"Religious thinking, and religious poetry, move in a world of symbols, shifting from something known to the unknown..."
Although religion doesn’t score very high where talk is of economics and technology, it is rich in symbols and imagination which open us up to transformation and transcendence. This is an interesting book on religious poetry has a very engaging introduction reproduced below: Part One consists of essays by the author on various dimensions of religion and poetry; Part Two consists of essays on the work of a wide range of poets from Robert Southwell and John Milton to Denise Levortov and Gerard Smith.
John F. Deane was born on Achill Island, Co Mayo, in 1943. He is the founder of Poetry Ireland and of the journal The Poetry Ireland Review. He is also the founder and first editor of The Dedalus Press. He has won many Irish and international awards for his poetry. He is a member of Aosdána, whose members are honoured by their peers for outstanding achievements in the creative arts.
Introduction: Thoughts from the Marrow-Bone
The Jesus Body, the Jesus Bones
Pressing the Ground Humbly: The Making of a Poem
The Bestial Floor: Poetry in an Age of Violence
Dipped Again in God
The Three Strange Angels
Song of the Suffering Servant
Dream of a Fair Field
Hierusalem, My Happy Home
Poet as Outlaw : Robert Southwell
This Glow-worm Faith: William Alabaster
The Nativity Ode: John Milton
My Fruits are Only Flowers: Andrew Marvell
Such Great Felicity : Thomas Traherne
Joseph Mary Plunkett
The Fly in Marmalade: William Butler Yeats
The Sails are blowing Southward: Austin Clarke
Mayo Theology: A Poem for Enda McDonagh
A Shy Believer: Denise Levertov
Look Back in Quietness: Gerard Smyth
250pp. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie
THOUGHTS FROM THE MARROW-BONE
Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary General of the United Nations, and essayist, wrote in Markings, in W. H. Auden’s translation: ‘God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.’
Philip Larkin once notoriously said: ‘Foreign poetry? No!’ iterating a prejudice amply seconded by Kingsley Amis. While working with The Dedalus Press, I regularly found such a reaction. I have more recently encountered another, more febrile, prejudice: ‘Religious poetry? No!’ Being foolish, I once tried to market a book of religious poetry translated from Swedish: ‘Religious poetry, and in translation! no! no! and again no!’ The failure even to admit the possibility that such work is of value seems to be symptomatic of a whole failure of the imagination, a failure that permeates not just contemporary poetry but society as a whole. Belief in the supernatural – out! out! out! I am speaking, of course, about the closed mind.
To think imaginatively is one of the most crucial functions of the human brain; it is the ability to think of what does not exist, to see beyond the immediate and obvious to the possible. I feel it is this sense of seeking what is beyond the immediate satisfaction of the ego that is anathema to contemporary society. It is the same failure that hinders so much contemporary poetry from knowing ‘the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation!’ Religious thinking, and religious poetry, move in a world of symbols, shifting from something known to the unknown, seeing in symbols something other than those symbols. Therefore it is the imagination at its most perfect work. If religious faith has been dumped as not being compatible with the economic and technological advances of our age, then a whole culture and sanity have been dumped along with it.
Where today the words of Arthur O’Shaughnessy?
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
If the religious imagination in the church in Ireland has been suppressed down the decades in favour of authoritative control, then the loss of that sense of authority may well release vision in individuals again; and that vision ought to provide motive and energy to work towards a new and more whole society, even a more whole church. Perhaps, then, hope is not yet lost.
Is the poet no longer a dreamer of dreams? And is that why poetry no longer moves and shakes anybody or anything? — because it conforms too much to the demands of a merely secular society. Our loss becomes the poverty of the mind that cannot see through objects in the natural world to what lies beyond them; the mind stays in the object and nothing further is suggested, not intimations of human potential, nor of immortality nor infinity. It is the imagination that works through things to focus on them as potential symbols. In our world of rush and push one of the great things lacking is time for contemplation. This great and beautiful world lies before us and we have a choice of response: do we try to grasp, consume and make our very own what lies before us? Or do we stand back from it, admire its beauty and indulge in contemplation of that beauty? If the first, then we destroy what we love, like the goose and its golden eggs; if the latter, then we allow the beauty and wonder of the world to enter our own spirits and take possession.
