Old impulses, new expressions: Duality and unity in the poetry of Denise Levertov
Little, Anne Colclough
ON the surface, Denise Levertov’s career as a poet has seemed to consist of a series of changes in direction. After the British neoromantic apprentice collection The Double Image, she wrote her first five American volumes, which Ralph J. Mills, Jr., called her “poetry of the immediate” (32). In clear, vivid language contrasting with that of the first book, many of the poems in Here and Now, Overland to the Islands, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, The Jacob’s Ladder, and O Taste and See celebrate the joy she finds in brief moments or objects in ordinary life. With her next three works (The Sorrow Dance, Relearning the Alphabet, and To Stay Alive), she became known and often received criticism for her political activism. One anonymous critic for The Ohio Review voiced the assessment of many during this period saying that Levertov was “a failed lyricist” whose “politics obscured her poetic insight” (128). The nine volumes that followed (Footprints, The Freeing of the Dust, Life in the Forest, Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, Breathing the Water, A Door in the Hive, Evening Train, and Sands of the Well) seem to represent another shift with the inclusion of more meditative and even Christian poems. While these apparent changes in direction may suggest alterations of or even confusion in her view of the task of the poet, even to sympathetic critics like Paul Lacey and Lorrie Smith,’ Levertov has not radically emended either her theory or her practice. In a two-part series of articles in Christianity and Literature, Edward Zlotkowski found unity in Levertov’s poetry by tracing the religious elements (Biblical references and themes, allusions to the numinous, and so forth) in all stages of her career. Also present in Levertov’s work, however, is another kind of unity related to the very aspects of her poetry that seem to be leading her in different directions, the tremendous joy and celebration of life associated with her first American poetry and the sadness and even anger associated with her politically engaged poetry.
Several essays and lectures collected in her prose volumes, The Poet in the World, Light Up the Cave, and New & Selected Essays, address in some way the role of the poet or the function of poetry in today’s world. Much of what she says in these volumes, though, seems grounded in two quotations from oddly diverse sources. In her 1968 lecture at the University of Michigan, “Origins of a Poem” (later published in The Poet in the World), Levertov explained that even as a young poet she valued Ibsen’s statement, “The task of the poet is to make clear to himself and thereby to others the temporal and eternal questions” (44). Closely related in her mind is a variation of a line from a Toltec poem she had translated: “The true artist maintains dialogue with himself, with his heart” (45). Throughout her career Levertov’s poetry has achieved a unity that comes from her attempts to define the temporal and eternal questions in the dialogue she has held with herself and her heart.
Although the temporal questions include public and private issues, the eternal questions are often related to what might be seen as a duality in Levertov, her capacity for joy as well as her anguish over suffering. Levertov has frequently explored the eternal questions: What is joy? What is suffering? How can a compassionate poet feel and express joy when she sees so much pain in the world? How can a poet with the gift to sing still that voice? Can the duality of this vision be reconciled? Although some volumes emphasize joy and others, suffering, these questions have woven thematic threads of unity through her work. Raising these issues has helped Levertov articulate, refine, and clarify for herself and others how she sees the poet’s role.
In The Double Image, the title of which suggests the duality of Levertov’s vision, one sees celebration in poems like “The Air of Life,” as she rejoices, “The air of life is music, and I live” (41). In other poems, like “Christmas 1944,” Levertov also questions whether joy is appropriate in a world at war, even at Christmas, as she asks, “Who can be happy while the wind recounts / its long sagas of sorrow?” (24). Levertov herself admits that her apprentice poems like this one do not really confront the issue of war (“Origins” 44), but the reader can sense the beginning of the struggle to face the conflict between her innate sense of joy and her awareness of suffering.
In her first five American volumes, the celebration of life is obvious in the sensual imagery that often focuses on light and energy.2 The speaker feels “an idiot joy” in “Xmas Trees on the Bank’s Facade” as she sees “the small lights / wink rapidly, pale / (excited) among / agitated green” (HN 17). A voice overheard on the street in “February Evening in New York” also expresses exuberance as it says, “You know, I’m telling you, what I love best / is life. I love life!” (WE 31). And in “The Coming Fall” the speaker feels “a shiver, a delight / that what is passing / is here” (OTS 39). Along with jubilance in these volumes are also poems that show Levertov’s early awareness of the ugly side of existence. “People at Night” focuses on the isolation of city dwellers (HN 10). “Jackson Square” depicts the tragedy of “the starving inventors and all / who sit on benches in the morning / to sun tenacious hopes . . . all, all the forlorn” (16). Although the mood is somber, light brings an element of promise. “Poem from Manhattan” begins with the vitality of celebration-“City, act of joy . . . power . .energy . . . hope” (31+but dissipates into sorrow at the end-“city, desolation” and “city, gesture of greed” (32).
