Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997) was a prominent postwar poet. She was born in England but lived most of her life in the United States.
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.
Some are too much at home in the role of wanderer,
watcher, listener; who, by lamplit doors
that open only to another’s knock,
commune with shadows and are happier
with ghosts than living guests in a warm house.
Levertov was part German, Jewish, Welsh, and English, and the lack of specific cultural legacy is strong in her self-oriented poems like “Pleasures,” which reveals Levertov’s deep appreciation for things 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.
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.
From Levertov’s poem “Action”:
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 statewide competition. (I wiggled my fingertips for wind, that sort of eager young 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. I understand her feelings of not quite fitting in anywhere. 2
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, like “a meadow where the bees hum…”:
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.
Gaston Bachelard wrote in his imaginative work of space and our consciousness that poetry returns us the situations of our dreams. In Selected Poems, Levertov delivers a dreamlike longing, wisdom, and boundless creativity.
In addition to her wonderful thoughts on place, solidarity, and loneliness, Levertov reimagines the alphabet, a thing poets are wont to do.3
Joy, the, “well…joyfulness of
I had not known it,” the woman of eighty
said, “only remembered, till now.”
The bright lift of reading Denise Levertov’s poetry is one of the many definitions of joy.