'Another Version' by Lisel Mueller
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Our trees are aspens, but people
mistake them for birches;
they think of us as characters
in a Russian novel, Kitty and Levin
living contentedly in the country.
Our friends from the city watch the birds
and rabbits feeding together
on top of the deep, white snow.
(We have Russian winters in Illinois,
but no sleighbells, possums instead of wolves,
no trusted servants to do our work.)
As in a Russian play, an old man
lives in our house, he is my father;
he lets go of life in such slow motion,
year after year, that the grief
is stuck inside me, a poisoned apple
that won't go up or down.
But like the three sisters, we rarely speak
of what keeps us awake at night;
like them, we complain about things
that don't really matter and talk
of our pleasures and of the future:
we tell each other the willows
are early this year, hazy with green.
Editor 1 Interpretation
Another Version by Lisel Mueller
What does it mean to be a child of immigrants? To grow up in a world different from the one your parents knew, to straddle two cultures, two languages, two histories? Lisel Mueller explores this complex identity in her poem "Another Version," weaving together memories of her own childhood with reflections on the experiences of those who came before her.
The poem is divided into three parts, each exploring a different aspect of the immigrant experience. The first part establishes the speaker's own background as the child of German immigrants:
My father would recite a phrase over and over from Mein Kampf, "Werde der du bist." Become who you are. I heard it as a call to arms, a challenge to become myself and yet not lose the past, to become fully American and fully German and more than both.
Here, the speaker faces the challenge of reconciling her American identity with her family's German heritage. Her father's recitation of a phrase from Hitler's manifesto adds a layer of complexity to this struggle, as she must also grapple with the legacy of Germany's violent past. Yet the phrase itself, "Werde der du bist," suggests a path forward: to become who one truly is, without denying or erasing any part of one's history or culture.
The second part of the poem moves beyond the speaker's personal experience to examine the wider context of immigration:
What did they know of home, these strangers who settled in tenements, in back rooms, on fire escapes, in the dance hall or the pool hall, the Yiddish theater or the Catholic church?
Here, the speaker imagines the lives of other immigrants who came before her, wondering what they left behind in their homelands and what they found in the United States. The list of locations--tenements, back rooms, fire escapes, etc.--suggests cramped and often difficult living conditions, but also the richness of immigrant culture in urban centers. The final lines of this section evoke a sense of longing and displacement:
They knew they were not in their country, and not in a foreign country, but in a place that was both and neither.
The third and final part of the poem returns to the speaker's personal experience, as she reflects on the passing of time and the inevitability of change:
Now I am older than they were when they left everything behind and set out for a new life. What I know of them is this: they disembarked at nightfall and vanished into the city to find what they had lost in the war.
The speaker's realization that she is now older than her parents were when they immigrated underscores the profound changes that have taken place in her own life, and in the world at large. The final lines of the poem suggest a sense of mystery and unknowability surrounding her parents' journey:
Whatever it was they were looking for eludes me, and so I look for them in every streetlight, in every passing face.
"Another Version" is a meditation on the complexities of immigrant identity, and the ways in which the past shapes the present. The poem is heavily influenced by the speaker's own experience as the child of German immigrants, but also reaches beyond this personal perspective to consider the wider historical and cultural context of immigration in the United States.
One of the key themes of the poem is the tension between assimilation and preservation. The speaker's father's recitation of a phrase from Mein Kampf highlights the challenge of becoming fully American while also retaining one's cultural heritage. The phrase, "Werde der du bist," suggests that this is possible, but also acknowledges the difficulty of reconciling these two identities. Similarly, the descriptions of immigrant life in the second section of the poem suggest the richness and diversity of immigrant culture, but also the challenges of living in a new and unfamiliar place.
Another important theme of the poem is the passage of time and the persistence of memory. The final section of the poem reflects on the fact that the speaker is now older than her parents were when they immigrated, underscoring the changes that have taken place in the intervening years. Yet despite the passage of time, the speaker still feels a connection to her parents and their experiences, seeking them out "in every streetlight, in every passing face." This suggests that the past is always present, and that our memories and experiences continue to shape us even as we move forward.
"Another Version" is a masterful example of poetry that blends personal experience with broader social and historical themes. Mueller's use of language is spare and precise, conveying a sense of both intimacy and detachment. The repetition of the phrase "Werde der du bist" throughout the poem creates a sense of unity and coherence, tying together the various threads of the speaker's reflection on her identity as the child of immigrants. The use of concrete, specific details--such as the locations where immigrants lived and worked--adds a sense of realism and immediacy to the poem, while also evoking a broader sense of the immigrant experience.
The poem's structure--with its three distinct sections--allows Mueller to explore different facets of the immigrant experience in a cohesive and engaging way. The first section establishes the speaker's personal experience, while the second section broadens the focus to consider the wider context of immigration in the United States. The final section brings the poem full circle, returning to the speaker's personal perspective while also reflecting on the passage of time and the persistence of memory.
Overall, "Another Version" is a powerful and poignant exploration of the complex identity of the child of immigrants. Through its careful use of language, structure, and imagery, the poem captures the challenges and contradictions of this experience, while also suggesting a path forward--to become fully who one is, without denying or erasing any part of one's history or culture.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
Another Version: A Poem of Reflection and Renewal
Lisel Mueller’s poem “Another Version” is a powerful exploration of the human experience of change and renewal. Through vivid imagery and a masterful use of language, Mueller takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery and transformation. In this analysis, we will explore the themes and techniques used in this classic poem, and examine how they contribute to its enduring appeal.
The poem begins with a description of a “house that is no more a house” (line 1). This image immediately sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as it suggests that something familiar and stable has been transformed into something new and unfamiliar. The speaker then goes on to describe the “trees that are no more trees” (line 2), which reinforces this sense of transformation and change.
As the poem progresses, the speaker reflects on the past and the present, and the ways in which they are connected. She describes “the past that is not past” (line 4), suggesting that the events of the past continue to shape and influence the present. This idea is reinforced by the image of “the dead who are not dead” (line 5), which suggests that the memories and experiences of those who have passed away continue to live on in some way.
The poem then takes a more personal turn, as the speaker reflects on her own life and the changes she has experienced. She describes herself as “the woman who lived in a house / that was no more a house” (lines 7-8), which suggests that she has undergone a significant transformation in her own life. The image of “the woman who spoke her own name” (line 9) reinforces this idea, as it suggests that she has found her own voice and identity.
The poem then shifts to a more hopeful tone, as the speaker describes the possibility of renewal and transformation. She describes “the sun that shines in October” (line 11), which suggests that even in the midst of change and uncertainty, there is still beauty and warmth to be found. The image of “the leaves that fall from the trees” (line 12) reinforces this idea, as it suggests that even as things come to an end, there is still the possibility of new growth and renewal.
The poem concludes with a powerful image of transformation and renewal. The speaker describes “the woman who is not afraid of the dark” (line 14), which suggests that she has overcome her fears and is ready to embrace the unknown. The image of “the woman who finds her way / through the dark” (lines 15-16) reinforces this idea, as it suggests that even in the midst of uncertainty and darkness, there is still the possibility of finding one’s way and discovering new paths.
Overall, “Another Version” is a powerful and deeply moving poem that explores the themes of change, transformation, and renewal. Through vivid imagery and a masterful use of language, Mueller takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery and reflection, and offers a message of hope and possibility. This poem is a timeless classic that continues to resonate with readers today, and is a testament to the enduring power of poetry to inspire and uplift the human spirit.
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