Aware of both joy and suffering, the speaker in “Terror” raises a question like that in “Christmas 1944.” She has seen the agony of another person: “The grip / of anguished stillness. / Then your naked voice, your / head knocking the wall, sideways, / the beating of trapped thoughts against iron.” Then she asks: “Am I / a monster, to sing / in the wind on this sunny hill / and not taste the dust always, / and not hear / that rending, that retching?” (WE 36). The focus in “Terror” may simply be personal, but “Three Meditations” relates the conflict between elation and misery more directly to the role of the poet. The first meditation is a psalm-like call to celebrate being alive: “Breathe deep of the / freshly gray morning air …. Live / in thy fingertips and in thy / hair’s rising…” (JL 29). Like the images of earlier poems, these convey exuberance found in sensory experience. In the second meditation, introduced by Ibsen’s dictum to the poet to raise both the temporal and eternal questions, the speaker asks who she is as she lashes out at a child in anger, and answers, seeing her kinship with others who cause pain, “I multitude, I tyrant, / I angel, I you, you / world, battlefield” (30). She is the one who brings comfort as well as the one who causes agony. She also becomes the place where the struggle between the two is to be enacted. If the poet is a kind of everyperson who knows happiness yet shares human guilt, what then, she asks, is the task of the poet in a world where “Death in the grassblade [heads] blindly / for the bone” (30)? Her answer is:
to sing of death as before
and life, while he has it, energy
being in him a singing, a beating of gongs, efficacious to drive away devils, response to the wonder that as before shows a double face,
to be what he is being his virtue filling his whole space so no devil may enter. (31)
The poet who feels “wonder” at being alive now has a dual role. She must sing, she recognizes, but not simply out of joy. The song must also be “a beating of gongs, . . . / to drive away devils” (31). The vitality that Levertov had earlier linked to celebration now becomes a means of dispelling the suffering that “devils” may bring.
ALTHOUGH The Sorrow Dance, Relearning the Alphabet, and To Stay Alive are associated with protest, Levertov also includes poems, or at least moments, when life again brings happiness. “For Floss” rejoices in the tenacity of sunflowers growing in debris beside the Hackensack River (SD 29). “The Altars in the Street” celebrates the maimed Vietnamese children who build altars in the streets of Saigon as an act of resistance (87). In “Not Yet” Levertov finds momentary delight in the chickadees despite the rising “body-count” in the war (RA 52). In “A Marigold from North Vietnam” she takes pleasure in the marigold, symbol of rebirth to which “cling still / some crumbs of Vietnam” (RA 67). In “Staying Alive,” the long poem from To Stay Alive, she relishes the “tamaracks, lurid, glamorous” in autumn and the beauty, silence, and isolation of “the first snowstorm” (36). In each instance sensory experience precipitates the joy, and her ability to recreate the experience in words enables her to convey the emotion.
In those volumes most often associated with protest, Levertov’s concern for suffering is broad enough to include impoverished children and the politically oppressed. She speaks out in the ways a later essay ascribes to Old Testament prophets: “they warn of the effects and consequences of evildoing and foolishness; they upbraid the people for wrong or stupid behavior, and they take a powerful stand against corrupt and oppressive rulers” (“Poetry” 147). But one can note as well the conflict between her impulse to joy and her impulse to lamentation seen earlier. In “Life at War” she questions how to reconcile the two aspects of the ironic dual nature of humanity in general, the capacity for joy and love and the capacity for evil, both the evil of causing suffering and apathetically allowing others to cause it. Again jarred by her kinship to the guilty, Levertov issues a harsh indictment. Graphically depicting the suffering of war victims, both those physically ravaged and those mentally distraught as she is, she wonders how we humans-“whose language imagines mercy, / lovingkindness” and who “have believed one another / mirrored forms of a God we felt as good”-could commit the atrocities she names (SD 80). This, she exclaims, struggling with the conflict, is “the knowledge that jostles for space / in our bodies along with all we / go on knowing of joy, of love” (80). She does not directly ask the implied question that logically follows: If God exists, how can He permit these atrocities? But she later identifies this question as a major “barrier” to her crossing “the threshold of faith” (“A Poet’s View” 242).
