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Casual Opulence

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Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov

The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
By Denise Levertov.
Introduction by Eavan Boland. Edited by Paul Lacey and Anne Dewey.
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Gender roles certainly shaped her passionate and sadly truncated friendship with Duncan, even if she didn’t see it that way. She considered him a mentor despite his being only four years older than she was and, in retrospect, no more insightful. He presented his opinions as authoritative, she her authority as opinion. She theorized seldom, he wantonly. He never missed an opportunity to criticize her work, and she avoided nearly every one to criticize his or to respond to his criticism. “When I deeply admire a poem I have nothing to say about it,” she wrote, before writing much more in the evening. After he defended an early poem of his that she had called “selfindulgent,” she claimed to change her mind; they referred to the episode anxiously for years. He had a far thinner skin than he would admit: their friendship began to unravel in January 1966 when she sensibly objected to “the part about Humphrey’s head emerging from LBJ’s asshole” in a draft poem of his. He objected strongly and stridently to the political turn in her poetry, and everything went to hell. She would no longer defer to him. The great scholar of their work, Albert Gelpi, explains the falling-out in terms of ideology, but one can also see a woman growing to assert herself in ways that some thought impermissible for women. But did Levertov want the same for her poems? 

* * *

The obvious answer is yes. The political poems of The Sorrow Dance are confrontational, deliberate and reasoned from broader ideas; they are everything un-“feminine.” They are also exhortations of a sort, and as poems rather weak.

Levertov wrote, in the midst of the Vietnam War, that we suffer from

the knowledge that humankind[…]still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.

The image of dead mothers’ milk on “still-alive babies” calls to mind the kosher prohibition not to cook a calf in its mother’s milk, alluding of course to the Shoah. What Levertov could not comprehend was how people could plan inhumanity—not just act cruelly on impulse, but schedule the “breaking open of breasts.” She insists on what she doesn’t understand and doesn’t try to imagine the aggressors’ perspective or motivations. The poem shows her frustration with suffering instead of disclosing her process of thinking about (or feeling) suffering and its causes.

“The Sorrow Dance” sequence begins with an image of horror and wonder:

A headless squirrel, some blood
oozing from the unevenly
chewed-off neck

lies in rainsweet grass
near the woodshed door.

The images are oil and water—the former harsh and uneven, the latter even and sweet. Whereas Levertov’s images of wonder often draw you in, her images of horror repeat her repulsion. “Hard rice / sprays out of the cooking pot / straight into the delicate jelly of eyes.” “It’s in America, everywhere, a faint seepage, / I smell death.” She imagines herself as a waitress at Nixon’s second inaugural dinner throwing napalm in the president’s face (“and his crowd leapt back from the flames with crude yells of horror,” while “Nixon’s friends and henchmen…fell in their own blood”). She often states her politics baldly (“There comes a time when only anger / is love”; “Goodbye to Tolerance”), the cumulative effect being a string of telegraphs about political convictions rather than tests of the truthfulness of her reactions (emotional or intellectual) to political conflicts.

Her first affecting expression of wonder and suffering at once was in a poem that wasn’t political at all: “Nightingale Road,” from 1978, about children dying of tuberculosis in late-nineteenth-century Wales, her mother’s country:

a regular choir they were[…]
and somehow as I’d be falling asleep
I couldn’t tell which was the music
and which was that golden hair they had,
and all with that milky skin. The voices
sweet and gold and shrill and the harps
flowing like milk.

Reading her words is like hearing “a regular choir,” with the vowel sounds repeated like voices and the consonants clinking like instruments, all a bit irregular in the way the ear wanders from one choral sound to another. The milk is at once an image of the children’s dying and an image of abundance, of their paleness and their “mam’s” nourishment. Levertov imagines the pain of losing their beauty and the consolation of remembering them by it. 

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