Denise Levertov

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Short Poems and Spin-Offs: Emily and the Experience of Surprise
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I think that anyone who cares for the work of Emily Dickinson at all, cares for the experience of surprise. The surprises that she gives us in her adjectives, her adverbs, sometimes her verbs, the whole character of her epithets, which is so incomparably fresh and strange. In the twentieth century, maybe only Wallace Stevens is comparable to her in this, in that strangeness and freshness. And among the poets who preceded her one may, I think, perhaps find some parallels in Edward Taylor. It's commonly recognized that this gift for images that go beyond the shock of recognition is enhanced by the simplicity of her prosody. But what I especially like, is the way, not only her diction, but her punctuation twists and syncopates those simple or even simplistic norms. So I too, like Sharon Olds, like things that she does with rhythm. Although I think that perhaps what I hear in her rhythms is something a little different from what Sharon focused on.

I feel that without the peculiarity of her famous dashes, the poems would have to depend solely on content, image, diction, those things which they have so strongly. But they would have to depend on them, I think, too much, because their rhythms would not be of very much interest. Once those dashes, which, as I showed, were omitted by her conventional, earlier editors were restored, we get, not a jog trot (which I think we do get without them) not a jog trot, but a dance. It's a strange dance, a strange sidling, sidestepping kind of dance. It's movement matches, I think, the unique character of her imagination. I'm going to read two very short poems of hers in which these dashes have that effect.

Presentiment - is that long Shadow - on the lawn -
Indicative that Suns go down -

The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness - is about to pass -

(P 764)

Now remove the dashes and let's see what it sounds like.

Presentiment is that long Shadow on the lawn
Indicative that Suns go down

The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness is about to pass

You can hear what I mean, can't you? And the other poem:

There is a pain - so utter -
It swallows substance up -
Then covers the Abyss with Trance -
So Memory can step
Around - across - upon it -
As one within a Swoon -
Goes safely - where an open eye -
Would drop Him - Bone by Bone.

(P 599)

I'm not going to inflict a dashless reading upon that poem. I'm going to read first from some typescripts, and then from some poems from a couple of my books. And a lot of the poems that I've been writing since my last book are rather long. I've been writing a sequence of poems, each one of which is fairly long, about Lady Julian of Norwich, the English medieval mystic, and some other poems which tend to run to length. Because Emily's poems didn't run to great length, I thought I would try to choose short poems to read today. And I have been writing short poems too, so I selected from the short ones. I'm not going to read them in any particular order. In other words, what I'll be reading first are all since my last book but they're not being read in chronological order, but more or less haphazard.

"An Estrangement" 

I have seen days now.
to stand blue skinned in their bones

A group of poems that I've been writing I call spin-offs. I have two sets of them and one set came from contemplating some photographs by the photographer Peter Braun, who asked me to write an introduction for a book of his photographs. And I did, in fact, eventually write an introduction, but while looking at the photographs, I found myself writing poems which spun off from the pictures in an oblique way. They were not descriptions, which is why I think of them as spin-offs, like sparks flying off from some surface or from something which is struck.

About a year later I found myself writing another set of spin-offs, this time from phrases and sentences that jumped up at me from the page of what I happened to be reading, from prose works that I happened to be reading-apart from detaching themselves from their context, almost seeming to be in larger print-much the way in which, when I was a child of about eight or nine, for a year, approximately, I was an unexploited sort of rocking horse winner, because I used to listen to the radio accounts of big horse races like the Darby and the Grand National (this was England of course) and I began to know who was going to win. And then I got interested and started looking at the newspaper and again a word would come up to me, a name of a horse, would come up to me, and I would know that that was the horse that was going to win, but nobody knew. Even if my family had known, they knew nothing about horse-racing and they would not have known how to place a bet.

Well, in the same way, these phrases came up for me and sparked spin-off poems. They don't have a sequential relationship to each other, but they form a set. I'm going to read you some of those. The sentences form the titles, in some cases, rather long for titles.