There is a too-easy notion that ‘religious poetry’ is soft-centred and unquestioning, whereas the opposite is the case: it is, instead, probing and seriously demanding. The priest-poet Pádraig J. Daly writes of the difficulties he faces in his ministry:
I am eating, drinking, sleeping, dreaming sorrow.
Yesterday I followed a small child to its grave.
Today, an old man.
I watch one I have grown to love,
Beautiful as the wind, languish;
And I flounder in the grief around her.
I sit with husbands in little smoky visiting rooms,
Parsing your reasons;
With broken mothers, with dismayed children.
Your people mutter bitterly against you;
How can I carry them?
(from The Last Dreamers, Dedalus)
The word ‘imagination’ when it comes to the question of religion, often slips away further, and too thoughtlessly, into the word ‘mystical’; Elizabeth Jennings wrote, in Every Changing Shape (Carcanet): ‘In the history of English poetry, the word ‘mystical’ has perhaps been used most appropriately and with most clarity in the criticism that has accumulated around the seventeenth-century so-called Metaphysical poets. The great representatives of this group of poets are, in fact, not metaphysical at all; on the contrary, they are mystical poets. Vaughan, Herbert and Traherne were not primarily interested in the nature or study of being, the true meaning of metaphysics; they were concerned with making direct contact with reality or God, and with expressing this in their verse.’ If we are to dismiss, in our time, the functions of the imagination, then ipso facto we must dismiss the poets Jennings mentions here, along with so many others: Hopkins, Eliot, Dickinson, R. S. Thomas, Edwin Muir … all poets of the religious imagination.
As we dismiss the myth of a unified society, unified in its physical and spiritual concerns, and as we turn more and more to the immediate and urgent satisfaction of our economic demands alone, we develop a sense of individuality, an ego-tripping that eschews the good of the whole, and of others, individuals or society. The ensuing sense of disconnection with the world, when we grow aware of it, brings with it a feeling of dread. And yet it is also the function of the imagination to discern the relationship of the individual to the course of history, to ensure we do not, as individuals, fall subordinate to the collective will; I believe it is most truly in good religious poetry (as opposed to devotional or sectional verse) that the solution to this seeming contradiction may be found. In religious ritual, in our time, the distrust of the imagination is discernible; where the circling and meditative spirit of Gregorian chant has been replaced by the raucous clinking of guitars to a plethora of cliched verses; where, in the teaching of religion, any sense of cultural reference must be avoided in case it impinges on some other cultural demands, and where the religious imagination corkscrews into social conscience. So many of us move awkwardly through a faith structure that has become drained of real meaning; only the surface rituals remain, and these are now void of imaginative power.
Late in his career William Butler Yeats wrote:
A Prayer for Old Age
God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone;
From all that makes a wise old man
That can be praised of all;
O what am I that I should not seem
For the song’s sake a fool?
I pray – for fashion’s word is out
And prayer comes round again –
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.
This is a plea for the enabling imagination, as is, I believe, Samuel Beckett’s beautifully strange and cryptic piece, Imagination dead Imagine. This begins: ‘No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine.’ The piece explores a white ‘rotunda’, everything still, everything white, scarce any movement, any life. The search goes on for enabling energies, energies to be found not in frantic bursts of action to appropriate the world, but in eager and patient contemplation, in the openness to all experience and, I believe, in the openness to religion, and to religious poetry.
Ireland’s current unease, even disease, springs too from a failure of imagination in government. Today the ‘conservatives’ insist that an economy leaning towards the richest and already powerful will, ultimately, work to the best interests of all, including the impoverished and marginalised. Our experience points to the opposite being the truth. To distract and deceive the voter, even to bribe with promises of tax cuts and all sorts of financial concessions, has become the way of political speeches and presentations, the governing folks failing to imagine that the voter is indeed capable of intelligent choice and rational persuasion. What we have long lacked is true democratic government. Conglomerates, large corporations, international banking concerns, all of which so easily get government support and subsidy, simply do not enter another country with the charitable purpose of bettering the lot of the people; they drain the area dry, take what they need, and vamoose. Government, it appears, cannot see beyond the immediate profit for which it yearns. Wendell Berry writes, in Another Turn of the Crank: (Counterpoint): ‘If you have eyes to see, you can see that there is a limit beyond which machines and chemicals cannot replace people; there is a limit beyond which mechanical or economic efficiency cannot replace care.’ If you have eyes to see: but perhaps we have lost that seeing power, we have lost it because we have grown scared of the ideal of a people living in wholeness, in the unification of the spiritual and the material, we have banished imaginative living.
