Someone (maybe Virginia Woolf?) once said that truth reveals itself in the most mundane of tasks, hinting that true work is done within.
This winnowing thought is reiterated in poetry by Denise Levertov (24 October 1923 – 20 December 1997): “In our gathering, in our containing, in our working, active within ourselves, slowly the pale dew-beads of light lapped up from flowers can thicken, darken to gold.”
Levertov was born in England but lived most of her life in the United States. The lines I referenced above have a remarkable American-ness about them. Elsewhere in the poem, “Second Didactic Poem” she writes; “The taste, the odor of honey; each has no analogue but itself.” It is a poem about being and doing 1
Levertov’s poems are movement, rhythm, power, and actualisation. I think of Levertov as energy itself. Or if not energy, a deep contemplation of energy.2
And I walked nakedfrom the beginning
breathing in my life,
breathing out poems,
arrogant in innocent…
From “A Cloak”
How do we spend our time and fill out our space? she seems to be asking.
Selected Poems spans her life’s work showcasing her interest in politics and war (she served in the British civilian arm during WWII) and in love and constant pondering of human emotion.
The disasters numb within uscaught in the chest, rollingin the brain like pebbles. the feelingresembles lumps of raw dough
weighing down a child’s stomach on a baking day.or Rilke said it, ‘My heart…Could I saw of it, it overflowswith bitterness…but no, as though
its contents were simply balled into formless lumps, thusdo I carry it about.’
From “Life at War”
Levertov was part German, Jewish, Welsh, and English, and the lack of specific cultural legacy is strong in her more self-oriented writing, revealing Levertov’s deep appreciation for 3things not being as they seem.
I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies
within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct,
Gull feathers of glass, hidden
in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board…
I love Levertov’s imagery. Moving aside grass, digging under logs, finding those treasures that wait to be claimed by eager hands or will happily rest for an eternity. Mary Oliver once wrote about stones deep under the earth waiting to be touched by rain. I have a particular knack for uncovering abandoned snail shells.4
Levertov’s quilted heritage allows her to capture a universal sense of being and existence, one that seems to flow above contained concepts of self and culture. Like Durga Chew-Bose’s essays poised between being and becoming as the daughter of Indian immigrants to Canada. Levertov finds herself removed and, thus, unconstrained.
I can lay down that history
I can lay down my glasses
I can lay down the imaginary lists
of what to forget and what must be
done. I can shake the sun
out of my eyes and lay everything down
on the hot sand, and cross
the whispering threshold and walk
right into the clear sea, and float there,
my long hair floating, and fishes
vanishing all around me. Deep water.
Little by little one comes to know
the limits of depths of power.
Eons ago, I performed a dramatic interpretation of Denise Levertov’s “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” in a competition. (I wiggled my fingertips for wind, that sort of eager silliness). I gave the “acting” a miss but began a life-long love of Levertov’s poetry.
I took the reverse path to Levertov, leaving America to settle in England. Like T.S. Eliot, I suppose. I know what it means to be adopted and to adopt a country. 5
Of course, when we’re constructed from different places, it also means that bits and pieces of us fit in everywhere. Casual allegiances mean we search for a deeper connection. Some universal context to which we can vouchsafe our vulnerabilities.
Which returns us to nature. Levertov anchors most of her complexity in nature.
We are a meadow where the bees hum,
mind and body are almost one
as the fire snaps in the stove
and our eyes close,
and mouth to mouth, the covers
pulled over our shoulders,
we drowse as horses drowse afield,
in accord; though the fall cold
surrounds our warm bed, and though
by day we are singular and often lonely.
From “A meadow where the bees hum…”
In addition to her wonderful thoughts on place, solidarity, and loneliness, Levertov reimagines the alphabet, a thing poets are wont to do.6
Joy, the, “well…joyfulness of
I had not known it,” the woman of eighty
said, “only remembered, till now.”
The bright lift of Denise Levertov’s poetry is one of the many definitions of joy. Excitement, uplift and physical involvement in emotion.