Alive Together

by Lisel Mueller

New and Selected Poems
Published by LSU Press/BR in 1996
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004

While writing to a friend of mine about Tolkien's work recently, I quoted Lisel Mueller, saying Tolkien only "wanted to write a tale to tremble by." That quote is from Mueller's poem about Mary Shelley (see below) which appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review way back in the summer of 1976. Mary Shelley was a Tolkien in her time and Mueller does a magnificent job encapsulating Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley's life. When her book "Alive Together" won a Pulitzer Prize, I bought a copy immediately, especially pleased that it had been published by my alma mater's press. I read a few poems back then and finished reading the others yesterday.

Here is the title poem which speaks eloquently to you and me, Dear Reader, who, at the time I type these words on my COMPAQ keyboard, are alive together. (If you haven’t been born yet, when you are and grow up to be a reader, perhaps we will yet be alive together.) Look around you at those with whom you are alive together and consider what a marvel it is to be alive together with them . . .

[page 84, 85] ALIVE TOGETHER

Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
when I might have been Abelard's woman
or the whore of a Renaissance pope
or a peasant wife with not enough food
and not enough love, with my children
dead of the plague. I might have slept
in an alcove next to the man
with the golden nose, who poked it
into the business of stars,
or sewn a starry flag
for a general with wooden teeth.
I might have been the exemplary Pocahontas
or a woman without a name
weeping in Master's bed
for my husband, exchanged for a mule,
my daughter, lost in a drunken bet.
I might have been stretched on a totem pole
to appease a vindictive god
or left, a useless girl-child,
to die on a cliff. I like to think
I might have been Mary Shelley
in love with a wrongheaded angel,
or Mary's friend. I might have been you.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
statistically nonexistent;
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah's Witnesses
agree it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who -- but for endless ifs
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.

This next one involves a rückschau or looking backwards over one's life, a process that I became first interested in while reading Time's Arrow by Martin Amis. A palindrome is a word or phrase that is spelled the same forwards and backward, such as those famous words the first man used to introduce himself, "Madam, I'm Adam." In this poem, Mueller aligns her life with her palindrome's life on a distant galaxy and takes us on her personal rückschau:

[page 90] PALINDROME

There is less difficulty -- indeed, no logical difficulty at all -- in imagining two portions of the universe, say two galaxies, in which time goes one way in one galaxy and the opposite way in the other. . . . Intelligent beings in each galaxy would regard their own time as "forward" and time in the other galaxy as "backward."
         --Martin Gardner, in Scientific American

Somewhere now she takes off the dress I am
putting on. It is evening in the antiworld
where she lives. She is forty-five years away
from her death, the hole which spit her out
into pain, impossible at first, later easing,
going, gone. She has unlearned much by now.
Her skin is firming, her memory sharpens,
her hair has grown glossy. She sees without glasses,
she falls in love easily. Her husband has lost his
shuffle, they laugh together. Their money shrinks,
but their ardor increases. Soon her second child
will be young enough to fight its way into her
body and change its life to monkey to frog to
tadpole to cluster of cells to tiny island to
nothing. She is making a list:
          Things I will need in the past
                   transistor radio
                   Sergeant Pepper
                   acne cream
                   five-year diary with a lock
She is eager, having heard about adolescent love
and the freedom of children. She wants to read
Crime and Punishment and ride on a roller coaster without getting sick. I think of her as she will
be at fifteen, awkward, too serious. In the
mirror I see she uses her left hand to write,
her other to open a jar. By now our lives should
have crossed. Somewhere sometime we must have
passed one another like going and coming trains,
with both of us looking the other way.

This next poem deals with communication: how there are things we cannot communicate such as “how red is red,” and how does one remember one is mortal in a climate without snow to remind one that one is mortal? I would have more to say about this poem but a brilliant red cardinal is walking on the glass table outside my window and I must pause to watch.

[page 170, 171] LETTER TO CALIFORNIA

We write to each other as if
we were using the same language,
though we are not. Your sentences lap
over each other like the waves
of the Pacific, strictureless;
your long, sleek-voweled words
fill my mouth like ripe avocados.
To read you is to dismiss
news of earthquakes and mud slides,
to imagine time in slow motion.
It is to think of the sun
as a creature that will not let anything happen to you.
                    Back here
we grow leeks and beans and sturdy
roots that will keep for months.
We have few disasters; i.e.,
no grandeur to speak of. Instead
we engage in a low-keyed continuous struggle
to get through the winter, which swallows
two seasons and throws its shadow
over a third. How do you manage
without snow to tell you that you are mortal?
We are brought up short by a wind
that shapes our words; they fall
in clean, blunt strokes. The birds here
are mostly chickadees
and juncos, monochromes
bred to the long view
like the sky under siege of lead
and the bony trees, which hold
the dancer's first position
month after month. But we have
our intimations: now and then
a cardinal with its lyric call,
its body blazing like a saint's
unexpectedly gaudy heart,
spills on our reasonable scene
of brown and gray, unconscious of itself.
I search the language for a word
to tell you how red is red.

A friend once told me she wondered how I began writing poems, and I told her the wonder is the answer (1). Here is Mueller's answer to the same question:

[page 198] WHEN I AM ASKED

When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.

It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
everything blooming.

I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the day lilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials for summer holidays.

I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.

