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When I Am Asked by Lisel Mueller

Posted on Nov 17, 2008 by

A poem on poetry as a place for grief
1989

The poem begins:

When I am asked
How I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.

Ms. Mueller’s poem is set in June.  This indifference of nature is felt, we learn, because her mother has died, and because it’s this brilliant summer day.  Everything’s blooming.  The outside world looking so drastically different from the way the inside world feels.

Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell

Is it easier to grieve when there’s a streak of black in the landscape?
When something in the outside world is broken?
Is it easier to grieve what needs to be grieved when the air is gray?
Or maybe when the world’s not celebrating a holiday?

I went looking for this poem, When I Am Asked, after I wrote about Frost’s poem, My November Guest.  And at first I thought, oh, maybe better to save this one until June.  But then I started thinking about how brilliant holiday decorations can be—or golden maples—the brilliance of colored lights—and how all of that, for a certain person at a certain time (and all of us have likely been there at one point or another—or we will be)—how all of that could have the potential to feel indifferent.

Where can grief find a place during an American Thanksgiving?
Where can it find resonance?
Solace?
Or where in the world can grief find a place when the world all seems to be celebrating Christmas?
(They’re not actually.  A lot of the world isn’t Christian.  And of those that are, many—more than we think—find Christmas a difficult time.  But it can seem as if everyone is celebrating Christmas.  Everyone else whooping it up.)

And all of this complicated by the sensory qualities of the holidays—all the very particular smells and music and the sound of that Salvation Army bell—and the way any one of these might trigger memory and emotion, unbidden.

I’m interested in where the speaker of this poem finds her own resonance for grief amid outer brilliance.

I sat on a gray stone bench. . .
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.

Language as good company.

I’ve had this notion for a while—certainly not mine alone—that if one person or creature gets it—really gets it—if grief finds its true company and recognition—then it can begin to be carried—and perhaps released.  I think any one of us can bear grief—or bear it better—say, with less suffering—if just one creature in the world really gets it well.

For Chekhov it was his horse.
For Lisle it’s language itself—poetry.
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See also:

A piece from One Year of Writing and Healing on Chekhov’s story, Grief

The poem Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden, so memorably and beautifully recited aloud in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral.  A poem that also speaks to resonance.

And here is the actor, John Hannah, on YouTube reciting the Auden poem.  Good company, I think.