Monet Refuses the Operation
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
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).
—Poem from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, LSU Press, 1996