Levertov’s This Great Unknowing: Last Poems

I finished Denise Levertov’s This Great Unknowing: Last Poems several days ago and have been struggling with exactly what I wanted to say about the book. So much so that I asked Mike if he could help me to find the exact words to express a feeling that I have about much of Levertov’s poetry.

First, let me make it clear that I like Levertov’s poetry a lot. One of the first things I look for in a poet is the ability to help me see more clearly what it is I believe, and the more I read her poetry the closer I think the two of us are attuned. She puts into words feelings and ideas I’ve felt but have seldom heard articulated more clearly.

Looking at “Immersion,”


There is anger abroad in the world, a numb thunder,
because of God’s silence. But how naive,
to keep wanting words we could speak ourselves,
English, Urdu, Tagalog, the French of Tours,
the French of Haiti.

Yes, that was one way omnipotence chose
to address us-Hebrew, Aramaic, or whatever the patriarchs
chose in their turn to call what they heard. Moses
demanded the word, spoken and written. But perfect freedom
assured other ways of speech. God is surely
patiently trying to immerse us in a different language,
events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history
and the unearned retrieval of blessings lost for ever,
the poor grass returning after drought, timid, persistent.
God’s abstention is only from human dialects. The holy voice
utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents.
Our own words are for us to speak, a way to ask and to answer.

for instance, I find myself agreeing with virtually everything she says, though I don’t think I’ve ever articulated these feelings as clearly as she does. Emerson and Thoreau are two of my favorite philosophers, and I was surprised when I found out that their views on human nature based on their observation of Nature stemmed from their Puritan ancestors who viewed natural phenomena as “signs and portents” from God.

Certainly life would be easier if God would speak directly to us, just as childhood was easier than adult life because our parents told us what to do. It’s much harder when you reach adulthood and have to make your own decisions based on your own observations of the situation. That might seem like a high price to pay for “perfect freedom,” but most of us would never trade adulthood for childhood again.

If there is a God, I believe like Levertov that He reveals himself in “events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history and the unearned retrieval of blessings lost for ever.” Only a child would demand that he tell us what to do directly by speaking to us.

I found 13 other poems in this 84 page book that I enjoyed enough to reread and reconsider. Perhaps it’s wrong to demand more than that from a poet, but I do.

When I thought back about all the Levertov poems I’d read, I couldn’t remember a single poem or even a single line that stood out in my memory, although, if pressed, I could certainly summarize her main themes. Rather strange when I can still remember specific poems that I read way back in high school that are still important to me, like Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” or even Eliot’s “The Hollow Man,” a poem that I disagreed with but still made a deep impression on me.

I suspect that Mike is right when he suggested that Levertov is too cerebral. He might even be right when he suggests that might be her appeal to me, that I tend to be cerebral — though that’s certainly not a word I would use to describe myself. Heck, sometimes I even worry that I’ve been Googled
, unable to read an in-depth article, forever limited to lyrical poems where I can pause between poems for a brief mental respite, or walk away for a cup of freshly-ground, freshly-brewed cup of Poverty Bay Coffee Company’s Skookumchuck River French Roast.

In short, “Immersion” offers interesting ideas, but lacks poetic imagery, rhyme, near-rhyme or even assonance or consonance, for that matter. In other words, like many of Levertov’s poems it seems more like a prose meditation than a poem. Of course, I have found myself strangely attracted to various forms of meditation lately, so that might also explain why I like her poetry

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.

Levertov’s Later Poems

Though I don’t like Levertov’s later poems as much as her earlier ones, there are still some I’m quite enthralled with. Perhaps only someone from the Pacific Northwest would choose the poems I’ve chosen here from Denise Levertov’s final poems, but luckily this is my blog not a formal review and I only have to tell you which poems I identify with, not which ones are her best poems, even though I’d like to think the two are occasionally the same.

Any Christianity I subscribe to is at best non-traditional, so I find it difficult to identify with many of Levertov’s poems written in the Catholic tradition, though I am strangely fond of a long one, perhaps the most traditional of all, called “Mass for the Days of St. Thomas Didymus.?

However, the poems that most appeal to me refer to Levertov’s final home in the Pacific Northwest, particularly those that use Mt. Rainier as a symbol:

Open Secret

Perhaps one day I shall let myself
approach the mountain—
hear the streams which must flow down it,
lie in a flowering meadow, even
touch my hand to the snow.
Perhaps not. I have no longing to do so.
I have visited other mountain heights.
This one is not, I think, to be known
by close scrutiny, by touch of foot or hand
or entire outstretched body; not by any
familiarity of behavior, any acquaintance
with its geology or the scarring roads
humans have carved in its flanks.
This mountain’s power
lies in the open secret of its remote
apparition, silvery low-relief
coming and going moonlike at the horizon,
always loftier, lonelier, than I ever remember

I would expect this kind of poem from someone who grew up in Seattle, not someone transplanted here. Mt. Rainier is an ever-present force here in the Northwest, and many of us who grew up here judge what kind of day it’s going to be by whether or not we can see the mountain on our way to school or work.

Levertov is right that the mountain is a presence (just as God is a presence?) whether you ever actually touch it directly or not. Though I love seeing the mountain hanging mid-air, I prefer to hike less visited areas perhaps because you’re actually more aware of the mountain’s presence when you’re walking other parts of the Cascades and look up to see it looming over you.

As I used to look at Rainier I could understand why the Greeks considered Mt. Olympus the home of the Gods. Part of earth, the mountain seems, distant, pure, above-it-all yet the most obvious part of all.

Apparently Levertov lived in the Northwest long enough to observe another common phenomena around here:


Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence..

In my neighborhood, houses that have a view of Mt. Rainier sell for hundreds of thousands more than my far-too-spendy home. I wouldn’t pay for a view lot even if I could afford one because I consider it a waste of money but, more importantly, because I’m afraid that, like most things, if I were exposed to the mountain every time I looked out the front window too soon I wouldn’t see the it at all.

It’s already too easy to just walk by the front flower garden on my way out to the wildlife refuge and forget there are flowers, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds there continually throughout the day. I don’t want to become blind to the mountain, too.

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.