Your Tired, Your Poor

Mueller, Lisel

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Jul-19-2002
  • Last revised: Jul-28-2010


Mueller traces the path from forced exodus/immigration to struggling with a new language, to the eventual day when "you dream in rhyme, in a language / you never wanted to understand." In this evocation of diaspora and eventual acculturation, speech and language are important metaphors.

The poem is in three sections. Part 1, "Asylum," (14 lines) is enclosed by quotation marks, perhaps because the speaker describing a border crossing is still articulate in her native tongue. This section is highly personalized, written in the first person, and speaks of homesickness, dislocation, abandonment--"the life you say I must leave . . . bundled and tied . . . for the trash collector."

Part 2, "English as a Second Language," (15 lines) is written in the third person and describes the state of estrangement from meaning that accompanies unfamiliarity with a new language and culture. Letters of the alphabet become "crushing crossbar[s]" and "spying eyes." This section ends, however, with some hope that understanding will develop: the letters for the word "tree" might become intelligible, "could take root, / could develop leaves."

The final 16 line section, "Crossing Over," is written in the second person and marks the day when the transition to the new country and the new life and the new language is as complete as it ever will be. Now fully able to comprehend her surroundings, the speaker feels compelled to name the details of her environment, finds herself "humming the music you stuffed your ears against" and notices a certain strangeness when she communicates with those she left behind--"voices from home arrive . . . bent by the ocean."


Mueller, an immigrant from Hitler's Germany, has captured well all the elements of being forced to leave one's native country and of having to adapt to a new one. Her poem illustrates not only the difficulties of acculturation, but also the ambivalence which frequently accompanies immigration. There is loss, as well as gain.


Mueller won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for the collection, Alive Together, in which this poem appears.

Primary Source

Alive Together


Louisiana State Univ. Press

Place Published

Baton Rouge