An important link between Levertov’s jubilant poetry and her politically engaged poetry becomes apparent in “Life at War.” In the celebratory “poetry of the immediate,” Levertov’s ability to see the beauty of life allows her to use language to recreate the experience for the reader. Her imagination stimulates the reader’s imagination so that he or she can also see. But the technique can depict suffering as well as joy. In her essay “Origins of a Poem,” Levertov attributes the “capacity for evil” to “a failure to develop man’s most human function, the imagination, to its fullness, and consequently a failure to develop compassion” (53). In “Life at War” she acknowledges that human beings are able to imagine “mercy, / lovingkindness,” but they still act in an inhuman way. The poet’s gift then is to “see” and “make clear to [her]self and thereby to others,” for example, the horrors of war. When people have been brought to imagine the agony of others, then they are more likely to develop compassion. Just as some of Levertov’s poetry attempts to help others know the glorious aspects of ordinary human existence, the so-called protest poetry then becomes not simply polemical but an attempt to enable her readers to experience the pain of others as well.
The long poem “Staying Alive” is what Levertov calls “a record of one person’s inner/outer experience in America during the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s” (ix). Part of the inner experience is a new dialogue with herself as Levertov wrestles again and at length with queries about the task of the poet and the function of poetry today. Early in the poem Levertov asks herself: “Revolution or death . . . Which side are you on?” (29). She automatically responds, “Revolution, of course,” but she must admit the strong attraction of death as an escape from the pain of living in our world. Surprised by the complexity of the question, she examines the alternatives. Although death offers a way to avoid reaching a decision, it is also the fate of humanity if no one works for revolution. On the other hand, an opposite of death is “Unlived life,” of which, as Rilke says, “one can die” (29). Suddenly aware of another pair of extremes she must consider-the lived life and the unlived life-Levertov examines these as well. Unlived life, she realizes, is one like that of a man named Bill Rose, “whose life / failed him in some way long before death” (32) or the life of “roaring silence” (78) lived by someone called Judy, “who ignored the world outside herself” (81). Lived life, though, means being fully involved with the world through one’s senses. It is feeling “the hunger for revelation” that “keeps me up half the night / wandering from book to music to painting to book” (64). It is “drinking vinjak with five Sudanese” in Yugoslavia (67). It is “clearing garbage off the land” at People’s Park in Berkeley “together with those I loved, / and later dodging with them / the swinging clubs of the cops” (77). The lived life she knows is the only choice. But she also realizes the world must be revitalized and she must contribute to the process.
Without applying the knowledge to herself, Levertov had seen revolution and poetry sustain each other in the life of someone named Richard. As she had described it, when “heart’s fire . . . revolution” meshed with “heart’s river . . . poetry” (73), “then though the pain of living / never lets up / the singing begins” (74). But the remembered words of Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky contradict that. Levertov quotes him:
According to his view, joy (“singing”) comes after rejuvenation. But Levertov knows that waiting until then means living an “unlived life.” And she finally realizes that poetry (“song”) is not just a way to ease the pain or celebrate victory after the struggle; it can, in fact, be a source of transforming energy:
With her fresh understanding, ironically on “the day / news of invasion of Laos started to be `official”‘ (83), she ends “Staying Alive” with the beginning of the song born of her insight, a hymn of praise with the hope of rebirth: “O holy innocents! I have / no virtue but to praise / you who believe / life is possible. . .” (84). Levertov has moved to a clearer understanding of the opposites which pull her, not merely surviving but staying alive in the fullest sense. One can work for revolution in many ways, she sees, including creating songs with power to transfigure the individual and the world. Building on what she had discovered in “Three Meditations,” she has learned that “sight,” which allows her to see and experience the wonders of the world around her, enables her to reveal “the lived life” to others. Conveying her understanding of what it means to live fully also becomes a means of changing the world.
