Poetry

“The Laughter of Women,” by Lisel Mueller

Comments by Contributing Editor Susan Cohen

Although I chose this poem pre-pandemic, I can think of no poet more appropriate to what’s happening now than Lisel Mueller, who said she wrote “to give voice to the unspeakable, to give music to terror.”

“Poetry, for me, is the answer to how does one stay sane when private lives are being ransacked by public events,” Mueller explained to an interviewer after Alive Together: New and Selected Poems won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize.

Lisel Mueller died of pneumonia in February at the age of 96. To read her is to understand how poems can be both timely and timeless, and can simultaneously take in the gentle slope of a suburban garden and the ferocious sweep of history.

Astonishingly, Mueller learned English at 15, after her father fled Germany because of his opposition to fascism, and the family settled in Indiana. While many writers adopt new languages, it’s rarer in poetry, which depends on echoes, nuance, and wordplay that can escape even a fluent non-native speaker.

Only after graduating from college and dealing with grief over the death of her mother in 1953 did Mueller begin writing poems, citing literary influences as various as the American poets Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Carl Sandburg. Certainly, she shared an interest in abstraction and image with Stevens, a musicality and emotional accessibility with St. Vincent Millay, and a concrete clarity with Sandburg. But she followed no particular trend. Also, Mueller brought a European sensibility to her writing—an awareness of political and historical forces that she absorbed during her German childhood between the wars.

As she wrote in “Curriculum Vitae,” a poem that re-creates her family’s story and its impact on her: “My country was struck by history more deadly than/earthquakes or hurricanes” and “My father was busy eluding the monsters. My mother/told me the walls had ears. I learned the burden of secrets.”

In another poem, “Pillar of Salt,” inner and outer life also intersect in a way that’s typical of Mueller as she contemplates aging, memory, and history in both personal and abstract terms. The poem recalls her kind grandparents who were forced to remain in Germany in 1939, leaving her “stunned by history’s genius / for punishing the guiltless.” She contemplates their bitter endings and then her own future death as betrayal: “Memory is the only / afterlife I can understand, / and when it’s gone, they’re gone.”

Rita Dove described Alive Together: New and Selected Poems this way in the Washington Post Book World: “[It is] no easy feat—to advance humanity’s most ardent existential questions in such a tidy and unaffected package. This is Lisel Mueller’s forte—the disingenuous lyric whose darker undertones reverberate long after we have floated on its sunlit surface.”

I recognize all of these features in “The Laughter of Women,” a poem I selected out of disappointment bordering on fury when the last female candidates dropped out of the 2020 presidential race. I love Mueller’s attitude and irony here. Even more, given the understandable temptation to rant these days, I appreciate how the poem handles anger without being overwhelmed by it. “The Laughter of Women” is an indictment, but it is also poetry.

The poem appears deceptively modest. It relies largely on its attitude and diction but also two key poetic devices. The first, repetition, remains one of my favorites—although there must be a reason to employ it for it to be effective. Here, history and geography provide the reason. The device serves to underline how often the exclusion of women—captured in the phrase, “the laughter of women”—repeats itself.

The second significant device is Mueller’s use of a form of metonymy in her refrain—substituting an attribute for a whole. In this case, “the laughter of women” stands in for a larger statement about what differentiates females from males. If she had merely characterized all of the places that barred women, the poem would lose our interest and remain unsurprising. But “the laughter of women” not only engages our imagination but gives us permission to smile at what isn’t truly funny and to share that knowing smile with other women. Most importantly, it defines a female way of handling anger and negotiating the broader world.

If we couldn’t laugh at times, wouldn’t we explode?

A few days ago, I saw a photo gallery of the global leaders who have most effectively handled the pandemic so far. From New Zealand to Germany, Iceland to Taiwan: all women. Once again, Mueller reverberated. As I suggested, her work is timely and timeless.

 

 

Contributing Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson—Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Amazon, Red Dragonfly Press, or hereat Small Press Distribution. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. www.susancohen-writer.com

 

 

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