The poet Lisel Mueller was born in Germany in 1924. Her family fled the Nazi regime to the U.S. when she was 15. It's hard to miss the fact that her poems are always in some way about how we can learn to live together. In fact, she named her Pulitzer Prize winning book "Alive Together: New and Selected Poems," 1996. She lives near Chicago.
"Though my family landed in the Midwest, we lived in urban or suburban environments," she says. "It was only after my husband and I built our house in Lake County, Illinois, that my consciousness changed. On the first morning in our new home I woke up to the mooing of cows. Cows under my window, thirty-five miles northwest of Chicago! And they were Holsteins, the only cows I knew from vacations in the flat North German countryside of my childhood. That was my initiation, and after 40 years in this house, I know what time of day it is by the way the light slants."
Her poems are remarkably aware of environment. As my husband and I were driving back from visiting my father in Missouri, we passed field after field of burned-up corn, parched land. I thought of this irregular sonnet by Lisel Mueller, how the longing for rain in this poem is like the longing to make a real connection with another person, how it takes a gully-washer, as my mother used to call it, to break down the walls we build against each other.
I recognize that "shrill sign," that something big, that wakes us to how we've let the silence between us harden until we don't try any more. And then I love how the thunder becomes "mumbling lips" that start at last the downpour of connection. The most interesting line in the poem, though, is the last one. What does she mean, "let love be brought to ignorance again"? Here's what I would say about that. We build up all sorts of ideas: "He always does this," "He's the one who"¦." "How could she have....?" or "I will never forget what he did." That sort of thing. We get sullen.
And then finally, something makes us start talking to each other — really talking. Slowly ("mumbling") at first. But then like a downpour. And we're no longer wrapped up in our ideas about how things are, or should be. We're actually being with each other, paying attention right now. Which feels like a basic and wonderful ignorance — dropping our ideas about things, just being there with each other.
A Prayer for Rain
Let it come down: these thicknesses of air
have long enough walled love away from love;stillness has hardened until words despair
of their high leaps and kisses shut themselves
back into wishing. Crippled lovers lie
against a weather which holds out on them,
waiting, awaiting some shrill sign, some cry,
some screaming cat that smells a sacrifice
and spells them thunder. Start the mumbling lips,
syllable by monotonous syllable,
that wash away the sullen griefs of love
and drown out knowledge of an ancient war--
o, ill-willed dark, give with the sound of rain,
let love be brought to ignorance again.
-- Lisel Mueller
(originally published in the March 1964 issue of Poetry magazine.)
Fleda Brown is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her new website, go to www.fledabrown.com.