Nov. 20, 2005

Monet Refuses The Operation

by Lisel Mueller

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Monet Refuses The Operation" by Lisa Mueller from Alive Together © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Monet Refuses The Operation

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
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 the vision 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 Houses of Parliament dissolves
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 change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, born in Springs, South Africa (1923). She's the author of 16 collections of short stories and 13 novels, most of which explore the issue of race in her homeland of South Africa. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, and has served as a member of the African National Congress. She has said: "People make the mistake of regarding commitment as something solely political. A writer is committed to trying to make sense of life. It's a search. So there is that commitment first of all: the commitment to the honesty and determination to go as deeply into things as possible, and to dredge up what little bit of truth you with your talent can then express."

It's the birthday of the novelist Don DeLillo, born in New York City (1936). He is the son of Italian immigrants, and he didn't read at all when he was growing up in the Fordham section of the Bronx. Instead, he was obsessed with games: card games, alley games, rooftop games, fire escape games, punch ball, stick ball, handball, or stoopball.

But when he was 18, he got a summer job as a playground attendant. He was supposed to patrol the park and blow a whistle if he saw anything out of order, but instead he began to spend every day sitting on a park bench reading books he got out of the library. He read Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner, and James Joyce, and he said, "It was through [those books] that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history."

After college, DeLillo worked at an advertising agency for three years, and then one day decided to quit. He later said, "What I wanted [was] to smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and look at the world... I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles."

For the next four years, DeLillo lived on two thousand dollars a year in a tiny unheated apartment. He supported himself with various freelance writing assignments, including writing copy for furniture catalogues, and he worked on his first novel, about a TV executive who decides to take a trip across America with a video camera, documenting everything he sees. At the end of four years, DeLillo had more than a thousand pages of manuscript, he knew it was a mess, and he just hoped some editor would help him sort it out. The first publisher he showed it to accepted the book. It was edited down to a few hundred pages and published as Americana (1971).

DeLillo's first few novels got mixed reviews, but he slowly developed an underground following, writing novels about conspiracy theories and cults and terrorists. He became interested in the story of John F. Kennedy's assassination when he learned that Lee Harvey Oswald had grown up a few blocks away from him in the Bronx. DeLillo bought a used collection of the twenty-six volume Warren Commission Report and spent three years re-imagining the events that led to the Kennedy assassination. The result was his novel Libra (1988), which many critics have called his first masterpiece.

For years, DeLillo refused to be photographed or interviewed, because he believed the proper place for a writer was obscurity. He's since become a more public person, but he's one of the few modern novelists who has never taught a creative writing class or written a book review. DeLillo said, "I've never thought about myself in terms of a career... I don't have a career, I have a typewriter."

His other novels include Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997). His most recent novel is Cosmopolis (2003).

Don DeLillo said, "Art is one of the consolation prizes we receive for having lived in a difficult and sometimes chaotic world."

He also said, "History is the sum total of all the things they aren't telling us."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show