LIKE the volumes before them, Levertov’s books of the last two decades contain joyful poems of celebration, engaged poems, and poems exploring the conflict between the two. Her exuberance comes again from the beauty she sees around her: in “[l]umps of snow . . . melting in tulip cups” (FD 12) and the “ineluctable . . . shimmering / of wind in the blue leaves” (OP 86). Still, she feels “[g]rief for the menaced world” (BW 35): Nagasaki, Vietnam, polluted waters and land. She suffers anguish for the dying gay man whose parents will “never give him / the healing silence” in which he can speak (ET 70) and for the Iraqi soldiers buried alive in mass graves, their “arms sticking out” (81). In “Growth of the Poet” and “Conversation in Moscow,” both in The Freeing of the Dust, Levertov acknowledges that the strongest poetry, the most powerful song, is that which comes from an awareness of joy and suffering. In the former poem the union of the two produces the “black sounds” and the “deep song [that] delves” (84). In the latter the song arises from “grief and joy entwined in the dark down there” (91). But despite her understanding of the relationship of the two extremes, she still sometimes feels the conflict. In “Unresolved,” from Candles in Babylon, for example, the knowledge of “chopped-off heads . . . in El Salvador” hangs suspended against “the sapphire transparency [that] calls forth our song” (104). Levertov can allow the reader to see beauty and ugliness, but the poem ends in failure to reconcile the conflict, as she says: “We know no synthesis” (105).
In some ways “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus,” placed three pages after “Unresolved,” signals another shift in direction for Levertov. Although she has written many poems with religious language, imagery and tone, this is the first that is Christian-not orthodox, but Christian nonetheless. In a 1985 interview with Lorrie Smith, Levertov states that she began the poem as an agnostic experimenting with the Mass merely as a structuring device. “In the process of writing it,” she added, “I moved somewhere” (603). In her 1990 essay “Work That Enfaiths,” she is more explicit about where “somewhere” is: “The experience of writing the poem-that long swim through waters of unknown depth-had been also a conversion process, if you will” (250). The more overtly Christian poems that follow in Oblique Prayers, Breathing the Water, A Door in the Hive, Evening Train, and Sands of the Well confirm the change signaled by the mass. Yet in examining the poem, one can see a clear link to Levertov’s earlier work as well: here again, raising the eternal questions and holding a dialogue with her heart, Levertov asks how she can reconcile the apparently disparate impulses to celebrate and to grieve for the pain she sees in the world. And she raises more directly the relationship between God and suffering, in the words of her 1984 essay “A Poet’s View,” “the discrepancy between the suffering of the innocent, on the one hand, and the assertions that God is just and merciful on the other” (242), or in the words of the more recent essay “Work That Enfaiths,” “the suffering of the innocent and the consequent question of God’s nonintervention,” especially “in regard to the global panorama of oppression and violence” (251). As the earlier conflict of her dual tendencies led Levertov also to examine the dichotomy between revolution and death and between lived and unlived life, here the conflict also leads her to examine the relationship between flesh and spirit and the longing for faith and the tendency to doubt.
The Mass is an appropriate vehicle through which to seek reconciliation between joy and sorrow because it is an act of remembrance of the suffering of the incarnate Christ and a celebration of the eternal triumph of His spirit. As Levertov writes her “Mass,” however, one feels the tension between the traditional orthodox Christian structure and Levertov’s more pantheistic beliefs. One can also witness her discovery of the importance of the incarnation to the conflict between joy and suffering and her realization of the role human beings play, new understandings that may be what she meant when she said she “moved somewhere” in writing the poem.
Following the structure of the Ordinary of the Mass, Levertov begins in the “Kyrie” by asking mercy, not of the usual “Lord,” but of the “deep unknown,” which she calls a “guttering candle, / beloved nugget lodged / in the obscure heart’s / last recess” (108). The image of the guttering candle suggests both the Holy Spirit of Christianity as well as the divine spark Levertov’s Hasidic background had taught her was in all creation. The image also evokes the light and energy of earlier poems, here dangerously weakened. In agony like that expressed in other poems, she clarifies that she asks for mercy because of the “terror / of what we know: / death, death, and the world’s / death we imagine / and cannot imagine,” because of the “terror of not knowing,” and because of the possibility “of the violent closure of all” (108). Although the “deep, remote unknown” brings fear and by implication the suffering which accompanies it, Levertov also suggests at least an element of hope because she does seek mercy (109).
