Feb. 8, 2007

Why I Need the Birds

by Lisel Mueller

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Poem: "Why I Need the Birds" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Why I Need the Birds

When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.

By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together —
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Lisel Mueller, (books by this author) born in Hamburg, Germany (1924). She fled with her family from Nazi Germany when she was a teenager, and she spent the rest of her adolescence in Indiana. She learned to love English by memorizing the lyrics to American songs she heard on the radio. She has gone on to write many books of poetry in English, including The Need to Hold Still (1980) and Waving from Shore (1989). Her book Alive Together: New and Selected Poems came out in 1996.

It's the birthday of one of the best-selling novelists of the last two decades, John Grisham, (books by this author) born in Jonesboro, Arkansas (1955). His father was a construction worker, and Grisham grew up traveling around the South as his father looked for work. Grisham decided to study law in college. In his first courtroom trial, he successfully defended a man who'd shot his wife's lover six times in the head. He eventually switched to civil law, and he won one of the largest damage settlements ever recorded in his county for the family of a boy who'd been burned by an exploding water heater. But he found the practice of law frustrating, and felt that he might make more of a difference in politics. He served in the Mississippi state Legislature for two terms, but he was disillusioned by the political process.

He decided that maybe the best way to make an impact in the world would be to write a book. He'd recently witnessed a court case in which a10-year-old girl had to testify against a man that raped her. Grisham was overwhelmed by emotion watching that testimony, and he began to wonder what would happen if the girl's father murdered the rapist and was put on trial himself. Grisham spent the next three years writing a novel based on that idea, and the result was his first book, A Time to Kill (1989). Only a few thousand copies were printed, and it didn't even sell out that first run. It was one of the first times in Grisham's life that he'd failed to succeed at something he'd set out to do.

Grisham decided that if he was going to write novels, he wanted them to be best-sellers. He did some research and found an article about the rules of suspense in Writer's Digest magazine. He used those rules to write a potboiler about a young law student who takes a job with a law firm that he later comes to realize is connected to the mafia. And that novel was The Firm, which came out in 1991 and became a huge best-seller. Grisham went on to publish another novel every year for the rest of the 1990s, all of them best-sellers.

Of his formula for writing legal thrillers, John Grisham said, "You take some horrible, mean, vicious, nasty conspiracy over here, you put a very sympathetic hero or heroine in the middle of it, you reach a point where their lives are at stake — and you get them out of it."

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, (books by this author) born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was a little girl. Her mother had an emotional breakdown from grief and spent the rest of her life in various mental institutions. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood moving back and forth between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father's family in Massachusetts. For the rest of her life, she was obsessed with travel, and she never felt at home anywhere.

She was painfully shy and quiet in college, but during her senior year she mustered all her courage and introduced herself to her idol, the elder poet Marianne Moore. The meeting was awkward at first, but then Bishop offered to take Moore to the circus. It turned out they both loved going to the circus, and they both also loved snakes, tattoos, exotic flowers, birds, dressmaking, and recipes. Moore became Bishop's mentor and friend, and she persuaded Bishop that poems didn't have to be about big ideas, that they could be precise descriptions of ordinary objects and places. Bishop began to write poems about filling stations, fish, the behavior of birds, and her memories of Nova Scotia.

She was an extremely slow writer, and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem "One Art" for more than 15 years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right.

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