Thursday, June 28, 2007

 

The seeing that burns through

One of the first books of poems I read all the way through was Relearning the Alphabet by Denise Levertov, published in 1970 by New Directions. I was in high school at the time, late 1970 or early 1971; I found the book in the high school library, more or less at random. I'd been writing poems at that time for two years or so.

The school library had a small though intelligent selection of poetry books: it was there that I first read Robert Bly's early poems about the war in Vietnam, also his anthology Forty Poems Touching on Recent American History; the Lowenfels anthologies Where Is Vietnam? and The Writing on the Wall; and the landmark anthology of "beat" poets (broadly speaking) edited by Donald Allen, The New American Poetry; these among others. One day I took from the shelf the Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot, and spent the next two or three days reading, for the first time, "The Waste Land," -- a little bit at a time, fitting it in between high school classes, whatever was going on in the evenings, and so on. I finished reading the poem, the last section of it, the bleak lines about thunder without rain, sitting in the high school auditorium on a Friday morning during a pep rally, a huge echoing room filled with screaming people and cheerleaders jumping up and down on stage. I've always felt, over the years since then, that the poem and the cheerleader frenzy were interesting pointed metaphors for each other.

The war in Vietnam was present in everything. It was impossible to have a conversation of more than five minutes without talking about the war, the news of the day. I was absolutely, angrily against the war, had taken part in anti-war demonstrations; I was one of some 50,000 people who marched from the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis to the state Capitol in St. Paul in May 1970 to protest the war, just to name one instance. Sometime during that year also, somebody exploded a bomb in a bathroom in a department store in St. Paul (I don't recall hearing of anyone being hurt). A small group of students at the high school who were fans of Sherlock Holmes stories got the school librarians to officially name the library after Basil Rathbone (the actor who played Holmes in movies in the '30's and '40's); shortly after that, another group of students tried to get the school to officially name the lunchroom and auditorium after the Black Panther organizers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

This is to give a little of the context and texture of the time and my life when I found Levertov's Relearning the Alphabet. I spent the next week or so reading the book. It came to me strange, mysterious, I found much of it difficult and sometimes almost incomprehensible. But not, really, in any way that bothered me. I felt drawn in by the noctural mysterious quality of many of the poems, especially the long title poem, somber and meditative, almost a collection of fragments, or anyway it felt that way when I read it. I struggled with it, trying to find any threads of narrative or clarity. The book, in retrospect, was important to me at the time because I began to learn, reading it, that I was willing to make the effort, to try to find my way into (what was for me) a very difficult poem and book, even if I felt I wasn't "getting" a lot of it.

From the poem "Relearning the Alphabet":

A
Joy--a beginning. Anguish, ardor.
To relearn the ah! of knowing in unthinking
joy: the beloved stranger lives.
Sweep up anguish as with a wing-tip,
brushing the ashes back to the fire's core.

B
To be. To love an other only for being.

C
Clear, cool? Not those evasions. The seeing
that burns through, comes through to
the fire's core. [...]

[...] The forest is holy.
The sacred paths are of stone.
A clearing.
The altars are shifting deposits of pineneedles,
hidden waters,
streets of choirwood,
not what the will
thnks to construct for its testimonies.

U
Relearn the alphabet,
relearn the world, the world
understood anew only in doing, under-
stood only as
looked-up-into out of earth,
the heart an eye looking,
the heart a root
planted in earth.
Transmutation is not
under the will's rule.
I wanted to understand why Levertov used a comma or a colon or a dash, why she chose to write "pineneedles" as one word, why she wrote "an other" as two words, why a line break after this word rather than that word, how she heard what the poem was doing as she wrote it. I was trying to learn about writing poems.

Levertov's poems (then and since) have provoked me to slow down and ask such questions; this is one of the reasons I've continued to read her work, even when I've felt distant from much of it, even when on the whole it hasn't moved me. Reading Levertov I can hear the careful working of her hands, coolly sliding each piece of the poem into place.

Not all of the poems in Relearning the Alphabet felt, or feel, difficult to me. Along with the dreamworlds and myth stories and labyrinth journeys the move through Levertov's poetry, there are also the spare simple poems, sometimes barely more than a few images, carried along by her keen sense for lines and line-breaks and stanzas, and her finely tuned ear for word sounds. From the poem "Snail":

Burden, grace,
artifice coiled
brittle on my back, integral,

I thought to crawl
out of you,

yearned for the worm's
lowly freedom that can go

under earth and whose
slow arrow pierces
the thick of dark
Denise Levertov also wrote many poems about the events of the larger world, the war in Vietnam, the places of famine and flights of refugees, the atrocities committed by armies and governments, the political protests that were everywhere; Relearning the Alphabet includes some such poems. (Levertov, who was born and grew up in England, worked as a nurse in London through the bombing of the city during the Second World War.) In 1972 she traveled to North Vietnam with Muriel Rukeyser and Jane Hart, as an act of protest against the bombing by the U.S. military. A number of the poems she wrote about that visit are in her book The Freeing of the Dust (New Directions, 1975).

[...] the smartest boys, obedient to all the rules, who never
aimed any flying objects across the classroom,
now are busy with finely calibrated equipment
fashioning spit-balls with needles in them,
that fly at the speed of light multiplied
around corners and into tunnels to arrive
directly at the dumb perfection of living targets,
icily into warm wholeness to fragment it.

We who
know this
tremble
at our own comprehension.
Are we infected,
viciously, being smart enough
to write down these matters,
scribes of the unspeakable?
We pray to retain
something round, blunt, soft, slow,
dull in us,
not to sharpen, not to be smart.
(From the poem "May Our Right Hands Lose Their Cunning," in The Freeing of the Dust).

In another poem from her trip to North Vietnam, Levertov says wearily that she has used up all of her camera film taking pictures of bombed hospitals and schools, "the scattered/lemon-yellow cocoons at the bombed silk-factory," exhausted and numbed beyond tears from all she has seen.

So I'll use my dry burning eyes
to photograph within me
dark sails of the river boats,
warm slant of afternoon light
apricot on the brown, swift, wide river,
village towers--church and pagoda--on the far shore,
and a boy and small bird both
perched, relaxed, on a quietly grazing
buffalo. Peace within the
long war.
(From the poem "In Thai Binh (Peace) Province," in The Freeing of the Dust.)

Comments:
Great to read your essays again. I especially enjoyed the intro and how you framed the moment of discovering Levertov. I too have had a certain amount of difficulty connecting with her work and tend to prefer the short, minimalist lyrics.
 
I enjoyed this. Early Levertov is one of my favorite bodies of work. Thank you for the heads up on your publications with Red Dragonfly Press. Robert Hedin sent me _Horace's Poem On Anger_ translated by Robert Bly from them. I'm looking forward to getting acquainted with them as I am big fan of small press publishing. Thanks again,

F
 
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