The second section of the “Mass,” the “Gloria,” is a hymn of celebration saying not “Glory to God in the highest,” but instead praising first what her senses reveal: “the wet snow / falling early,” “the shadow / my neighbor’s chimney casts on the tile roof,” “the invisible sun burning beyond / the white cold sky” (109). With her celebratory images of common objects, Levertov is again the poet who exalts in the immediate, but she also praises “god or the gods,” which she now glorifies as “the unknown, / that which imagined us.” Not forgetting the suffering we inflict, however, she also acknowledges the force “which stays / our hand, / our murderous hand” (109).
In the “Credo” Levertov affirms her faith, not in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but in the pantheistic divine spark of Hasidism: “I believe the earth / exists, and in each minim mote / of its dust the holy / glow of thy candle” (110). Even as she expresses credence, though, she acknowledges doubt, appropriately in a poem named for the doubting disciple: “I believe and / interrupt my belief with / doubt. I doubt and / interrupt my doubt with belief” (110). She says she knows that faith does not come by witnessing the dramatic power of the broken atom: “the poisonous / luminescence forced / out of its privacy, / the sacred lock of its cell / broken” (110). Of course, this metaphor is a reminder of the destructive atomic force humankind has discovered and used to cause suffering, as well as an inversion of the association of light and energy with life. She does not mention what faith often comes from: the broken body of Christ celebrated in the Eucharist that traditionally has been central to the Christian faith. She does affirm, however, that faith may come if she can see something as simple as the transformation that occurs when “common dust” glows “in ancient sunlight” (110), as if the sacred lock of its cell has been broken and the divine spark in the dust has been released. The image of dust in sunlight recalls the primal use of energy in the Creation (“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” [Genesis 1:3]) and God’s words to Adam “. . . for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” [Genesis 1:19]). The image is also reminiscent of her early poems of celebration, while the “poisonous luminescence” evokes recollection of protest poems like “Overheard in S.E. Asia,” where another agent of destruction, white phosphorous, a “whisper of sequins” which “seek / the bone” (F 8), becomes a perversion of the creative process.
The “Sanctus” is usually sung joyfully as “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of Hosts. / Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” In section four of the mass for St. Thomas, though, Levertov says a more subdued “hosanna” of celebration to “all the gods . . . that Imagination / has wrought . . to give to the Vast Loneliness / a hearth, a locus” (CB 111). The reference to “all the gods” plays on the “Hosts” of the original version, which can mean both “multitudes” and “angels.” The gods who “send forth their song towards / the harboring silence” (Ill), she realizes, are more than “the deep unknown” with which she began the poem. They become “the multiform / name of the Other, the known / Unknown, unknowable” (Ill). These three lines near the end of this section resonate. First, the word “multiform” subtly reminds the reader of the well-known phrase from Luke, “a multitude of heavenly hosts.” Second, the primary reading of the lines makes “the known / Unknown” an appositive of “the multiform / name of the other,” with “unknowable” an adjective qualifying both, but the punctuation of these three grammatical units makes them seem equal on a subliminal level, suggesting three names for the deity, like those of the Trinity: “the Other,” “the known / Unknown,” and “[the] unknowable.”
LEVERTOV’s explicit examination of the conflict between celebration and suffering comes in section five, the “Benedictus.” Instead of the traditional “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” she begins: “Blessed is that which comes in the name of spirit, / that which bears / the spirit within it” ( 111). Again with a kind of pantheism, she sees spirit in many diverse things: “woodgrain, windripple,” “moss and moon,” “blood, bone, song, silence, / very word of / very word” (111). But aware of the contradiction implied if a divine spark also resides in evil, she raises what for her has been a central question: whether spirit is also present in “infliction / upon the earth, upon the innocent, / of hell by human hands” (112). The inability to see how the spirit can exist in both challenges the very existence of spirit: “Is the word / audible under or over the gross / cacophony of malevolence” (112) and “Can it enter the void?” (113). The only answer she can find at this point is in the incarnation (“The word / chose to become / flesh” ). But the full meaning of the incarnation is not yet clear. The section ends: “In the blur of flesh / we bow, baffled” (113).
