An Unanswered Question


Mueller, Lisel




German-born poet and translator Lisel Mueller fled the Nazi regime with her family when she was 15.  Her family immigrated to the US and settled in Indiana, where Mueller attended the University of Evansville and Indiana University.  "An Unanswered Question" is taken from her book Alive Together, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.  In this poem Mueller imagines what it might be like to be the sole survivor of one's tribe and the last remaining speaker of one's native language.  Would connection still be possible?  What would be most important to pass on?  This poem raises questions about the nature and limits of empathy and the relationship of language to culture and survival.

Full Text*

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Alive Together: New and Seleted Poems by Lisel Mueller.  Louisiana State UP, 1996.


Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.


Diversity and DifferenceExclusion and BelongingLove and CompassionSpeech and Expression

Big Questions

How do we connect with those who are different from us?What does it mean to be a stranger or an outsider? What does it feel like?What does it mean to be alone?What does empathy look like?What prevents us from being compassionate?What does it mean to have a voice?Who is voiceless in today's society and why?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Why and in what ways does the speaker identify with the Tasmanian woman?
  2. What is "an exhaustible language"? An inexhaustible language? Can you "believe" in one of the other?
  3. What are "meaningless sounds"? What makes them meaningless?
  4. How might a person in a cage recognize "thoughtfulness" when she saw it?
  5. What would allow the one "thoughtful face" to be understanding?
  6. What are the "bars of mutual incomprehension"? How does one pass something essential through such bars?
  7. What do language and loss have to do with one another? Language and loneliness? Language and survival?
  8. Did your own "one word" come to mind after finishing the poem?
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