Denise Levertov’s Breathing the Water

I almost finished reading Denise Levertov’s Breathing the Water while waiting at the airport and while staying overnight in the motel, but it took me another three days here at Tyson and Jen’s house to finally finish the last section. I had a hard time picking a representative poem, having marked twelve as possible choices in an 83 page book.

Most of the poems are actually quite uplifting and are generally more traditionally religious than I remember from Levertov’s Selected Poems. In that sense “Zeroing In” isn’t representative of the work as a whole, though there are other poems with a similar theme.

The poem resonates with much I’ve been reading in the blogging world recently:

“I am a landscape,” he said.
“a landscape and a person walking in that landscape.
There are daunting cliffs there,
And plains glad in their way
of brown monotony. But especially
there are sinkholes, places
of sudden terror, of small circumference
and malevolent depths.”
“I know,” she said. “When I set forth
to walk in myself, as it might be
on a fine afternoon, forgetting,
sooner or later I come to where sedge
and clumps of white flowers, rue perhaps,
mark the bogland, and I know
there are quagmires there that can pull you
down, and sink you in bubbling mud.”
“We had an old dog,” he told her, “when I was a boy,
a good dog, friendly. But there was an injured spot
on his head, if you happened
just to touch it he’d jump up yelping
and bite you. He bit a young child,
they had to take him down to the vet’s and destroy him.”
“No one knows where it is,” she said,
“and even by accident no one touches it.
It’s inside my landscape, and only I, making my way
preoccupied through my life, crossing my hills,
sleeping on green moss of my own woods,
I myself without warning touch it,
and leap up at myself -“
“- or flinch back
just in time”
“Yes, we learn that.
It’s not a terror, it’s pain we’re talking about:
those places in us, like your dog’s bruised head,
that are bruised forever, that time
never assuages, never.”

Judging from much of what I’ve been reading in blogland, I have had less pain in my life than many others. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have “sinkholes, places of sudden terror.” In fact, I can’t imagine how anyone could go through life without encountering such places.

All of us have painful memories, psychological injuries, that seem insurmountable, moments that make us question our very worth or trigger sudden, irrational fears. Most of mine seem to stem from childhood experiences, but others stem from my time in Vietnam. Others that I’m only vaguely aware of are best indicated by the cold sweat when I awake in the middle of the night and lay in the dark staring at the ceiling.

While most of us aren’t going to be destroyed by this kind of pain, like the old dog, one can only wonder how many people’s lives have been impoverished by their fear of exploring their own personal landscape.