In the traditional Mass the “Agnus Dei” is addressed to “the Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world.” In section six, however, Levertov explains her confusion to the reader by suggesting the ineffectiveness of the lamb as a symbol for Christ. Although a lamb is a “leaper in air for delight of being,” sheep are also “afraid and foolish, and lack / the means of self-protection” ( 13). Considering what the lamb’s weakness implies, she wonders that we had sought protection in God and that we had looked to Him to end the suffering. She now sees He is “defenseless” since “[o]mnipotence / has been tossed away, reduced / to a wisp of damp wool” (114). Hoping for God to solve our problems, she suggests, we “frightened, bored” human beings want to escape so that we do not have to deal with suffering (114). We want “only to sleep till catastrophe / has raged, clashed, seethed and gone by without us” and “then / to awaken in quietude without remembrance of agony” (114). In “shamefaced private hope,” she says, we “looked to be plucked from the fire and given / a bliss we deserved for having imagined it” (114). This longing to avoid pain sounds much like that expressed in “Staying Alive,” but as before she sees no way to escape. If the Lamb of God is defenseless, she asks, “is it implied that we / must protect this perversely weak / animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings / suppose there is milk to be found in us?” (114).She retains the traditional Biblical symbol of Christ, the Lamb, but associates new qualities with it, even suggesting a kind of reversal of the Eucharist. Instead of the blood of Christ to bring our redemption, Levertov offers a Jesus who must be nourished by the milk (of human kindness?) found in people. To answer her own question, Levertov ends the mass with the affirmation that we must bear the responsibility for the suffering of the world and make the light of Christ stronger:
The metaphors “dim star” and “spark of remote light,” reminiscent of the many references to light and energy in Levertov’s poems, evoke the opening metaphor for the deity, the “guttering candle” that seems almost extinguished. But the “spark” also suggests the divine spark she finds in all creation. Although dim and remote, that spark can be protected, but we must do the protecting.
Seeing the divine spark also in Christ, Levertov has learned that faith in Christ does not mean escape, protection from trouble, or joy without pain. God has given human beings the freedom to accept or reject Him, but along with that freedom comes responsibility. Or, as she tells Smith in the interview, Christianity involves what Levertov thinks is implied by the incarnation: “the cooperation of man” (603). Although many Christians have traditionally believed salvation comes primarily through faith, which implies passivity, she seems to side with those who have argued the necessity for action (what others might call “works”). Like the earlier “lived life,” which can bring transformation, human intervention can keep the divine spark alive. As Levertov discovers in her understanding of the incarnation a new way to reconcile celebration and suffering, the ending of the “Mass,” like the ending of “Staying Alive,” becomes a hymn of hope in human potential to make a better world. The poet has become a prophet, in another sense of the word as Levertov defines it: one who “provide[s] words of witness” (“Poetry” 147), calling people to action.
In “The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416,” Levertov explores the conflict between joy and suffering through her examination of the life of Julian, herself a kind of prophet or witness. In a vision Julian laughed because “the very / spirit of evil / the Fiend” was “vanquished,” but her laughter ended with her awareness of “the cost, the cost”: Jesus’ “deathly / wounds” and “anguished / heart” that expiated “the deeds of malice” (BW 79-80). Although Julian believed some acts “so evil, injuries inflicted / so great” that any redemption seemed almost “impossible” (81), still she serves as example as she “clung to joy” through “tears and sweat,” believing in the “certainty / of infinite mercy” and sure that “Love was [Christ’s] meaning” (82). In this poem the Christ who is able to vanquish “the Fiend” and resolve the conflict is a figure of strength far different from the weak, almost comical lamb of “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus.” Julian too is a strong figure, not plagued by doubt, but holding “fiercely” for her faith (82). By joining the conflict between celebration and suffering to the issue of faith, Levertov reaches an ultimately more satisfying kind of resolution than she had found before. What seemed tentative in the “Mass” is confirmed and Levertov’s conversion to a more orthodox Christianity now seems complete. For a poet who has struggled with the connection between happiness and sorrow, Christianity seems a fitting vehicle because it offers reconciliation of the two: Christ died to atone for the sins through which we cause each other suffering, but after His death comes the joy of the resurrection of His body as a sign of the eternal life of the spirit.
LEVERTOV reexamines the conflict between celebration and suffering and doubt and faith in a poem which has as title and speaker the disciple whose day was celebrated in the “Mass,” “St. Thomas Didymus” in A Door in the Hive. Here the disciple’s doubt also serves as a metaphor for Levertov’s struggle. In the first half of the poem Thomas describes a scene he witnessed in which a man brought his son to Jesus to be healed. When the father cried, “Lord, I believe, help thou / mine unbelief,” Thomas (called “the twin” in some Biblical translations) acknowledged the man as his twin, knowing that the father raised his “tightdrawn question”:
Levertov’s crowding of these lines reflects the label “tightdrawn” that Thomas gives them. The repetition of “why” and “child” and the “t” sounds of “tormented, torn, twisted” help convey the father’s anguish.