"The sea's repeated gesture"

Stroking its blue shore
throughout the night, patient, patient,
determined rhetoric that never
persuades, the rocks unwilling
to be pebbles, nights and days and
centuries passing before the pebbles
dwindle to join the sand, the sand itself
at last barring the sea's way
into the land, an island
forming from the silt. Yet still
all this night and all
the nights of our life the sea
stoking its blue shore,
patient, patient-

[end poem]

"The last heavy fairy tale in which one lays one's heart bare before the knife"

The room is small, the table plain
white pine well-scrubbed.
the house is deep in the forest.
Each comes alone, but watched,
carefully holding in two hands
that heart which till now
was drumming and drumming away
in its own interior anteroom-
comes to center it, bare and still beating,
on the plain table
in the small room
where the knife will appear, new-sharpened, held

[end poem]

"'The holy one, blessed be he, wanders again,' said Jacob. 'He is wandering and looks for a place where he can rest.'"

Between the pages
a wren's feather
to mark what passage?
Blood, not dry,
beaded scarlet on dusty stones.
A look of wonder
barely perceived on a turning face-
what, who had they seen?
Here's the cold inn,
the wanderer passed it by
searching once more
for a stable's warmth,
a birthplace.

[end poem]

"She wept and the women consoled her"

The flow of tears ebbed,
her blouse began to dry.
But the sobs that
took her by the shoulders and
shook her came back
for unknown reasons
and shook her again, like soldiers
coming back when everyone had gone.
History's traffic had speeded up and
smashed into gridlock all around her;
the women consoled her but she couldn't get out.
Bent forward as she was,
she found herself looking at her legs.
They were old, the skin
shiny over swollen ankles,
and blotched. They meant nothing to her
but they were all she could see.
Her fallen tears had left their traces
like snail-tracks on them.

[end poem]

"They day longs for the evening."

The zenith longs for the banal horizon.
The north wind longs for the south,
and the trudging clouds are
searching, searching for that land
of glowing fruit, of polished marble;
but the wind that drives them
is bitter, they bring winter with them.
What is that promised evening?
The day, the day knows
in spite of everything,
that evening will not fail,
the ancient evening,
luminous evening.

[end poem]

There are two more of this set of spin-offs, and this is the only one of those where the source of the title sentence or phrase is of special interest. It's from a dream that Thomas Merton had, about which he wrote in a letter to Boris Pasternak. And the phrase is, "I learned that her name was proverb," the name of Ophelia, of a young girl whom he met in his dream.

"I learned that her name was Proverb"

And the secret names
of all we meet who lead us deeper
of valleys and mountains, twisting valleys
and steeper mountains-
their hidden names are always,
like Proverb, promises:
Rune, Omen, Fable, Parable,
those we meet for only
one crucial moment, gaze to gaze,
or for years know and don't recognize

but of whom later a word
sings back to us
as if from high among leaves,
still near but beyond sight

drawing us from tree to tree
towards the time and the unknown place
where we shall know
what it is to arrive.

[end poem]

The title of the last one is actually two sentences.

"The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed."

Until sometime an ancient
mind or body-it's not clear anymore
which it may be-
those indurate insistences
having crowded out all else
becomes all diamond:
hard transparence cut
to a thousand facets gleaming
with lights of the unseen,
a primal iridescence,
rainbow of death.

[end poem]

This one is called "The Absentee."

Uninterpreted, the days
are falling.

The spring wind
is shaking and shaking the trees.

A nest of eggs,
a nest of deaths.


The palms rattle, the eucalypts
shed bark and blossoms. Uninterpreted.

[end poem]

I was thinking of that phrase and at this moment I cannot remember whose phrase it was -- William James, was it? -- about the unexamined life. This is a poem about a mockingbird, "The mockingbird of mockingbirds". Each year, I teach for three months in California, at Stanford, and there a lot of birds, singing birds, that I hear, January through March. This is a memorial poem for a particular mockingbird that I heard for two years and then no more.

"The Mockingbird of Mockingbirds" 

A greyish bird
the size perhaps of two plump sparrows,
fallen in some field,
soon flattened, a dry
mess of feathers-
and no one knows
this was a prince among his kind,
virtuoso of virtuosos,
lord of a thousand songs,
debonair, elaborate in invention, fantasist,
rival of nightingales.

