1120: Monet Refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller

20240517 Slowdown

1120: Monet Refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

I thought by now I would have fixed my vision. I tried contacts years ago; I could not work my lengthy eyelashes back far enough to clear the way for the hard, dime-sized plastic to settle on my eyes. Lasik was out of the question; I worried, unreasonably of course, if the surgeon slipped, there goes my sight.

If you’ve seen me at a reading lately, you’ve noticed me waving a pair of glasses in my hands. They’re along for the ride as I gesticulate, not intentionally to punctuate my thoughts, but out of convenience. I am nearsighted, so I don my specs when talking to the audience and remove them when reading from my books. It could be worse: picture me looking over readers down at someone, or progressive lenses that have me tilt my head back so that my nose is in the air.

Years ago, I first heard today’s poem performed by the poet on a recording. The poem gave me a framework that aligned with my aesthetic beliefs — and gave me a reason to embrace my “imperfect” vision.

Poets and visual artists work to give representation to the world which shimmers and blurs. Sometimes only impressions are available. Rather than a fidelity to things as they are, we desire to represent those very distortions. Today’s dramatic monologue is a gem of a poem, one that reminds how everything around us is divined with light, even our imperfections.

Monet Refuses the Operation
by Lisel Mueller

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 dissolve
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.

“Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller from SECOND LANGUAGE © 1996 Lisel Mueller. Used by permission of Louisiana State University Press.