Local communities have suffered greatly under this ‘conservative’ approach: witness the imposition of so much over-the-top housing hammered onto the edges of small villages, the plague of holiday absent-landlord cottages along our coastline; witness the Rossport struggle, village people taking on the might of an uncaring oil company, Shell. To quote Wendell Berry again: ‘To put the bounty and the health of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error. For whatever determines the fortune of the land determines also the fortune of the people.’ And is it not a wilful failure of imagination that our government, on the mere word of a severely discredited regime, refuses to examine aircraft using our airports that even the heron knows are ferrying prisoners to torture in other countries?
Those of us who cling to some form of contemplation, to a belief in the power of the imagination, are often accused of holding to something out of date. I wonder whether what we cling to is something not ‘out of date’, but out of place’. It is the society we move in that is destroying itself; it is the poetic imagination, allied with some faith in a unifying belief, that is required. There are many who instantly baulk at the word ‘religion’, who recoil at the use of the word ‘God’. The demands of a serious poetry that applies imaginative exploration of the deepest levels of human living, may appear too much for the merely rational approach to life; where are our ‘foolish, passionate men’? Religious poetry, meaningful spiritual rituals, together with an openness to faith itself, lead of themselves inevitably to a more whole person, and to a more unified society.
I can go back, quiet as a ghost, from here
where sweet coals whisper in the grate, I can go back –
while hailstones sputter against the panes outside — to see her
standing in the doorway, snow falling softly, an old-woman’s
spotted apron holding her, and know that she
is watching too, ghosting inwards and going back, visiting
her losses, as if she could find a way
to string it all together, to a sentence, making
sense, and I can sit remembering
and shaping, the way a sonnet shapes
that dusk her rosary burst asunder and beads
spilled skittering all-which-ways on the stone floor
as if her prayers and aspirations left
nothing in her shaking hands but a thread, bereft.
(from The Instruments of Art, Carcanet)
A SHY BELIEVER
Denise Levertov was born in England in 1923 and absorbed a good deal of the English tradition in poetry. Her mother was Welsh and her father was a Hasidic Jew from Russia who had converted to Christianity before his marriage in 1910; he became an Anglican priest and dedicated his work to Jewish-Christian dialogue. In 1948 Denise married Mitchell Goodman and went to live with him in the United States. In those decades North American poetry was becoming conscious of itself, breaking up into movements and working in a rush of excitement, many poets rejecting delightedly the conventions of the ‘old’ English poetry and its perceived academic formalism. Levertov responded quickly to the work of William Carlos Williams, its accuracy of vision, its incisiveness, its modulations of the speaking voice.
She had a son, Nickolai, with Mitchell Goodman and they lived in New York. In 1955 she became a naturalised US citizen. She later divorced from Goodman. In the sixties and seventies she became quite politically active; she was a feminist, she joined the War Resisters’ League. Many of her ‘political’ poems were written during the Vietnam War and she took part, with poets like Daniel Berrigan SJ, in major anti-war demonstrations. Later she taught in several universities in the United States, spending some eleven years as professor in Stanford University. She died in 1997 from complications arising out of lymphoma. She published many collections of her poetry and read in many countries around the world. She came to Ireland several times and made a great number of friends in this country.
I wish, of course, to concentrate on the religious aspect of Levertov’s writings, but want to emphasise at once and always that there are many other themes and interests in her work. From a very young age religion was an influence in her life. In her father she encountered both Christianity and Judaism. She converted finally to Christianity in 1984 though the poems continued to voice hesitations, Levertov often taking to herself the character of Thomas Didymus, the ‘doubter’, as persona. She sees her life, as many writers do, in terms of a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey. It is a journey through the real, broken and often tragic world and Levertov’s respect for and love of natural things remains a constant in her work. It is also a journey out of darkness into the light of faith, beginning, naturally, in doubt and a search for relevance. If both doubt and darkness recur in her work they are yet both accommodated in the later poems in a new and meaningful way. And so absence is a central focus, and the accepted fact of the absence of God sits side by side with the acceptance of the human being’s natural tendency to doubt, and to suffer in darkness. It is acceptable not to have answers; it is essential to ask the questions.