[end poem]

The rest of the year I live in the Boston area where I have a very small and shady backyard, and a sort of back porch on which I attempt every year to grow morning glories in boxes, training them up a wire mesh thing around the back porch. And I don't get a great display of morning glories because I don't really get enough sunshine there, because there are a lot of trees roundabout and other buildings, but I do get some, and, in some ways, just having one, or sometimes a few more, but often just one, morning glory per day is very special, actually. I can't say that I wouldn't like to have a whole fence full of them but there is something very special about coming downstairs each morning to see a brand new morning glory, which will be faded by noon. So one has to really look at it while it's there. But this particular one is perhaps a slightly sad poem. It's called "Captive Flower":

This morning's morning-glory
trying to thrust
through the wire mesh towards the sun
is trapped
I ease it back
to see better its unfurling,

but only slowly it resigns
the dream. Its petals
are scarred.
I had not thought myself
a jailer.

[end poem]

Another poem from my back yard is called "In Praise of Allium." This one's a tiny bit longer than those I'm picking for the most part, but it didn't seem too inappropriate to the occasion. "In Praise of Allium"-Why? Because it's the kind of thing that I think Emily Dickinson was very good at noticing.

No one celebrates the allium.
The way each purposeful stem
ends in s globe, a domed umbel,
makes people think,
'Drumsticks,' and that's that.
Besides, it's related to the onion.
Is that any reason
for disregard? The flowers-look-
are bouquets of miniature florets,
each with six elfin pointed petals
and some narrower ones my eyes
aren't sharp enough to count,
and three stamens about the size
of a long eyelash.
Every root
sends up a sheaf of sturdy
ridged stems, bounty
to fill your embrace. The bees
care for the allium, if you don't-
hear them now, doing their research,
humming the arias
of a honey opera, Allium it's called,
gold fur voluptuously
brushing that dreamy mauve.

[end poem]

"To One Steeped in Bitterness" 

Nail the rose
     to your mind's door
like a rat, a thwarted chickenhawk.
Yes, it has had its day.

And the water
     poured for you
which you disdain to drink,
yes, throw it away.

Yet the fierce rose
     stole nothing
from your cooped heart,
nor plucked your timid eye;

and from inviolate rock
     the liquid light
was drawn, that's dusty now
and your lips dry.

[end poem]

I'm going to read two more of these typescripts and then turn to a couple of poems from books. This one is called "Every Day":

Three men spoke to me today.

One, bereaved, told me his grief, saying
Had God abandoned him, or was there
no God to abandon him?

One, condemned, told me his epitaph,

'Groomed to die.' On Death Row he remembers
the underside of his gradeschool desk, air-raid drill.
He never expected to live
even this long.
He sticks his head back down between his knees,
'not even sad.'

One, a young father, told me
how he had needed his child, even
before she was conceived.
How he had planted a garden too big to hoe.
He told me about the small leaves near his window,
how he had seen in them their desire to be,
to be the world.

With this one I sat laughing,
eating, drinking wine. 'The same word,'
he said, 'she has the same word for me and the dog!
She loves us!'
Every day, every day I hear
enough to fill
a year of nights with wondering.

[end poem]

Beatrice Hawley was a wonderful person and wonderful poet who died last year and I'm editing her posthumous manuscripts. And I think that she is someone who really was influenced by and has some strong affinities with Emily Dickinson. I wrote a poem after her death called

"Missing Beatrice: For Beatrice Hawley 1944-1985"

Goodness was
a fever in you. Anyone
might glow in the heat of it,
of home comforted-

for them a shawl, for you
fire at the bone.

You knew
more than was good for you.
Your innocence
was peat-bog water, subtle and dark,
that cold it was,
that pure.

Kindness-didn't we act as though
we could cut an endless supply from you
like turf from a bog?

Smoke of that empty hearth
fragrant still.
Your words
cupped in our hands to drink.
But you-
you're gone and we never
really saw you.

[end poem]

And the last of the typescripts is a variation on a theme by Rilke, a theme which is in the first stanza of the first poem of the first part of Rilke's Book of Hours. It's not a translation but it's a variation on something that he did in that first stanza.

