Lisel Mueller's "There Are Mornings"
Thoughts on ordinariness.
There Are Mornings
Even now, when the plot
calls for me to turn to stone,
the sun intervenes. Some mornings
in summer I step outside
and the sky opens
and pours itself into me
as if I were a saint
about to die. But the plot
calls for me to live,
be ordinary, say nothing
to anyone. Inside the house
the mirrors burn when I pass.
from Alive Together (LSU Press, 1986)
I had to start with this one, you know?
Mueller’s work, in many ways, is a poetry of gentle wonder paired with acceptance, a poetry that acknowledges the ongoing tension between the extraordinary and the ordinary and then seeks to live there for a little while, where mystery also lives, because mystery lives where nothing is answered. It’s a good place to dwell. I think of her poem “In November,” and these lines: “Whatever was bound to happen / in my story did not happen.” The placement of “in my story” directly after the line break confuses the syntax and the emphasis. Was what did not happen supposed to be a part of the speaker’s story? Or was it that what did not happen only did not happen in the speaker’s story? Is the speaker a singular voice? Is the speaker part of some collective fate? The drama. The mystery. I love it. Why ruin it with an answer?
You see that ongoing tension — desire cut with the grace of giving one’s self over — at play in this poem this morning. There is the sun blazing, the sky that “pours itself” into Mueller’s speaker. It’s an extra-ordinariness that, one could say, resurrects Mueller’s speaker from the potential of turning “to stone.” Life, and light, is offered as salvation from life, and light.
This poem seems to ask, in 12 short lines: what do I do with this life? What do I do with the miracle of light? What do I do when I feel miraculous, a “saint / about to die?” And yet, what do I do with the feeling of inadequacy in the face of life’s horror, in the face of the body and soul’s consistent desire to shrink back into itself (see that sharp bend after the seventh line, that breakage, the saint — filled with sky — abruptly faced with death)? What do I say when the plot, and whoever spins that plot, calls for me to say nothing? How do I continue when I know all I have to do is continue?
I don’t think Mueller knows the answers, but I do think she knows the questions, a kind of knowing (or unknowing) that is perhaps more important. You see her speaker walking back through the house with the light of the sun reflected, burning, on the mirrors inside. In the reflection what was once so natural becomes surreal. So much hangs on that final word, “pass” — how it alludes to the speaker’s death at the same time as the speaker literally moves toward the ending of the poem, toward the rest of her life, where what once offered light also burns, where what once burned also offers light. That image works because it acknowledges the persistence of a multitude of tensions this poem alludes to: ordinary vs. extraordinary, death vs. life, body vs. soul, self vs. the world, action vs. inaction, desire vs. its quelling.
I think of the way power — as epitomized and embodied by privilege — manifests itself in relation to these in-betweens. I notice it in that moment when Mueller’s speaker acknowledges even the possibility of sainthood before being pulled into the fact of the ordinary. That acknowledgement, however brief, of one’s nearness to the possibility of the holy, to the possibility of self-sacrifice in the name of ascension — it feels so centered, particularly when the word “But” manifests itself as a capitalized caesura, immediately after death. The “But” un-centers the speaker, brings them back toward the ordinary, away from power, back to the in-between. Yet perhaps that “But” is Mueller critiquing her speaker, saying: not so fast, did you think you were more than you are? The poem makes me ask: how do I think of the ordinary in my own life? How does un-centering myself manifest itself in feeling? Do I think of it as a tragedy? If so, why? How can I remove the but, and make the ordinary more of a reality? How can I bear witness rather than sainthood? These questions exist as a result of the tension and grace of this poem.
To be alive, this poem seems to say, is to live in between so much, to see the sun from your door and want to be more than you are, to be reminded, always, of your ordinariness in face of the overwhelming everyday-ness of the world. Hope, good hope, can take the form of a question. It should, at the very least, begin as one. Hope is not always the morning sun. It is the question one makes of the sun. What do we do now? What could this light mean? A poem dwells in this same kind of space, caught between what is and what could be, bearing enough witness to witness more than the common narrative. It’s funny, the notion of extra-ordinariness. Taken literally, it could mean what it has come to mean: that which is beyond ordinary. Somewhere outside of it. But it could also mean extra as in addition, as in in addition to the ordinary, as in that which is also ordinary. I have no answer for this other than my thoughts.
When I think of Mueller’s work, I think of what Wendell Berry once wrote of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It: “It never forgets that it occurs in the world and in love.” Mueller’s poem here does not forget these things either. To be both in the world and in love — it’s a balancing act, isn’t it? To hold yourself there, in that in-between, is to remind yourself, every second, of what is possible. Sometimes, I think, this is a terrifying thing. Because what is possible is so often terrifying. But sometimes, I think, this is an act of grace. Because what is possible is also beautiful. Sometimes living is this act of holding space for grace. Sometimes it is the act of letting go of space in order for grace to fill that place where your body once was.
Always — a sun burns just as it offers light.