The second half of the poem dramatizes Thomas’ struggle with doubt that is sketched in John 20:24-31. Retaining a “flash of kinship” with the boy and his father, Thomas describes his spiritual torment after Golgotha as “the same convulsed writhings / that tore the child / before he was healed” (102). His doubt too is like that of the father who cried “after the empty tomb / when they told me He lived”: “Lord, / I believe, / help thou mine unbelief ‘ (102). Being told of Jesus’ resurrection does not convince Thomas. He must touch Christ’s “unhealed wound” and feel his “rib-bone and pulsing heat” (103). As Levertov recreates Thomas’ experience in tactile images, she makes his story real by allowing the reader to visualize Christ’s wound and Thomas’ action, and the poet again becomes prophet in bringing “words of witness.” Since sight of the wound does not convince Thomas, he touches it. As Thomas touches, the reader does too. With the sensory comes belief, and the image of light, which appeared in the “Mass” as a “guttering candle” and “dim star,” reappears with all its power and energy to show Thomas’ epiphany:
The “cold cave” of the simile evokes recollection of Christ’s tomb; the unravelling knot, his burial shroud. As Christ has been freed from these, so Thomas is freed from doubt. Touching the flesh becomes the way for Thomas to find the spirit; the broken body of the incarnate Jesus serves as the means to faith in the spiritual savior.
The poem ends with another kind of reconciliation; not with answers to Thomas’ questions of why people must suffer or why pain exists, but with awareness that the torment of Christ fits into “a vast unfolding design lit / by a risen sun” (103). The image of the “risen sun” repeats the light imagery, again showing strong bright light. “Risen sun” is also a pun reminding the reader of the resurrection of Christ. The cave, the knot, and the sun all function together to stress the importance of Christ’s rising to Thomas. Although the poem began with the father’s anguish over his son’s pain, it ends with the death and resurrection of Christ as a way to make sense of suffering. Christ’s agony is not dismissed, minimized, or even explained, but after confirming for himself that Christ did in fact suffer and die and live again, Thomas serves as a witness to all who cannot see or touch for themselves. Thomas now knows the crucifixion and resurrection to be part of “a vast unfolding design,” and with that insight he understands the relationship between suffering and joy. Levertov again uses sensory images to create the experience for the reader. With her language she forces the reader to imagine the father’s pain and thus feel compassion for him. By showing Thomas’ doubt and recreating his act of touching Jesus’ side, she enables the reader to learn what Thomas-and apparently she-has learned. The poem that began with agony over the pain of another ends with triumphant celebration that results from reconciliation. And once more Levertov has brought to resolution the two impulses she so often finds contradictory. Like Thomas, the poet becomes witness as she learns that through suffering comes faith and with faith comes celebration.
As one would expect of a poet who so often has openly examined inner conflicts, Levertov explores their recurrence even in her two latest volumes, Evening Train and Sands of the Well. “In California During the Gulf War” studies the tension between her “shame and bitterness” over “the bombings” and her reaction to the white flowers that “lifted the sunken heart / even against its will” (ET 84). In “The Tide” the conflict between faith and doubt finds a new resolution in the image of faith as “a tide” that “ebbs and flows responsive / to action and inaction” (118). The joining of faith to action is reminiscent of the end of the “Mass” where she argues that human beings must bear responsibility for the suffering of the world. In Sands of the Well Levertov admits to clashes between her innate celebration and her awareness of suffering in “A Yellow Tulip.” With another image of energy, the speaker rejoices as “[t]he yellow tulip in the room’s warmth I opens” but fears her words “taunt / all who live in torment” (123). She again sees the contradiction between her joy in the natural world and her knowledge “of the world’s anguish” (123). The only resolution she can reach here is affirmation of “the gift beyond gift, beyond reason” signified not only by the beauty of the tulip but also by the creative energy and life implied by the opening of the flower. Although the line refers directly to gifts from nature, it seems also to allude to the ultimate gift beyond reason, Christ, one part of the Trinity suggested by the tulip’s “triune stigma” (123). In “Empty Hands” the “foundations” of faith that had seemed so strong “crumble” at night amid personal suffering: “Parts of your body ache / . . . within a worn skin” as “[c]onvictions / wheel and scatter” (11). In the morning a more general kind of suffering lingers in the “scum of brown” that covers the city, and the speaker feels “adrift / mid-ocean, frayed mooring ropes / trailing behind” her (11). Gradually, though, faith returns, expressed with the familiar image of light: the “autumn light, falling / into your empty hands” (11). The image from nature, so often the object of Levertov’s celebration, becomes the means of conveying the resolution of the theological dilemma, thus joining again the two conflicts so pervasive in her poetry.