Her awareness of the double, the one grounding the two, is an essential strength in her work; paradox yes, but in the sense that unity joins the all. The question of unity and variety surfaces everywhere. She does not labour her Jewish and Christian inheritance. Yet even from early on she celebrates sacramentality, the sacred in the mundane. A developing sense too of how human beings violate this unity in exploiting nature and their fellow human beings leads to a demanding political effort. So, could she write a poetry of moral outrage and still continue a poetry of celebration? Her later poetry gives the centring mystery a name: the Christian incarnation. Can it lead the human being to a position of praise? This finally becomes the source of both her inspiration and her politics; mysticism and liberation theology are the double face of the Word in the world.
Angels dream in and out amongst the lines and poems of Levertov’s collections. In a moment of quiet once, in Dublin, she told me of walking by the edge of a wood somewhere and stepping off the road into the wood (a moment reminiscent of Dante) where she relished a short but vivid ‘seeing’ of angels. She spoke without emphasis or any effort to convince me but whatever she had seen she had interpreted it as an encounter with real spirit beings, a simple statement of her faith, nothing too incredible, nothing too dramatic. It was the gentle telling of the moment that impressed me, and the knowledge that her belief was deep and convinced. Angels negotiate the space between man and God and Levertov’s work also negotiates that space. The word ‘epiphany’ naturally comes to mind, that moment of revelation when the human touches on the divine and God dips down momentarily to receive that touch.
The Servant Girl at Emmaus
(a painting by Velasquez)
She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his – the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?
Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?
Surely that face – ?
The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumoured now some women had seen this
Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
didn’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching
the winejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,
swings round and sees
the light around him and is sure.
What a beautiful moment of epiphany! It is the simply marvellous moment of apprehension of the wonderful amidst the commonplace. The person chosen by Denise to have this sudden awareness is a servant girl, no prince or merchant, and the mode of reception is listening: being attentive and open to whatever message is coming: ‘holding her breath’. The message comes by means of his voice, a voice she had heard before while standing amongst a crowd and feeling, by a glance of his, that both his words and gaze were for her. The ‘message’ of love is for everyone, Denise is saying, and it is delivered in a personal way to each and every human being as if that human were the only one in the world. As if she had served him before at table she believes she recognises the hands as they now take the platter from her, healing hands, hands gentle with love. The coming of the Christ is through ordinary human senses, voice, ear, hand … The single, hesitating line that is merely an incomplete question, mirrors the girl’s wonder and hesitation: ‘Surely that face – ? But she is also deeply aware of the history of this man, of his crucifixion as a criminal, of the disappearance of his dead body, of rumours of recent sightings of his living flesh. Only gradually do we come to realise the difference in this servant girl, how she seems chosen because she had remained totally open, how she is among those not regarded as the holy ones, she is black, she is the one who knows him, and knows for certain it is he because she sees the light about him. This is a poem where the twists and turns of the verse form image beautifully the twists and turns of the servant girl’s mind and her growing awareness of what she is witness to. And here is Levertov again, witnessing to the divine, witnessing to the way that God hovers everywhere about us, even in our doubts, even in the moments of darkness.
It is this moment of sudden but gentle awareness, of new perception, of seeing, that Levertov pursues in her poetry. She knows the human being builds a hard shell of egotism around herself against the ravages of the world; she was aware of human depravity, and struggled, in often perilous personal circumstance, to make the world aware of the destructive energies that are fuelled by our wars; she saw the enormous power for destruction in the egotism of rulers but in the everyday world it is a modicum of that same self-focus that she tried so hard to break down in poems. When something occurs to break through that hard outer shell, then wonders may occur.
On the Mystery of the Incarnation
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother, the Word.
