Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Otherworldly Levertov (Book Review) by Alison Ross

Denise Levertov suffuses her poetry with imagery of the intangible. By this I mean that she takes vague abstract aspects of nature and our own psyches and renders them into concrete, palpable sensory experiences. And yet, she manages to do this in language that itself invokes an ethereal feel.

This is not to say, however, that her poems all deal with incorporeal topics. Indeed, at her core Levertov is a sociopolitical poet. Of course, THAT is not to say that political poems cannot have their ethereal elements. But it is to say that Levertov’s singular gift is her ability to infuse magic into the mundane.

Throughout my adult years, I have heard Levertov’s name tossed about, but I had not been impelled to sample her poetry until I read “Women of the Beat Generation.” One of her poems appeared in the anthology, and it piqued my interest. So I purchased this collection of her early poetry and became mesmerized with her strangely sparkling style that is jolting for its unorthodox treatments and juxtapositions.

At times, Levertov’s style is impenetrable; it almost seems as though she has indiscriminately piled layer upon layer of symbols on top of each other, obfuscating the true import of the poem. Perhaps this is her aim, or perhaps she sometimes nurtures an “autistic” approach to verse – perhaps she is not overly concerned with her poems retaining an unambiguous integrity. Perhaps murky meanings is part of the point of her verse.

In any event, Levertov deserves her renown because of her ability to impose startling subconscious ideals onto our consciousness weary with literal concepts, as in this poem:


A black page of night
flutters: dream on or waken,
words will spring from darkness now,
gold-bright, to fill the hollow mind
laid still to hear them, as an iron cup
laid on the window-ledge, would fill with rain.
Not more alone
waking than sleeping, in darkness than in light,
yet it is now we can assume
an attitude more listening than longing,
extend invisible antennae towards
some intimation, echo, emanation
falling slowly like a destined feather
that lights at last before the feet
of hesitating fear. Not less alone
in city than in solitude, at least
this time--an hour or minute?--left between
dreaming and action, where the only glitter
is the soft gleam of words, affording
intimacy with each submerged regret,
awakes a new lucidity in pain,
so that with day we meet
familiar angels that were lately tears
and smile to know them only fears transformed.

Such aching celestial symbolism calls forth comparisons with Borges or Paz. Levertov has metamorphosed the mystical solitude of our nighttime reveries into imagery that quietly screams, and in doing so she transforms the linguistic experience into something radically refreshed.

Another poem, Who He Was, encapsulates a more common and concrete situation (pregnancy), and yet the verse is still laced with an almost hallucinatory sensibility. Here is a fragment:

Who is this rider in the dark,
nine months the body’s tyrant,
nine months alone in a walled silence
our minds cannot fathom?
Who is it will come out of the dark,
whose cries demand our mercy, tyrant
no longer, but alone still, in a solitude
memory cannot reach?
Whose lips will suckle at these breasts,
thirsting, unafraid, for life?
Whose eyes will look out of that solitude?

Levertov initially imagines the childbearing experience in almost cynical terms but then gives way to a tone that glistens with a compassionate anticipation she can scarcely apprehend.

Levertov’s poetic language is wrought with an otherworldly atmosphere. Her verse might be eccentrically esoteric at times, laden with arduous analogies. But it’s worth our decoding endeavors because it urges us to inhabit the elusive realm beneath our more pedestrian lucidity.

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