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Posts Tagged ‘abuse’

On the second to last day of this sad and strange year, we turn to yet another poet who died in 2020. I left Lisel Mueller ‘s “Bedtime Story” on the banks of the Rouge River in suburban Michigan.

 

poem is on bird box

 

Bedtime Story

by Lisel Mueller

 

The moon lies on the river

like a drop of oil.

The children come to the banks to be healed

of their wounds and bruises.

The fathers who gave them their wounds and bruises

come to be healed of their rage.

The mothers grow lovely; their faces soften,

the birds in their throats awake.

They all stand hand in hand

and the trees around them,

forever on the verge

of becoming one of them,

stop shuddering and speak their first word.

 

But that is not the beginning.

It is the end of the story,

and before we come to the end,

the mothers and fathers and children

must find their way to the river,

separately, with no one to guide them.

That is the long, pitiless part,

and it will scare you.

 

 

This poem cast a spell on me. I can’t shake its dark effect and can’t stop thinking about its magical power. It draws me into its world so hypnotically—

 

The moon lies on the river

like a drop of oil

 

—and by the end has pulled back to reveal a timeless pattern of growth and healing. As bedtime stories go, it’s disturbing fare, a tale of abuse, of fathers who beat children and mothers who see and say nothing.

 

Why this poem for the second to last day of the year? It’s those birds in the mothers’ throats, awakening as the mothers find their voices at last. It’s the broken family standing hand-in-hand. It’s the mysterious trees coming into full bloom. It’s the river that washes away the rage. It’s the dead-eyed realism of that last stanza—

 

the mothers and fathers and children

must find their way to the river,

separately, with no one to guide them

 

—and that final statement which does indeed give me shivers—

 

That is the long, pitiless part,

and it will scare you.

 

Here’s the thing, though. It’s also the most hopeful poem I could find. At the end of 2020 we are still in the long, pitiless part. But the river is there, Mueller tells us. The river is there and it will heal us, as if in a baptism. Eyes wide open, humble to our failings, we will arrive eventually.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Mueller from a previous post.

 

Lisel Mueller (1924-2020) was born in Germany. Her parents were both teachers. After her father spoke out against the rise of Nazism, he was interrogated by the Gestapo, and eventually fled the country. Mueller, her mother and her sister followed a few years later when she was 15. The family settled in the Midwest.

 

Mueller graduated from University of Evansville, married, had two daughters, worked as a social worker and as a book reviewer for the Chicago Daily News. She took up writing poetry in her late twenties after her mother died and was not published until she was 41.

 

She taught at University of Chicago, Elmhurst and Goddard colleges, won several prizes including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She is the only German-born writer to ever win the Pulitzer.

 

Lisel Mueller died this past February at age 96.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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