This is, of course, the greatest wonder, the fact of the incarnation, the fact that the Word himself, God the Son, would break through into the physical actuality and the flesh and blood of the earth and of mankind, and that we should thereby learn ‘the glory, filled with grace and truth’ that is God himself. It is also something that breaks through that shell of our being, when we become aware of how the human can create such terror and suffering among his own kind. War, and the savagery of war, are the most obvious depravities of mankind and even in spite of this, in spite of the fact that man considers himself the one and only creature in existence that is god-like, it is out of sheer compassion for our foolishness that the Word is entrusted to us. This is the fact of grace, kindness done for the sheer sake of kindness, not out of merit of any kind on the part of humanity. This is the stance Levertov took, it is the only truly Christian stance, and it is clearly and meticulously put in her work. This, too, is the reason why most of Levertov’s work moves in the area of mystery between the temporal and the eternal, the borderland that exists between the everyday and the wonderful, that moves along the edge of that wood where darkness and light mingle to create meaningful shapes. Indeed, in one poem, she overtly speaks of how one comes by grace, that it is not won, not earned, but a gift given:
for Carolyn Kizer and John Woodbridge,
Recalling Our Celebration
of George Herbert’s Birthday, 1983
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
The recalling of George Herbert touches on the same truth that earlier poet wrote about so well, that unearned though freely given gift of God’s love, the gift so often refused until our God cajoles and welcomes, urges and invites, until the soul, acknowledging its weakness, dares to respond fondly to that invitation to love.
The work of Denise Levertov seems, on the surface, simple and immediate if not, at times, even simplistic. We are, however, living in an age of utter doubt and extreme secularism in which any ‘vision’ beyond the physical seems questionable. She was brought up in an environment of faith, even of mystical faith, in which the surface of the world is exactly that, merely a surface, and life, truth, vision must penetrate beneath that surface. Her approach to poetry was, then, that of visioning, of seeking to capture and extend those moments of epiphany when the bland or the beautiful opens up to a truth beyond itself. And this, of course, leads to praise, to the glorification of what is the source of that visionary approach. If we take the old-fashioned, male-orientated Gloria Patri … for example, ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost …’and give it a more modern slant, such as ‘Glory to You, Source and Sustenance of our being …’ then Denise’s poetry attempts to touch upon that source and sustenance. Her father, rabbi and later Christian, and her devout mother, evidently brought up their daughter to have an imagination open to the mystical and the sacred; for her it was natural and everyday that religious imagery support and enhance the factual. To follow Levertov’s poetry is to be born again, into sustaining spirituality, into the poetry of the source. Let me quote a poem from her 1982 collection Candles in Babylon:
Rain Spirit Passing
Have you ever heard the rain at night
streaming its flaxen hair against
the walls of your house?
Have you ever heard the rain at night
drifting its black, shiny, seaweed hair
through multi-storeyed arcades of leaves?
And have you risen then
from bed and felt your way
to the window, and raised the blind, and seen
stillness, unmisted moonlight, the air
dry? Street and garden
empty and silent?
You had been lying awake; the rain was
no dream. Yet where is it?
When did that rain descend and descend,
filling your chalices
until their petals loosened
down to rest
on grass and the wet ground,
and your roots in their burrows stretched and sighed?
Vision, in its sense of being fully alert and open to experience, is nourishing and sustaining in poetry like this. Things are sacraments, offering, if we are open to seeing them, ways beyond the mere drab actuality of our days. From here, and with her Jewish and Christian background in our minds, it is easy to see how Levertov made religious inheritance an important force in her work and in her life. As a corollary to this faith and vision, Levertov grew aware of a wholeness of being, of a source and sustaining power that holds all the world in being and in unity. And her work shows how often and how terribly human beings can disturb and destroy this unity. Along with her poetry of celebration of vision there is a poetry of moral outrage; nor are these works separate, the unifying force everywhere is the incarnation; Christ’s coming on earth, the manifestation of the Source and Sustenance, gives focus and extension to human living. Back to the Gloria Patri: now we may say Glory to You, Source and Sustenance of our being, and to You, Spoken Name and Nature of that Source … In our age, when every effort is made to ‘grow a business’, build a fortune, garner as much treasure as possible, it is necessary to read a poet like Levertov so that vision may become a necessary, indeed a vital, ingredient to re-evaluate our aims and ideals. To admit mystery into our urgent labours towards living, to allow wonder to slow down our days, to allow spirit to permeate the physical hardnesses of our environment, this is to respond to the poetry of Denise Levertov.
