Here’s another high school favorite of mine. This incandescent piece by Lisel Mueller is a brilliant reimagining of Claude Monet’s decision to have his cataracts removed. Except, this time, the painter refuses to go through with the operation. Mueller explains the painter’s decision by the describing the world as it must have appeared to him—fluid and ethereal. Through combining superb writing with vivid imagery, the poetess creates a breathtaking picture of a world unhindered by borders.
Now, imagery has always been the weak point of my poetry. That is why, whenever I read works as ‘stunning’ as Monet Refuses the Operation, I feel incredibly humbled—and a touch hopeful that one day, I too can create something as glorious.
Monet Refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller
Doctor, you say there are no halos
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at visions of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the House of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls the earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
Image: Claude Monet’s Water Lily Pond (1897, 1899) from Canvaz.com