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The On Being Project

The Wild Beauty of Language Grieves with Us

When I’m in need of consolation, I often find it in the desert, the prairie, the woods, or at the edge of the ocean. But there are times when I find no solace in the natural world.

When I’ve been depressed, for example, people will say, “Get outside! It’s a beautiful day! It will lift your spirits!” But in a true depression, you can’t feel one iota of that beauty — you can’t feel anything. So going out can leave you feeling even more depressed.

That’s why this poem by Lisel Mueller resonates with me. She says that she began writing poetry because of “the indifference of nature” in the wake of her mother’s death.

Of course, I’m grateful for the natural world and its amazing gifts. But I’m equally grateful for the gift of language that has a wild beauty of its own — especially in its poetic form — language that, as Mueller says, was “the only thing that would grieve with me.”

Ah, language! How poor our lives would be if we could not express what’s in our hearts — and share it with one another in vessels made of words — whether they say, “I weep,” “Thank you,” “I love you,” or, quite simply, “Joy!”

“When I Am Asked”
by Lisel Mueller

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.

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