Featured Poem#2: Monet Refuses the Operation – Lisel Mueller

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,

wisteria separate

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

Featured Poem#1: Mirror – Sylvia Plath

Every writer (successful, aspiring, failed, or whatnot) has an interesting anecdote on that “something” that got him/her started on writing. My “something” was Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror”. I don’t remember much of the details. I know it was in high school at my Creative Writing class under my then-favorite teacher. I remember him handing out copies of this poem and later, reading the poem out loud to a quiet audience.

Don’t get me wrong. There was no lightning bolt. No lightbulb. No sirens. No Eurekas! No exclamation points. There was just this stillness. This incredible stillness. It was dread, resignation, elation, calm, peace, understanding, and truth (a glimpse of the absolute truth?) all rolled into one. It was a lingering ache that stayed for days.

I knew. I didn’t want to be a writer, I needed to be one. I realized that it didn’t matter what I did in the mean time, I would always go back to writing. To borrow from Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein!”

Reading this poem ten years later, it still makes me feel the same way.

Mirror – Sylvia Plath

I am silver an exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful,

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.