Overview of "The Exhibit"

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Author: Adrian Blevins
Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2000
From: Poetry for Students(Vol. 9. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,611 words

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After a single reading, Lisel Mueller's "The Exhibit" seems to contest, out of its own apparent simplicity, any real need for comment. What useful remark can be made about a straight forward account of a poet's memory of a small disagreement with her uncle, or about the portrait of an old man whose war experience has made him either unable or unwilling to recognize the difference between an extinct animal and a mythological one? Even Mueller's language in "The Exhibit" is economical, or written in what American poet and critic Alice Fulton, in review of Mueller's Second Language, calls "the plain style"--a language nearly lacking in the musical devices that make most poetry full and sensual and audacious enough to bind. Yet one of the poem's glories is that it only seems simple. Fulton says:

All literature, because it exists both in the moment the reader encounters it and in another one the writer recalls, imagines, pretends, or craves, commits a miracle: a semantic violation of the laws governing the nature of time. But many lyric poems, because they forsake the world's abundance by narrowing their focus into a single instance or theme, are especially able to heighten or enrich our perceptions of even the simplest of experiences. Many lyric poems can be likened to still life paintings: because there's no competing landscape in a painting of a bowl of apples (let's say), we are often able to see the fruit better--to witness it glisten and shine or resemble a bruise or a face. Mueller's talent and proclivity for the lyric has made her a master of this sort of poetic still-life. Second Language, the book from which we take "The Exhibit," is full of poems much like it--poems in which small memories and observations become more conceptional meditations on topics as wide-ranging as the experience of exile, the cost and weight of experience, and the imagination's power to redeem and even heal us.

On the most basic level, "The Exhibit" describes the speaker's memory of a conversation with her uncle. The speaker, her uncle, and an unnamed companion are in East Germany looking at a painting of a unicorn that is hanging in what we assume, because of the poem's title, to be an art museum. The poem's tension is revealed when the speaker tells us that her uncle says the unicorn in the painting is "now extinct." Although the speaker...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420031173