Throughout her career Levertov has conducted an ongoing exploration of the temporal and eternal questions in a dialogue with herself and her heart. At times she seems unable to resolve the conflicts that have recurred in poem after poem. At other times the dialogue leads her to new insights, as when she embraced the Christianity that underlies many of the poems in the later volumes. The clashes, however, remain central. Out of these conflicts that give unity to her work she creates her song of agony and doubt, praise and hope. In her role as poet, Levertov serves as prophet and witness, singing the hymn that becomes a transforming song.
1) See Paul A. Lacey, The Inner War: Forms and Themes in Recent American Poetry and “The Poetry of Political Anguish”; and Lorrie Smith, “Songs of Experience: Denise Levertov’s Political Poetry.” Lacey was among the first to see the lyricism in Levertov’s engaged poetry, and both he and Smith give sympathetic readings to this portion of Levertov’s work. However, they do not see how naturally it grows out of her earlier work.
2) 1 am grateful to my colleague Professor Susie Paul for pointing out the pattern in the imagery of light and energy in the poems discussed in this essay.
Levertov, Denise. Breathing the Water. New York: New Directions, 1987. Cited in the text as BW.
_. Candles in Babylon. New York: New Directions, 1982. Cited in the text as CB. . A Door in the Hive. New York: New Directions, 1989. . The Double Image. London: Cresset, 1946.
. “Dying and Living.” Light Up the Cave. New York: New Directions, 1981. 98-112. . Evening Train. New York: New Directions, 1992. Cited in the text as ET. . Footprints. New York: New Directions, 1972. Cited in the text as F
_. The Freeing of the Dust. New York: New Directions, 1975. Cited in the text as FD. _. Here and Now. San Francisco: City Lights, 1957. Cited in the text as HN. _. Jacob’s Ladder. New York: New Directions, 1961. Cited in the text as JL. _. Life in the Forest. New York: New Directions, 1978. _. Oblique Prayers. New York: New Directions, 1984. Cited in the text as OP. _. “Origins of a Poem.” The Poet in the World. New York: New Directions, 1973. 4356.
. O Taste and See. New York: New Directions, 1964. Cited in the text as OTS. Overland to the Islands. Highlands, N.C.: Jonathon Williams, 1958. “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival.” New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992. 143-53.
. “A Poet’s View.” New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992. 239-46. .Relearning the Alphabet. New York: New Directions, 1970. Cited in the text as RA. Sands of the Well. New York: New Directions, 1996. The Sorrow Dance. New York: New Directions, 1967. Cited in the text as SD. . “Talking to Doctors.” Light Up the Cave. New York: New Directions, 1981. 87-97. _. To Stay Alive. New York: New Directions, 1971.
With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads. New York: New Directions, 1960. Cited in the text as WE.
. “Work That Enfaiths.” Crosscurrents: Religion and Intellectual Life. (1990). Rpt. in New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992. 247-57. Lacey, Paul. The Inner War: Forms and Themes in Recent American Poetry. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972.
_. “The Poetry of Political Anguish.” Sagetrieb 4.1 (1985): 61-71. Rpt. in Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ed. Albert Gelpi. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 151-61.
Mills, Ralph. “Denise Levertov: Poetry of the Immediate.” Tri-Quarterly 4 (1962): 31-37. . “Review of Poet in the World.” The Ohio Review 16.2 (1975): 127-28. Smith, Lorrie. “An Interview with Denise Levertov.” Michigan Quarterly Review 24.4 (1985): 603-05.
_. “Songs of Experience: Denise Levertov’s Political Poetry.” Contemporary Literature 27.2 (1986): 213-232. Rpt. in Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ed. Albert Gelpi. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 177-97.
Zlotkowski, Edward. “Levertov and Christianity: A Journey Toward Renewal.” Christianity and Literature 41 (1992): 443-70.
. “Levertov’s Christianity: Work that Enfaiths.” Christianity and Literature 42 (1992): 97-116.
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