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in which I tell you about my writer’s block by quoting a poem by Lisel Mueller

January 4, 2010


Lisel Mueller


Only one word will do. It isn’t on the tip of your tongue, but you know it’s not far. It’s the one fish that won’t swim into your net, a figure that hides in a crowd of similar figures, a domino stone in the face-down pool. Your need to find it becomes an obsession, single-minded and relentless as lust. It’s a long time before you can free yourself, let it go. “Forget it,” you say, and think that you do. When the word is sure you have forgotten it, it comes out of hiding. But it isn’t taking any chances even now and has prepared its appearance with care. It surrounds itself with new and inconspicuous friends and faces you in a showup line in which everyone looks equally innocent. Of course you know it instantly, the way Joan of Arc knew the Dauphin and Augustine knew God. You haven’t been so happy in weeks. You rush the word to your poem, which had died for lack of it, and it arises pink-cheeked as Lazarus. The two of you share the wine.


You’ve got the poem cornered. It gives up, lies down, plays dead. No more resistance. How easily you could take it into your teeth and walk off with it! But you are afraid of the sound they will make crunching the bones. You are afraid of the taste of blood, of the poem’s dark, unknown insides. So you stand above it, sniffing its fur, poking and pushing it, turning it over. Suddenly you see that its eyes are open and that they stare at you with contempt. You walk away with your tail between your legs. When you return, the poem has disappeared.


The poem is complete in your head, its long, lovely shape black against the white space in your mind. Each line is there, secure, recallable, pulled forth by the line before it and the one before that, like a melody whose second part you can sing once you have sung the first, but not before. All there, all perfectly linked. But when you pick up the pen, the shape dissolves, pales, spreads into slovenliness. You feel the poem escaping; you can’t write fast enough. By some miracle you recover all the bits and pieces, and you manage to put them in proper order. You have been saved, you think. But the poem is not the beautiful figure you held in your mind. It is gawky and gap-toothed, its arms are too long for its body, its clothes don’t fit. It looks up at you from the page accusingly. Look at the mess you’ve made, it says. See what you can do with me: last chance, don’t blow it. Filled with gratitude, you roll up your sleeves and go to work.

*from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems (1996) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1997

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