By John Bauerschmidt
In 1978, the poet Denise Levertov released Life in the Forest, a collection that contained a handful of poems written around the time of her mother’s death. I encountered these poems for the first time a few years ago. Levertov’s work has long been familiar to me, but not these particular poems. They have helped me, in this season, in poetry’s uniquely indirect, non-didactic, and aesthetic way, to think and pray about grief and loss.
Levertov herself has a fascinating biography. Her mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, was Welsh, while her father, Paul Levertoff, was a priest of the Church of England, born in what is now Belarus but which, at the time of his birth, was part of the Russian Empire. He first trained at a Jewish seminary, before becoming a Christian as a student in Germany. Levertov’s parents met in Istanbul, where her mother taught, and where her father was lecturing, in the years before the First World War.
Born in 1923, Levertov herself was raised in Ilford, in East London. Both of her parents were politically engaged persons on the left. In the late 1940s, Levertov married the American writer Mitchell Goodman and moved to the United States, where she continued to establish her reputation as a poet. During the 1960s both she and Goodman became closely identified with the protest movement against America’s war in Vietnam. For Levertov, this was reflected both in her poetry and in her public activism.
As an adult, Levertov abandoned the Christian faith, though she always considered her early religious upbringing to have been a strong influence on her poetry. In 1975, Levertov’s marriage to Goodman ended, and her mother died in 1977. In the years that followed, Levertov turned more self-consciously to matters of faith. Influenced by clergy and laypeople she had met through the anti-war movement, and continuing to read the New Testament and other writers, she gradually returned to Christianity. In 1990 she became a Roman Catholic. She died in Seattle in 1997.
These poems of Levertov’s are about grief and loss, but from a number of different angles. First, separation: the chasm between the living and the dead, of course, but also for Levertov the separation that begins even before. Levertov’s mother lived in Mexico for the last 20 years of her life, and the pattern of visit, departure, and return that so many elderly parents and their children discover, finds its place in a description of the daughter’s plane journey to her mother’s home:
Heading south, above
thick golden surf of cloud.
Along the western earthcurve,
eternal sunset, a gaunt red,
crouches, a wing outstretched,
Southward, deathward, time inside the jet
pauses. A drone of deafness — ‘Would you care
to purchase a cocktail?’ mouthed
ritually. She clings, drink in hand,
to her isolation.
The plane journey is then reprised in a description of the bitter end of life:
Some force roaming the universe,
malicious and stupid, affixed, she feels,
this postscript to so vivid a life.
This tide that does not ebb, this persistence
stuck like a plane in mournful clouds,
what can it signify? (“A Daughter (II)”)
The isolation, and diminishment, of life that the poet identifies, along with the note of menace, reminds one of themes in the book of Job, also presented in poetic mode. “He has stripped my glory from me, and taken the crown from my head” (Job 19:9).
Levertov writes in another poem about the daughter:
She wants to go back to Mexico, sit by her mother,
have her be strong and say, Go, child, and I bless you.
She did say it! But weakly; it wasn’t enough; she wants
to hear it again and again.
But she does not go back[…]
And remembers the way
she longed to leave, while she was there,
trapped in the house of strangers. (“A Daughter (I)”)
Connected to the theme of isolation is the desire for the connection alluded to above, for the final word of matriarchal blessing:
What she wants
she knows she can’t have: one minute
of communion, here in limbo.
All the years of it,
talk, laughter, letters. Yet something
went unsaid. And there’s no place
to put whatever it was, now
no more chance. (“A Daughter (II)”)
The truth left unsaid in the poem, but alluded to, is also important: the “one minute of communion” that is impossible under the strict rubric of mortality, is trumped by the “one communion and fellowship” of the saints, transcending the separation of death.
Levertov uses the image of her mother’s garden, “a Welsh oasis” in Mexico (“A Daughter (I)”), to reflect on the terror her mother’s death evoked for her. “Even two weeks after her fall, / three weeks before she died, the garden / began to vanish….” The weedlike jungle that springs up in its wake conceals a masked face, implacable and malevolent.
If it holds a flower — and it does,
a delicate brilliant silky flower that blooms only
a single day — it holds it clenched
between sharp teeth.
Vines may crawl, and scorpions, over its face,
but though the centuries blunt
eyelid and flared nostril, the stone gaze
is utterly still, fixed, absolute,
smirk of denial facing eternity. (“Death in Mexico”)
Levertov not only gives us a paradisical garden, fenced in and tended, but also the overgrown wilderness of this world, choked with weeds and death, in which a bright and transitory flower blooms for only a day.
In a final poem in the sequence, Levertov writes, in an image reminiscent of the poet Billy Collins, about grief as a stray dog. “Ah, grief, I should not treat you / like a homeless dog / who comes to the back door / for a crust, for a meatless bone. / I should trust you.”
Grief, rather, should be invited in and given its own bed and bowl.
You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
my house your own
and me your person
my own dog. (“Talking to Grief”)
Grief must be owned and acknowledged, and not be left lurking under the porch. Like many other things, it can even be approached with a degree of wry humor.
There is a conclusive and benedictory quality to this poem, though neither it nor any other poem attempts a premature resolution of grief and loss. The absence of such premature resolution is a strength of these poems. None of them is likely to be found on a greeting card. Again, the parallels with the book of Job are striking.
Levertov’s poems about her mother’s death represent what she described in a 1983 essay, in another context, as “the equipoise of thing and idea.” There she was writing about the poems of William Carlos Williams, who was a great influence on her; about the concrete images which were, for her, “the very incarnation of thought” (“The Ideas in the Things,” in Denise Levertov, New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions Books, 1992, 44). The images are no mere mask for the thought, to be quickly rendered into more abstract ideas; yet the ideas matter. Levertov’s poems give us similar images, particular things, but also, through them, concepts to be grappled with.
Poetry is not preaching. It comes at its truths in a different mode. Yet its varied and vivid images can convey ideas and truths that in other ways would be inaccessible. Art has the capacity of re-narrating our experiences, especially the most grievous ones, in a redemptive mode. As we ponder the human reality of grief and loss in the face of death, Levertov’s poems do exactly that, giving us a number of ways to think, reflect, and pray.
Thank you for introducing me to these poems. Poetry has unique power.
You are most welcome. There is a collection of Levertov’s “religious poetry” that is quite useful. A good essayist on poetry as well.