lot of poems that have tension between what is going on now in society and what has always been there. My poems are much concerned with history. The message is obvious. My family went through terrible times. In Europe no one has had a private life not affected by history. I’m constantly aware of how privileged we (Americans) are.”