Blossoms of Perception

 New Selected Poems by Denise Levertov

211pp, £9.95, Bloodaxe

I have known Denise Levertov’s work mainly through her later, spiritual poems; particularly those which engage powerfully with the visions of 14th century Julian of Norwich. It has been a pleasure to read these New Selected Poems and discover Levertov’s early voice, its progression through fields of personal relationships, global crises, formal complexity and innovation, all of which contribute to the deceptively simple wisdom of her mature voice – a voice which does not seek to preach but rather capture and share moments of insight and wonder.

Levertov was a prolific poet, influenced by and involved with the declamatory, free style of Olsen and the Black Mountain Poets, but she wasn’t subsumed into this school, rather choosing her own path and perspective in later years. Structurally speaking, it is interesting to chart the dissolution of strict iambic lines in the earliest poems into experimental ‘breath’ led sequences (‘Claritus’, ‘Relearning the Alphabet’), with their own coherent patterns. These freer lines enable Levertov’s apt phrases to flourish: the memorable ‘two by two in the ark of/the ache of it’ (‘The Ache of Marriage’), or the fragmented lines of ‘Pentimento’: ‘To be discerned/only by those/alert to likelihood’.

This gift of discernment is what concerns Levertov, and it is a gift she has in abundance, ‘resolving anguish to a strange perspective’ (‘Too Easy: to write of Miracles’). Arguably, she does this best when she is not following a political or religious agenda, rather ‘intently haphazard’ as a dog, ‘his imagination, sniffing,/engaged in its perceptions’ (‘Overland to the Islands’). What exactly does she perceive? The exhilharating variety of life is ever present, ‘the many voices/of this one brook’; but Levertov does not live in a charmed world. She is all too aware of its dangerous tendency to self-destruct: the multiple burning babes which are a horrendous distortion of religious vision wrought by the Vietnam War has its impact on Levertov’s vision : ‘because of this my strong sight,/ my clear caressive sight, my poet’s sight I was given…../is blurred’ (Advent 1966). There is some anguish that cannot be resolved so easily.

Later poems bring back Levertov’s poetic focus, but it is often a focus of grief, as friends and family members pass away. Levertov’s poetic voice re-shapes itself to a certain extent, exploring solitude. If the solitude is born of bereavement it is not always sombre: I liked the mixture of pensiveness and levity in ‘A Woman Alone’: ‘a kind of sober euphoria makes her believe/ in her future as an old woman, a wanderer’.

Levertov wanders into the rich bewilderment of faith, ultimately Catholicism, where some have found it difficult to follow. But she makes the place of doubt itself a good ground for her poetry. The six-part ‘Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus’ [Doubting Thomas] captivates in its free-form agnostic honesty. Belief and unknowing play like light and shadows over Levertov’s use of liturgical headings. She is concerned with naming the object of her search, but also rejoices in spirituality’s elusive, refractive tendencies: ‘the multiform/ name of the Other, the known/Unknown, unknowable’ (‘Sanctus’).

And I think it is in the later ‘religious’ poems which explore the transient glimpses of faith that Levertov is truest to her earlier sense of poetry, and to her subsequent need for a spiritual home.  Thus the Velasquez painting ‘The Servant Girl at Emmaus’ inspires a poem from the perspective of the eponymous girl turning and seeing, in a flash of recognition, what the regular characters cannot. I like, too, the voices of the spirits in ‘The Spirits Appeased’, who delight in conveying their presence through mundane revelations of serendipity and coincidence. ‘
Now she is looking, you say to each other,/Now she begins to see’.

One of the things that Levertov begins to see, and us with her, is an appreciation of the visionary ‘shewings’ of Julian, the medieval mystic who was the first woman to write a book in English, and, appropriately, writes her ‘glimpses’ of faith in richly poetic ways. Julian has been celebrated in poetry before, not least in Eliot’s appropriation of her phrase ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’ . But Levertov’s sequence, ‘The Showings, Lady Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416’ delves more deeply into Julian’s distinctive merging of the revelatory and the sensual. Julian’s shewing of the universe condensed into ‘a little thing, the size of a hazelnut’ is described in Levertov’s poem as, among other things, ‘a newlaid egg, warm from the hen’: the sequence is accessible and grounded in humanity, just as is Julian’s writing. There are other influences in late Levertov, of course, such as Rilke, and the final section is a wonderfully rewarding read. These poems encourage a response of generous appreciation in the reader. This selection celebrates very well the ‘Metier of Blossoming’(one of the final poems), which Levertov’s work so consistently shows.

            © Sarah Law 2004