Levertov’s “Life at War”

According to Paul Lacey the second section of Denise Levertov Selected Poems is the section when “she is most overtly, but never exclusively, political in her writing, most torn by doubts about her poetic vision, given over to grief at loss of her sister and her mother and when her marriage ends.” Little wonder, then, that some of these poems tend to be depressing, convincingly so, in fact.

I think I’ve noted that I don’t particularly like anti-war poems and will continue to believe slogans like “Poets Against the War” are relatively meaningless until someone can actually produce a group of poets who are for the war. Poetry by its very nature seems opposed to all that war represents.

That said, I love Levertov’s,

Life at War

The disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough

weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.
Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart . . .
Could I say of it, it overflows
with bitterness . . . but no, as though

its contents were simply balled into
formless lumps, thus
so I carry it about.’
The same war

We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it:

the knowledge that humankind,

delicate Man, whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,

whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understanding manifests designs
fairer than the spider’s most intricate web,

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.

We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness; we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—

who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Viet Nam as I write.

Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love;

our nerve filaments twitch in its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have

which may well be the greatest anti-war poem ever written.

I suspect I would have to read an awful lot of poetry to find a truer statement of the effect that a lifetime of war has had upon me than this poem. Born after the beginning of World War II, most of my life has been spent during wars, including my own experiences in Vietnam.

The fourth stanza’s “gray film” reminds me of Roethke’s powerful poem “Dolor” where the similar lines “Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,/ Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces” appear. It’s hard to imagine who we might be if we hadn’t spent our lives living through war after war, constantly bombarded with the latest news and pictures of the worst degradation man can inflict on each other.

When I was in Vietnam, I used to wonder what sort of black magic had transported me from college where I read poetry and watched pretty girls walk across campus to a land where everyone wanted to kill me and the only girls I knew were prostitutes forced to sell their bodies to survive.

How can someone who truly “believed one another/mirrored forms of a God” justify such actions? If we are made in God’s image, does that make God as ruthless and uncaring as most of us were who were trapped in that nightmare?

Do boys’ voices become deeper when they become men precisely because “nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying?”

If you’re really interested in exploring this poem in more depth, Modern American Poetry has twenty five pages of comments on this and related poems. I actually printed the whole section out, and once I’ve finished writing here will spend some time reading it.

3 thoughts on “Levertov’s “Life at War””

  1. What I appreciate most in Denise Levertov’s work is her ability to ask, to stay with and to illuminate our darkest unanswered questions, the questions you ask in your post, the question Jesus asked of God as he understood God, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, the questions Job asked of God as he understood God, the questions children ask when told of a loving God, when they see so much evidence to the contrary. Questions that are brought up in Martin Scorcese’s film based on Nikos Kazantakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Rilke’s questions speak in this poem.

    And then there is the question inherent in the words of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman, who wrote in the midst of World War II”… but I am no fanciful visionary, God, no school girl with a “beautiful soul.” I try to face up to Your world, God, not to escape from reality into beautiful dreams–though I believe that beautiful dreams can exist beside the most horrible reality–and I continue to praise Your creation, God, despite everything.”

    “In a dark time, the eye begins to see…”

    Thank you for directing us to the Modern American Poetry comments on “Life at War.”

  2. I’m a child of war (I suppose everyone is)

    I don’t know that human intelligence and emotions can ever make sense of life, other than on an artificial construct, a necessary scaffolding to hang the understanding on for what is really there

    and then it seems the vision is more a mirror than a revelation

    I don’t see the doings and capacities of man as the measure of God, nor God’s the measure of man

    I believe we wrestle with angels
    sometimes the very ones who bring us tidings about who and what we are

  3. Thanks for that Loren. I like the way it contrasts violence and love. We seem to endlessly wander through these different worlds.

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