Today I read a poem by Lisel Mueller (b. 1924), another Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (in 1996, for her poetry collection Alive together), born in Germany who emigrated to the US as a child. She wrote a famous poem about ‘things’, but I prefer this one:
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 eye
and the white fog in the meadows
aspired to become lighter than air.
Mueller was born in Hamburg and emigrated with her family when she was 15 and the war started. As a twelve year old girl all she knew about Spain was the music from the gramophone and the face of Franco in the newspaper. Which Spanish poet are we looking for here? Many fought in the civil war. Lorca, perhaps, who was executed (on a barren hill?)
She didn’t know about poetry (IRL Mueller published her poetry late, when she was 40) but she knew those oranges they had for Christmas. Follows some symbolism about pulling sections apart and lining them up (ay, the image reminds me of people in German singled out and lined up); all for the sake of the red sweetness. My god, is the innocent child Mueller comparing herself to the nazis who sucked the life blood out of the Jews so that the sweetness of their dream of Lebensraum and Rassenreinheit could stay alive?
Then she read a German poem (and she kindly gives away which one, I head over to Google…). It’s probably Joseph von Eichendorff, who writes
Der Mond ist aufgegangen,
Die goldnen Sternlein prangen
Am Himmel hell und klar; Der Wald steht schwarz und schweiget,
Und aus den Wiesen steiget
Der weiße Nebel wunderbar.
(I couldn’t find the milky eye here). Anyway, the white fog rising completes the imagery. The ‘heile Welt’ about which she reads will soon be destroyed. Mueller says of Germany that it was struck a fatal blow by history. It’s a powerful poem, this one, what do y’all think?