Essays, Features

Emily Warn: “The Almost Wilderness – Remembering Denise Levertov”

May 16 is Denise Levertov Day in Seattle. For a listing of related events, including a choral setting of Levertov’s poem “Making Peace,” visit St. John’s Parish.10389119765_e0c16168e8_o

I’m waiting for the kettle to boil in Denise’s kitchen. It’s mid-November and raining. Out the window, the branches of her unruly pear are outlined against the gray sky. At three-thirty it’s already dusk. I look across neighboring roofs and down to Lake Washington where I can barely distinguish lake water from the black forest rising behind it.

I pour boiling water into Denise’s serviceable yellow tea pot wide enough to hold four cups, swirl it around the sides, and dump it into the sink. I put three tablespoons of English Breakfast tea into the pot, refill it with water, and steep until it is black and strong. I set it on a tray next to a sugar bowl, pitcher of milk and a plate of cookies, and carry it all into the living room where Denise is sitting on the couch.

Brewing a perfect pot of tea was our secret pleasure, our first sip was conspiratorial, the second and third a signal to begin a conversation. In between tea times, we found ways to remember them to stay connected. On one of her travels, Denise bought me a tiny book with illustrations and instructions for each step. I would search Seattle’s bakeries and import shops for the most buttery shortbread to bring when we next visited. Her English upbringing meant she could out drink me, insisting that I drink one more cup, eat one more cookie. I’d always accept even though I was buzzing from caffeine and with trying to keep up my half of the conversation.

On our way to a reading or concert, she would often offhandedly tell me about an insight she had after a dream, or after something she’d read, or seen, or sensed: a woman fishing on a pier who symbolized in her mind a historic era; a dream of her parents climbing the stairs; an intuition of the dead seeing through her eyes. Only later when I read poems based on these insights did I realize she had confided something of great importance to her.

* * *

We were driving along a stretch of Lake Washington Boulevard which begins at Seward Park near her home and parallels a bicycle path for five miles. Century-old sycamores are all that separates the Boulevard from the bicycle path, and a row of aging cherry trees all that separates the path from the shore. The Boulevard is a legacy of the Olmstead Brother’s vision for Seattle of a series of greenways connecting all the city’s parks.

Even if there were more direct ways to an event, Denise loved this circuitous route. She could see all the way across the lake and beyond to the Cascade Mountains, or peer closer to shore where flocks of coots and scaups bobbed on swells, and herons fished from harbor posts. At intervals we would pass fishing piers, city parks, marinas and swimming areas. On that day, we drove through heavy drizzle, the light damped, the mountains invisible. Denise turned to me and remarked, “I worry that William Carlos Williams would not like my recent poems.” “Why?” I asked.

In settling here, Denise turned not toward the American idiom and sensibility as her muse, but to the cultural milieu of her childhood upbringing steeped in nineteenth century British and Russian literature and in the eclectic Christianity of her Welsh mother and her Anglican father—a Yeshiva student in his youth who had became a noted translator of the Zohar. “Dear 19th century!” she writes in “A Hundred a Day,” “Give me refuge in your unconscious sanctuary for awhile… ”

In the poems she wrote in Seattle during the last decade of her life, one hears echoes of Tennyson and Wordsworth as much as that of Pound or William Carlos Williams, her mentor. In their diction and inflections, in their rhythms and tropes, they often run counter to Williams’s aesthetic belief that poetry should present the “direct treatment of the thing” and arise from listening to the American vernacular:

It is there, in the mouths of the living, that the language is changing and giving new means for expanded possibilities in literary expression and, I add, basic structure—the most important of all.

(“The Poem as a Field of Action”)

”I’m choosing,” Denise said, and here I’m paraphrasing, “to use words and the phrasing I heard in my childhood. Though they might sound stilted to an American ear, they are pleasing to mine.” Latinate and antiquated words, and anthropomorphic figures of speech appear regularly in poems from her last three collections. For example, in “Settling,” a poem about being welcomed to the Northwest, the sun is “restless,” the mountain (Mt. Rainier) is “tolerant in its steadfastness,” the gray weather has been “foretold,” not by people but “by all and sundry.”

Her poems’ subject matter and aesthetic closely resembles nineteenth century Romanticism in its resolute striving to discover a universal truth, or at least a cultural one, in her subjective experience of “Nature.” Adopting this stance in the twentieth century was tricky at best given the predominant view among poets and theorists that universality and a true, unique self are socially constructed, and therefore false. Yet in many of her poems about the natural world it seems as if she could not help but be transported to that earlier time, and finds there, not fixed truths, but the materials for mythmaking. Encountering the Northwest landscape’s grandeur, its protean light and weather, were for her comparable to when Ruskin first saw the Alps: “but all unawares / came face to face / with the sublime” (“The Faithful Lover”). Transforming her experience of the sublime into poetry was, as she writes later in this poem, to make the “seen, then re-seen, recognized, wrought in myth.”

