An Alphabet of Poets – L is for Levertov

The Ache of Marriage

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

Denise Levertov from Poems – 1960 – 1967, New Directions Books

 Of Being

I know this happiness
Is provisional:
             The looming presences-
             Great suffering, great fear-

             Withdraw only
             Into peripheral vision:

But ineluctable this shimmering
Of wind in the blue leaves:

This flood of stillness
Widening the lake of sky:

This need to dance
This need to kneel:
                             This mystery:

Denise Levertov, from The Stream & the Sapphire, New Directions Books, 1997

In 1935 a young English girl wrote a letter. and included a few of her poems, to T.S. Eliot for comment. He sent back a two page typewritten letter. Later she said it held excellent advice! That girl, Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997) didn’t waste that advice. But unlike Eliot, who moved from theU.S. to the UK, she did the reverse and moved to the US in 1948 and at the time of her death inSeattle she had been acknowledged as one ofAmerica’s leading poets for at least 30 years.

Levertov’s  work is deceptively but her craft, not always obvious, is exquisite. Her range of poetic subject was vast – she was as at ease writing galvanizing protest poems as she was writing love poems and meditative poems on spiritual and religious themes. She also was not afraid to put her beliefs on the line and was arrested countless times for civil disobedience.

I had first discovered Levertov through her poem Writing in the Dark included in Susan Wooldridge’s book on the art of poetry, Poem Crazy which inspired me in the early 2000’s to try my hand at running poetry workshops. Talk about learning on the job!

Here is that poem:

Writing in the Dark

It’s not difficult.
Anyway, it’s necessary.

Wait till morning, and you’ll forget.
And who knows if morning will come.

Fumble for the light,
And you’ll be
Stark awake, but the vision
Will be fading, slipping
Out of reach. 

You must have paper at hand,
A felt-tip pen, ballpoints don’t always flow,
Pencil points tend to break. There’s nothing
Shameful in that much prudence: those are our tools.

Never mind about crossing your t’s, dotting your I’s –
But take care not to cover
One word with the next. Practice will reveal
How one hand instinctively comes to the aid of the other
To keep each line
Clear of the next.

Keep writing in the dark:
A record of the night, or
Words that pulled you from the depths of unknowing,
Words that flew through your mind, strange birds
Crying their urgency with human voices,

Or opened
As flowers of a tree that blooms
Only once in a lifetime:

Words that may have the power
To make the sun rise again.

from Poems 1972-1982, New Directions Press, 1982

This poem motivates me, not to write at night, but to write in the even deeper darkness of my fear of the white page, of my resistance to surrender to poetry’s ruthlessness;  what it demands from me when I dare to start a poem, what it demands I write, not what I choose.

Two of the most creased and thumbed volumes of her work in my library are Making Peace, a collection of Levertov’s  poems of peace and protest edited by Peggy Rosenthal and The Stream & the Sapphire – Selected Poems on Religious Themes. The presence of both these books I owe to Peggy Rosenthal who I met through Image Journal’s Glen Workshop held each summer in Santa Fe. It was Peggy who first alerted me to the depth of Levertov’s spiritual writing. She also told the story of Levertov’s conversion to Roman Catholicism through the writing of her poem Agnus Dei, a section of the poem Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. Talk about how poetry can change your life!

Here is one of my favorities from The Stream & the Sapphire:

Flickering Mind

Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
At first
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away — and back,
I have long since uttered your name
but now
I elude your presence.
I stop
to think about you, and my mind
at once
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn.  Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow.
You the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?

from The Stream & the Sapphire

And here is her startling poem Thinking About El Salvador which I have gone to again and again for help in writing my own poems about the horrors of war inRwandaand DR Congo:

Thinking about El Salvador

Because every day they chop heads off
I’m silent.
In each person’s head they chopped off
was a tongue,
for each tongue they silence
a word in my mouth
unsays itself.

From each person’s head two eyes
looked at the world;
for each gaze they cut
 a line of seeing unwords itself.

Because every day they chop heads off
no force
flows into language,
thoughts think themselves worthless.

No blade of machete
threatens my neck,
but its muscles
cringe and tighten,
my voice
hides in its throat-cave
ashamed to sound
              into that silence,
the silence

of raped women,
of priests and peasants,
teachers and children,
of all thoise whose heads every day
float down the river
and rot
and sink,
not Orpheus heads
still singing, bound for the sea,
but mute.

from Making Peace, New Directions Bibelot, 2006

And still it goes on. And still we must write; and still remember the words that came before.