One of the poems begins: ‘Human being — walking/ in doubt from childhood on’; existence remains always for her a mystery and it is this honesty and integrity in the work that has always appealed to me. Faith becomes, and remains, a great gift, a mystery in itself:
to infant light.
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life,
he knew new life. What depth
of faith he drew on,
towards deep night.
We return, with Levertov, always to the notion of vision, of seeing, a vision that ultimately rests on faith, and on a faith that is reasonable, and unreasonable. The delight and wonder in things of nature are ever-present in the work, but it is the seeing past and beyond all of that that matters. It is the search for what is spiritual beyond the materiality of the moment that matters to her and that gives the poetry its bite. Faith, this seeing beyond, is something that must be worked at, something you cannot simply will and then stay motionless with regard to it:
Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, anemones
shrivel in rock pools no wave renews.
A delightful and delicate poem catches the faith that holds even in the moments of deepest doubt:
I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
Through her poems, then, Denise Levertov has set up a personal and richly rewarding series of works. These are not a bunch of poems gathered together into an individual collection, but permeate all the work, their radiance illuminating and enriching the poetry gathered around them. The ongoing exploration of human consciousness enriched by a close observation of nature and human behaviour, leads to a wholly honest dealing between faith and doubt, the scales falling towards faith, a faith that has the same almost innocent yet dramatic trust in the sustaining power of God’s love, even towards the hesitant and forgetful soul. It is from the intensity of watching, the egotistic self momentarily removed so that this watching is not self-focused but disinterested, it is in allowing the world in all its objectivity into the observing soul that the poem begins. She wrote: ‘So — as the poet stands open-mouthed in the temple of life, contemplating his experience, there come to him the first words of the poem, if there is to be a poem. The pressure of the demand and the meditation on its elements culminate in a moment of vision, of crystallisation, in which some inkling of the correspondence between those elements occurs; and it occurs as words.’
In a poem entitled ‘Conversion of Brother Lawrence’ it is the notice by the young man of a tree in especially beautiful flowering that suddenly alters the man’s way of life:
apt to drop the ornate objects handed to you,
cursed and cuffed by butlers and grooms,
your inner life unsuspected,
you heard, that day, a more-than-green
voice from the stripped branches.
Wooden lace, a celestial geometry, uttered
more than familiar rhythms of growth.
It said By the Grace of God.
With acute and attentive vision to the actualities of this world, Levertov senses often a moment of acute revelation; many of the poems present such a moment and hence, naturally, the moment of ‘annunciation’ to Mary, the young Palestinian woman living up until then a life of dull and everyday inconsequence, takes hold on Levertov imagination.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
Vision, then, is not sufficient in itself, nor is faith allied with vision sufficient; what is further needed, and we know this too well, is the courage to live by faith and vision. Here is the kernel of Christian belief, the focal point, here, in fact, is the Cross. Levertov’s life was lived in response to this vision and faith, and she did not shirk the responsibilities, she did not avoid the Cross.
One of the final poems in the last collection published while she was alive is called ‘The Prayer Plant’, and in brackets its Latin name, Maranta Leuconeura. This is a small plant native to Brazil, with broad leaves that fold upwards at night into the shape of hands at prayer.
The Prayer Plant
The prayer plant must long
for darkness, that it may fold and raise
its many pairs of green hands
to speak at last, in that gesture;
the way a shy believer, at last in solitude, at last,
with what relief
kneels down to praise You.
The poem clearly expresses Levertov’s hesitations over the years, and her longing to be able to commit herself fully to faith. The second stanza is a masterpiece of sense and sensual sound and expresses beautifully such hesitation and longing. The seeing is over, the seeing to believe; what is left is prayer but it is not the prayer of selfishness, it is praise. The loss of Denise Levertov to poetry in general and to religious poetry in particular, at a stage when she was close, as Simone Weil came close, to complete acceptance of Christianity, is an incalculable loss. She spent evenings at my home, among my family; I have photographs of her with my children; she sits, shy as they, modest and integrate, a gentle familiar and a deeply powerful poet. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.