* * *

Denise first articulated her ideas about the role myth played in her poetry at a talk she gave to theologians and poets in 1967 at a conference on that subject. In preparing the talk, she looked through her work for a dominant theme and discovered that it was that of life as a pilgrimage. She defines a pilgrim’s life as a journey that “leads from one state of being to another.” Presciently, the first time she uses the word “pilgrim” in a poem, she declares, “Leave your dark autumns, the roads / oppressed by drooping alder” and “Follow your sunrise shadow to the west!” (“A Ballad”)

Soon after moving to Seattle, Denise traveled to Italy for a residency at Bellagio. From there she sent me an early draft of “Two Magnets.” Among the antique presences of “broken gods” and “faded saints” of European history, Denise longs for her new home, a yearning that is “like a child interrupting, tugging at my mind, incongruous, persistent.” The child in her wants to explore what is yet unknown, the trees and animal presences, the salmon “circling with muscular swiftness—tints of green, pink, blue, glowing mysteriously.” And yet once back in the West, Denise longs for “the worn stone of human centuries:”

Part of me lives under nettle-grown foundations.
Part of me wanders west and west, and has reached
the edge of the mist where salmon wait the day
when something shall lift them and give them to deeper waters.

(“Two Magnets”)

She has come to the edge to understand the “deeper waters” to which she will be delivered. “A boat is moving / toward me,” she writes in the opening poems in Sands of the Well, ” … but who / is rowing and what / it brings I can’t / yet see.” (“What Harbinger”)

Denise’s corner of the Northwest landscape—its mountain, lake, moon, sky, and animal life—were the perfect emblem for her pilgrimage’s end. It is as if her lifelong “fidelity to attention” had prepared a subject for her that made her spiritual questioning and poetic skill a complementary way of knowing. Throughout her life and work she was fascinated by, in Robert Duncan’s words, “the idea of poetic form as a way of ‘knowing’ the real. .. not only in order to participate in the universe but also to participate in self” (“Notes on Poetic Form”).

* * *

If the landscape as a whole becomes a metaphorical space through which a poet-pilgrim journeys, then the Gray Heron is her companion along the way. Herons perched on posts or standing still in shore grass were common sights for Denise on her walks beside the Lake. She could train her gaze on them as fixedly as they could watch for luckless fish. A pair of heron poems (Heron I and Heron II) in Evening Train—their verisimilitude the envy of Northwest poets—illustrates how the analogies and symbolism of her mythmaking sometimes ruled a reader’s response rather than leaving it open-ended.

In Heron II, her line breaks and rhythms, and her imagery flawlessly mimic that always astonishing moment when a gray heron lifts its gangly almost prehistoric looking body and flies. The heron:

rises from perfect stillness on wide wings,
++++++++++++flies a few beats
++++++++++++trails his feet in the lake,
++++++and rises again to circle
from marker to marker …

(“Heron II’)

Then the heron lands on a floating dock—figuratively with a thud—when Denise compares it to “a tall come down from the castle to walk” among peasants in a village. The comparison makes for a lighthearted poem; nonetheless, its trope might be amusing only to readers who know and treasure nineteenth century Russian novels. More to the point, it seems lopsided, a weak counterpoint to the “direct treatment of the thing.”

In “Heron I,” she compares a heron to a saint and vivifies both. She names the heron St. Simon, remembered for his single-minded devotion, which here she depicts as a heron “standing, standing, standing / upon his offshore pillar,” unwavering in its absorption because of its hunger and thirst:

thirst, fulfillment
are ripples that lap his surface;
his patience absorbs them.
Time does not pass, for him;
it is the lake, and full, and still,
and he has all of it, and wades to strike
when he will upon the fish.

The particularity of the perception and its imagery fuses Christian mythology and the natural world into an archetypal image of spiritual hunger. The desire to experience the absolute—or timelessness—is inseparable from the act of seeking it (“Time does not pass, for him,”). Her portrayal of the spiritual immersion necessary for revelation—the striking of the fish that lies hidden beneath the surface of a still lake—can be read as a Christian symbol, and also as one that transcends it, arising as it does from its exacting likeness. The heron in its stillness becomes a resonant, irreducible presence, an animal spirit.

* * *

From an early age, Denise and her sister Olga had a sense of “having a definite and peculiar destiny” because of a felt kinship with two ancestors who were religious seers—a Christian one on her mother’s side and a Jewish one her father’s side. Because of the strength of their intuited connection, Denise and Olga were certain their ancestors’ lives “would be somehow unified and redeemed” in them:

One of them was Schneour Zalman, the founder of Habad Hasidism; the other, Angel Jones of Mold, a Welsh tailor whose apprentices came to learn Biblical interpretations from him while cutting and stitching. The presence in the imagination of such figures and their relation to oneself is a kind of personal mythology and can function as a source of confidence and as an inspiration for the artist; but I am unsure of whether, or how, it may acquire sufficient universality to affect others: perhaps by causing the reader to seek, and to recognize, parallels in his own background.

