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Casual Opulence | The Nation

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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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Throughout Levertov’s changes of heart, her sensitive ear was a constant. Meter was her early métier. In her third collection, Overland to the Islands (1958), she demonstrated an exceptional talent for drawing together patterns of speech and formal patterning, William Carlos Williams’s knack for duration of speech with the conventional forms of her first book, the stilted The Double Image (1946). We learn of “the banquet of mangoes and /bridal cake,” ten syllables that would be ungainly in one line of pentameter but that are striking in two lines, because the unexpected line break lets both “mangoes and” and “bridal cake” scan as proper dactyls, strengthening “bri” and weakening “cake.” The sounds convey the casual opulence she writes about, sound following sense as in so many lines from those years: “A dance in the garden / to welcome the fall” (the latter line’s rhythms following along with the former’s as if they were dancing imperfectly); the sharply broken iambic pentameter of “To hell with easy rhythms— / sloppy mules”; the line break in “As you read, a white bear leisurely / pees.” 

Early on, the thrust of much of her sound is to throw off the ear’s expectations, but just so; what we read is more lush than what we thought we’d see, and would seem a little too pretty if the sounds didn’t seem to well up organically. (“Organic” was her name for the kind of form she valued, although she almost gave up the term in 1986 after it had been “taken up by the shampoo manufacturers.”) Here is New York in the summer:

On the kitchen wall a flash
of shadow:
      swift pilgrimage
of pigeons, a spiral
celebration of air

Here is an almost impossibly intricate “Canticle” from Mexico, which would have sounded like Peter Piper picking peppers if she had been any less careful:

and from the altar
of excrement arises
an incense

of orange and purple
petals.

At times in her early writing, the sound effects do more than prolong pleasure, such as in the poems about her struggling marriage in O Taste and See (1964). About her husband’s attractiveness, she writes: “A long beauty, what is that? / A song”: the second line’s shortness elongates “song” so that it doesn’t quite fit with “long,” as if she’d meant to reassure herself but couldn’t quite. She pictures herself and her husband “looking for joy, some joy / not to be known outside it” (their marriage): “two by two in the ark of / the ache of it.” How to capture the longing in the way the line draws out her “ache”? 

Her marriage aside, Levertov all too often strikes the same note in her early poems: description, more or less vivid, and the insistence on some mystery behind it, in which she finds joy. “What gay / desire! It’s their festival / ring game, wassail, mystery” (1957). Her doors “want / in all their wooden strength / to fly off on the whirlwind into / the great nothingness” (1958). “True magic exceeds all design” (1960). “Here is a mystery, // a person, an / other, an I” (1961). Of “two girls” who “discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry,” she writes that she loves them for “assuming there is /such a secret, yes, / for that / most of all” (1964). She sees a work of art that means “a mystery” leading “to wonder,” writing “I know / no interpretation of these mysteries…. // so that my heart leaps / in wonder.” She badly wants to see something mysterious, not to investigate it but to wonder at it, and she doesn’t successfully re-create the mysteries she hasn’t tried to comprehend. “When the white fog burns off, / the abyss of everlasting light / is revealed,” she writes, and we’re left to take her word for it. 

Compare this reaching with the assurance of a late poem, “Abruptly,” from the tour de force Evening Train (1992):

The last warm day, I caught,
almost unnoticing,
    that high shrilling like thin
wires of spun silver, glint
of wheeling flight—some small tribe
leaving.
          That night
the moon was full; by morning
autumn had come.

No mystery is mentioned, but the full moon, in between the frenetic exodus of birds and the calm autumn, feels laden with missing significance and sustenance, like an “abyss of everlasting light.” 

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Levertov published the last book of her lifetime a half-century after her first. Her quest had taken her as far west as Seattle, in whose wilderness she found symbols of her conflicted mortality. An owl, for instance, offers “Fair Warning,” boding at once ill and well: “his call a falling of mournful notes, / his tone much like the dove’s.” She imagines her death in “What Harbinger?”:

Glitter of grey
oarstrokes over
the waveless, dark,
secretive water.
A boat is moving
toward me
slowly, but who
is rowing and what
it brings I can’t
yet see.

This is at once the river Sharon and any runoff flowing down from Mount Rainier. Levertov’s life and work are suffused with her myths.

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