And now the poem which jumped out of the 1976 Virginia Quarterly Review and grabbed me, "The Triumph of Life: Mary Shelley." It is a tale of a young woman who falls in love with a poet and casts away all the conventions of society to be with him. The spirit of her radical philosopher father and her feminist mother hummed in her bones as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin married Percy Bysshe Shelley and burned her candle at both ends to blaze like a bonfire. Her life reminds me of the famous lines by Edna Saint Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night --
But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends --
It gives a lovely light.

To close out the review, read Lisel Mueller's poem and let the voice of Mary Shelley reach you across the two centuries which now divide us from her life. She is the mother of Frankenstein -- the mother of the horror story of the future in which we now live.


The voice is that of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1797-1851, daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died as a result of her birth. She eloped with Percy Shelley, who was married to Harriet Westbrook at the time, and became his second wife after Harriet committed suicide. Shelley and Mary lived a nomadic life, moving around England and the Continent, never settling down anywhere for long. Three of their four children died in infancy. Their eight years together were a series of crises, many of them brought about by the drain of outsiders on their emotional and physical resources. After Shelley's accidental drowning, Mary, who was 24 at the time of his death, supported herself and their surviving son by her own writing, and by editing and annotating Shelley's work. She published the first complete edition of his poems. Her own works consist of essays, short stories, and six novels, of which Frankenstein, written when she was 19, is the most famous. Her journal has been an important biographical source for Shelley's and her life together.


My father taught me to think
to value mind over body,
to refuse even the airiest cage

to be a mouth as well as an ear,
to ask difficult questions,
not to marry because I was asked,
not to believe in heaven

None of this kept me from bearing
four children and losing three
by the time I was twenty-two

He wanted to think I sprang
from his head like the Greek goddess

He forgot that my mother died
of my birth, The Rights of Women
washed away in puerperal blood
and that I was her daughter too


I met him when I was sixteen
He came to sit at my father's feet
and stayed to sit at mine

We became lovers
who remained friends
even after we married

A marriage of true minds
It is what you want
It was what we wanted

We did not believe in power
We were gentle
We shared our bodies with others
We thought we were truly free

My father had taught us there was a solution
to everything, even evil

We were generous, honest
We thought we had the solution

and still, a woman walked
into the water because of us


After that death, I stopped
believing in solutions

And when my children died
it was hard not to suspect
there was a god, a judgment

For months, I wanted to be
with those three small bodies,
to be still in a dark place

No more mountain passes
No more flight from creditors
with arms as long as our bills
No more games to find out
who was the cleverest of us all
No more ghost stories by the fire
with my own ghost at the window,
smiles sharpened like sickles
on the cold stone of the moon

For months, I made a fortress
of my despair
"A defect of temper," they called it
His biographers never liked me

You would have called it a sickness,
given me capsules and doctors,
brushes and bright paints,
kits for paper flowers


An idea whose time has come,
you say about your freedom
but you forget the reason

Shall I remind you of history,
of choice and chance, the wish and the world,
of courage and locked doors,
biology and fate?

I wanted what you want,
what you have

If I could have chosen my children
and seen them survive
I might have believed in equality,
written your manifestoes

Almost two hundred years
of medical science divide us


And yet, my father was right
It was the spirit that won in the end

After the sea had done
what it could do to his flesh
I knew he was my husband
only by the books
in his pockets: Sophocles, Keats

The word survives the body

It was then I decided
not to marry again
but to live for the word


I allowed his body to be burned
on that Italian beach
Rome received his ashes

You have read that our friend
snatched his heart from the fire
You call it a grisly act,
something out of my novel

You don't speak of the heart
in your letters, your sharp-eyed poems
You speak about your bodies
as if they had no mystery,
no caves, no sudden turnings

You claim isolation, night-sweats,
hanging on by your teeth

You don't trust the heart
though you define death
as the absence of heartbeat

You would have taken a ring,
a strand of hair, a shoelace
-- a symbol, a souvenir

not the center, the real thing


He died
and the world gave no outward sign

I started a Journal of Sorrow

But there were the words, the poems,
passion and ink spilling
over the edges of all those sheets
There was the hungry survivor
of our bodily life together

Would it have lasted, our marriage,
if he had stayed alive?

As it was, we fed each
other like a pair of thrushes

I gave his words to the world
and they came back to me
as bread and meat and apples,
art and nature, mind and flesh
keeping each other alive

His last, unfinished, poem
was called The Triumph of Life


You are surprised at my vision,
that a nineteen-year-old girl
could have written that novel,
how much I must have known
But I only wanted to write
a tale to tremble by,
what is oddly called a romance

By accident I slid
out of my century
into yours of white-coated men
in underground installations,
who invent their own destruction under fluorescent lights

And in a few more decades
when your test tube babies sprout
you will call me the prophet
of ultimate horror again

It was only a private nightmare
that dreamed the arrogance of your time

I was not your Cassandra
In any age, life has to be lived
before we can know what it is

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ footnote ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1. The poem is titled, "Wonderfull Answer" and appeared in my book, "Flowers of Shanidar", 1990. Click Here to return to text above footnote.

 © 2004 Bobby Matherne

Email: bobby @ doyletics.com 

Many more book reviews, including reviews of books by Rudolf Steiner, may be found at Bobby's website: www.doyletics.com