a tiny world of bone...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Lisel Mueller

On Finding a Bird’s
Bones in the Woods

Even Einstein, gazing
at the slender ribs of the world,
examining and praising
the cool and tranquil core
under the boil and burning
of faith and metaphor—
even he, unlearning
the bag and baggage of notion,
must have kept some shred
in which to clothe that shape,
as we, who cannot escape
imagination, swaddle
this tiny world of bone
in all that we have known
of sound and motion.


These lines by Lisel Mueller are tightly drawn – in the breath of one sentence – and the music sweeps toward a marvelous ending … “sound and motion”. A typical Mueller poem is very pleasing to the tongue, ear, and eye. This is an early work, written within, most likely, sixteen or eighteen years of the established ground of a post-atomic civilization ... in the throes of the Cold War as the twentieth century began to unravel on a grand scale. Note the foreboding message in the inability – and here rests the full weight of the poem – to “escape” imagination. A brutal truth is that we have created a life – a Pandora’s box of ideas and madness – from which we will struggle to break free.

Clearly, the poem exemplifies, for balance, the strong clash of opposing forces – the cool, peaceful “core” and the “boil and burning / of faith and metaphor”. In this telling, metaphor, itself a realization of opposites, rubs against the essence of faith – a longing for those things that are not. The force of the present ... the -ing of the poem’s first half ... shifts into the past, “in all that we have known”.

From the opening line Mueller establishes the need to move beyond science into something deeper, something emotional, something more than true. “Even Einstein,” Mueller writes, must let go of or unlearn the “bag and baggage of notion” – everything that gets in the way of our necessary fixations. The poet, by referencing Einstein as a stand-in for science, also wants the reader to ponder the moral dilemma and paradox of a learning that both creates and destroys the world. All cannot – and should not – be discarded, however, since “some shred” will be needed … something to hold on to. I like the way Mueller gives the poem an upward arc at the end.

The world in the poem is given animal-like characteristics … the slender ribs … allowing the skeletal remains to enlarge the poem’s tone until it finally comes to rest on “the tiny world of bone” – the small things that forever change us, that forever give us direction, understanding, purpose.

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