Immortality in Passing: Poet Lisel Mueller, Who Died at 96, on What Gives Meaning to Our Ephemeral Lives
“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious.”
By Maria Popova
“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan observed as she beheld impermanence and transcendence at the foot of a mountain. “By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws,” the poetic physicist Brian Greene wrote in his beautiful meditation on our search for meaning in a cold cosmos, “we are here.”
And then we are not.
We die. All of us — atoms to atoms, stardust to stardust, the mountain to the sea — you and I. The dual awareness of our improbable life and our inevitable death is what allows us to animate the interlude with love and beauty, with poems and fairy tales and poems, with general relativity and Nina Simone. It is what puts into perspective just how fleeting and vacant and self-embittering all of our angers and blames and resentments are in the end — what beckons us, instead, to “leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world.”
That is what the late, great Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) — one of the most original, deepest-seeing poets of our time — explores with great subtlety and profundity disguised as levity in the poem “Immortality” from her final poetry collection, the Pulitzer-winning masterpiece Alive Together (public library).
by Lisel Mueller
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.
(Two centuries earlier, William Blake explored the same eternal subject though the same creature in his short existentialist poem “The Fly.”)
In the front matter of this altogether miraculous book, where an epigraph would ordinarily appear, Mueller offers a short poem that becomes a kind of chorus line for the entire collection, but emerges as an especially harmonizing counterpart to “Immortality” in particular:
by Lisel Mueller
How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness
and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:
as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
Complement these fragments of the wholly transcendent Alive Together with physicist Alan Lightman on our yearning for immortality in a universe governed by decay, Pico Iyer on finding beauty in impermanence, and Marcus Aurelius on mortality as the key to living fully, then revisit Barbara Ras’s bittersweet, buoyant, perspective-calibrating poem “You Can’t Have It All” and Marilyn Nelson’s magnificent ode to how we fill our impermanence with importance, “Faster Than Light.”
Published February 24, 2020