When I am Asked

When I am Asked

When I am asked   
how I began writing poems,   
I talk about the indifference of nature.   

It was soon after my mother died,   
a brilliant June day,   
everything blooming.   

I sat on a gray stone bench   
in a lovingly planted garden,   
but the day lilies were as deaf   
as the ears of drunken sleepers   
and the roses curved inward.   
Nothing was black or broken   
and not a leaf fell   
and the sun blared endless commercials   
for summer holidays.   

I sat on a gray stone bench   
ringed with the ingenue faces   
of pink and white impatiens   

and placed my grief   
in the mouth of language,   
the only thing that would grieve with me.

Lisel Mueller

We said goodbye at the airport and a new grief would enter our lives. There would be tears, and more tears, and not letting go until not letting go had to be let go of and letting go finally happened. My grandparents disappeared through the gates. In the car home, sniffed tears and a stiff silence. She did not say a word.

My first poem was about an airport, the first one that counted at any rate, the first one somebody noticed. It was about picking her up, not letting her go, but now I think about it the grief was already ticking away in it, behind my loneliness and unemployment and anger.

I used to start every reading with it, because it gave me the chance to tell the story of how I fell into doing this, because a powerful but kind man at a magazine took pity on my 23 poems (my life’s work, he called it) and chose to publish a couple when he should have filed them in the bin.

But also because it reminded me of how a boy from the sticks (the suburbs are the absolute sticks, you should try it) came to put words down and down and down without knowing what he was doing except that he wanted to put words down. Of how you don’t need to know, you just need to start.

Which she was also in on, the first person after God and my then girlfriend who knew I did writing, when she discovered a stash of notebooks in my bedside table. You have a gift, she said. You should do more. I think about her every day

all the time

now she is not here to say well done

now she is not here to thank


  1. “You should do more” – what great words of encouragement to have to carry around in your heart.

    I like that you write about real, unique, personal things in such a detailed and concrete way. I found the thoughts of songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman encouraging in shaping and sharpening my edge as writer who believes in the power and value of writing in a similarly specific, brave and unpretentious way. About 14min in she talks about that key idea. She helps to dispel the concern that writing about something that is so uniquely personal might be so specific as to be unrelatable for too many people. (it’s also a very interesting conversation about ideas and creativity)

    but you talking about this made me think a little of my mother. I never talked to her about reading or writing poetry and so I was really surprised one birthday to receive a small book of poetry, a collection about dealing with life’s ups and downs – obviously she had noticed the books on my shelves (and my ups and downs!) and just the fact that she noticed makes that book special to me – it’s one of relatively few positive memories of my mum as i’d say I wasn’t that close to her for (as you’d expect) complex reasons. I think about her now and again and surprisingly perhaps, they are always thoughts that makes me smile. I often say I don’t dream, although I know we all do, because I’m a professional dreamer and I do all my dreaming during work hours when I’m awake but 8 years after she died I had my one and only dream about her – I wrote a song over the next two days about it because it was such a strange dream and strange to dream about her. Eight years! Isn’t that strange? That sort of mystery about creativity; it’s sources and unexpected appearance, is something to marvel at, like a shooting star – often, I think, you can connect dots and hazard a guess at where your ideas come from and of course, most of the time you cultivate them or go after them with a club (as Jack London said) but I still love that they are sometimes a mystery.

    I read only a couple of poems by Lisel Mueller but enough to have saved “Alive Together” in my list of books to buy on Amazon when it comes down to a lower price (otherwise I can’t buy everything I want!) but I really liked the lines in her poem “Hope” when she says hope is “the motion that runs from the eyes to the tail of a dog” which I think is an unforgettable image.


    Liked by 1 person

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