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me-a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as it with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. the day's blow
rang out, metallic-or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

I picked ones that seemed suitable to read at an Emily Dickinson celebration, for some obscure reason. I can't quite put my finger on what it is, except that they are all short, pretty short. This is another morning glory poem and it's called "Concurrence." This was in Candles in Babylon and it's in the section of that book called "Age of Terror":

Each day's terror almost
a form of boredom-madmen
at the wheel and
stepping on the gas and
the brakes no good-
and each day on,
sometimes two, morning-glories,
faultless, blue, blue sometimes
flecked with magenta, each
lit from within with
the first sunlight.

[end poem]

I've been struck all my life actually by the extraordinary simultaneity of opposites, and of the things that are happening at any time if one just stops to think about them, somewhere where one is not. I wrote a poem about this many years ago called "To The Reader," which I can't quote because I have a terrible memory. I would know, if someone quoted it to me, if they got it wrong, but I can't do it right myself without having the book in front of me. But it's about that same thing, like the one I just read. From Life in the Forest, this poem struck me as not entirely unsuitable.

"Talking to Grief" 

Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. you need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

And I'm going to finish up with four poems from Oblique Prayers, which was my last book. First, a poem called "Decipherings" which is actually in four very short parts. I dedicated it to Guillevic, A French poet whom I had translated some years ago because I felt some affinity of form and style with his poetry, although, unfortunately he can't read English.



When I lose my center
of gravity
I can't fly:

a stone
cast straight as a lark

to fall plumb
and rebound.


Half a wheel's
a rising sun:
without spokes,
an arch:
half a loaf
the inner wheat:


A child
grows in one's body,
pushes out and
breaks off:

denying their
twist and pinch
long after:
after that otherness
thistledown engine,

up an
horizon's ramparts.


Felt life
grows in one's mind:
each semblance
forms and
reforms cloudy
links with
the next

and the next:
chimes and gamelan gongs



picking the tesserae,
blue or
perhaps vermilion,
what one aches for
is the mosaic music
makes in one's ears

[end poem]

"Thinking about El Salvador"-I might say this could equally be called "Thinking about Nicaragua as Attacked by the Contras." There are indeed a number of places in the world that it could apply to. It was written originally in 1982 and I then added a note when I published it in 1984 to say that the title originally included that date 1982. But, alas, the death squads and the army continued the slaughter, with the United States' help.

"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,
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 whose heads every day
float down the river
and rot
and sink,
not Orpheus heads
still singing, bound for the sea,
but mute.

[end poem]

And the last two . . . I'm going to make it three. It's cheating, but they are short. This is one is called "Mappemonde", that old word for the map of the world.

Nonchalant clouds below me
dangle shadows
into the curved river at Saskatoon.

Atlas of frontiers long-redrawn,
gazetteer of obsolete cities-
a jet-vapor garland
     stretches and stretches to link
your incantations,
and breaks.
Still audible, stiffly revolving,
the globe of the world
creaks out enticements.
Decades pile up like thunderheads.
O Geography!
     On your thick syrops
I float and float,
I glide through your brew
of bitter herbs.

Mumbulla Mountain,
low and round,
hums in green and hums
in tune, down in the Dreamtime.
World, you grow vaster. Our
time cannot encompass you.

[end poem]

" Seeing for a Moment" 

I thought I was growing wings-
it was a cocoon.

I thought, now is the time to step
into the fire-
it was deep water.

Eschatology is a word I learned
as a child: the study of Last Things;

facing my mirror-no longer young.
     the news-always of death,
     the dogs-rising from sleep and clamoring
       and howling, howling,

I see for a moment
that's not it: it is
the First Things.

Word after word
floats through the glass.
Toward me.

[end poem]

And the last poem I'll read is very short and it's called "Candlemas." Candlemas is the face that celebrates the infant Jesus being taken to be presented at the temple, and the old Simeon recognizing him as the Messiah.


With certitude,
Simeon opened
ancient arms
to infant light.
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life,
he knew
new life.
What depth
of faith he drew on,
turning illumined
towards deep night.

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