(“The Sense of Pilgrimage”)

In many poems in her last books, Denise gazes back at her childhood to better understand the origins of and her confidence in her calling. In “From Below,” Denise recalls being a young child whose sensations rather than thoughts drew her attention to gazing and wondering “about what rises / so far above me into the light.” In “That Day,” she recounts a rapturous vision of nature, shared with her mother, of “a column / a defined body, not of light but of silver rain” moving across a lake and wrapping them in “its veil of silver.” Their astonishment is compared in the poem to “Blake’s inkwash vision / of ‘The Spirit of God Moving upon the Face of the Waters.'”

Of all the childhood poems, “First Love” most explicitly locates her mythic and poetic origins in a particular experience. She is crawling on the ground at a family picnic when a flower growing in “a bare patch of that poor soil” arrests her attention:

It looked at me, I looked
back, delight filled me as if
I, not the flower,
were a flower and were brimful of rain.
And there was endlessness.  
Perhaps through a lifetime what I’ve desired
has always been to return
to that endless giving and receiving, the wholeness
of that attention,
that once-in-a-lifetime
secret communion.

(“First Love”)

Her boundary-less (undifferentiated) communion with the flower is paradoxically also an experience of individuation—she knows herself to be and not be the flower, and just as paradoxically, she senses her experience of timelessness occurs within the temporal—of her life and of human history:

                  … suddenly
There was Before I saw it, the vague
past, and Now. Forever. Nearby
was the sandy sweep of the Roman Road,
and where we sat the grass
was thin.

Thus her experience of the all at the picnic becomes literally and figuratively the sacred space and time from which she sets out, an initiate with new spiritual and cultural knowledge to guide her: “What I desired / has always been to return.” In remembering this experience, Denise interestingly rejects her earlier conception of pilgrimage as “stages of a journey, moments of vision presaging the secret that will bring the seeker to his goal, but which are quickly forgotten again, or hidden again in the imagination … ” (“The Sense of “Pilgrimage”) .

Instead, in “First Love,” she has come to understand that her vision was a “once-in-a-lifetime” occurrence, a fact she reiterates in “Once Only” (surely a nod to Rilke): “every initiation / did not begin / a series, a build-up: the marvelous / did happen in our lives, our stories / are not drab with absence: but don’t / expect now to return for more.” One can prepare to be “utterly present” to moments of oneness, but they are all, “now or never,” beautiful but transitory, as life is. In a companion poem, written from the “new” perspective of life’s end, she strips away a sunflower’s petals to find:

                           A darker shade
of the same spring green—a new flower
on this fall day, revealed within
the autumn if its own brief bloom.

(‘A New Flower”)

* * *

9222931286_cf31cd2a79_oI set the tray of tea and cookies on a coffee table within easy reach of Denise. Her sock monkey is propped on its pillow on a straight-backed chair. Behind me, bookshelves are crammed with contemporary novels, art books, books of essays, and with Chekov, Dickens and other literature from her childhood. Many more bookshelves filled with poetry are upstairs, closer to where she revises her poems’ drafts. In the past Denise has often jumped up, disappeared, and then returned with a book to make a point or share a passage. Now it takes a great effort for her to sit up.

Having our tea in the living room feels strange. The room is more like a parlor, reserved for visiting scholars, than the kitchen where we usually sip tea and talk-after we’ve pushed aside piles of mail and propped open books to make room for the tea pot. A vase filled with flowers, common ones from her garden or Northwest floral varieties—tulips, sunflowers, daffodils, lilies—always sits in the window, which frames her beloved view of a narrow inlet of Lake Washington. From the table, she could see four Lombardy poplars on the far shore rise in a shapely, formal European elegance against a tangle of firs, cedars, and maples, a dark-green forest, an “almost-wilderness,” a remnant of the old growth forest that once covered the Northwest. Through the window, Denise could watch the moon rise above it:

Moon, wisp of opal fire, then slowly
revealed as orb arising,
still half-hidden; the dark
bulk of the wooded ridge
defined by serrations of pine and fir against
this glow.

(“October Moonrise”)

Later in this same poem, the moonlight’s glow becomes a path of “gold unalloyed” on the water, her observation sliding into a metaphor for spiritual seeking, one more example of how the city park and its harbor, its “woods, the lake, / the great-winged birds, the vast mountain at the horizon, / are Nature: metonymy of the spirit’s understanding (my emphasis) … ” (“Almost-Island”). She never names the elements of the Northwest landscape: Lake Washington is the lake, Mt. Rainier the mountain, Seward Park, her “almost-island.” Her erasure creates an idealized Platonic landscape, its elements becoming in her poems likenesses of the forms of ultimate reality, of the forms behind the forms.

[pullquote]If “Nature” in her poetry is a metonymy for spiritual understanding, then “the mountain” stands for a divine presence hidden within, yet not of this material world—at least she investigates through her poems whether this is true.[/pullquote] She could see the mountain through her southern kitchen window and of course from many vantage points throughout the city. The mountain towers above it all, often hidden by Northwest weather, “a majestic presence become / one cloud among others, / humble vapor, barely discernible …” (“Effacement”).

Each mountain poem takes its shape in an “unending ‘silent secret conversation'” that Denise holds with the mountain, a dialogue between her poet-pilgrim self and the divine, an exchange which is best characterized by Paul Celan: “Only in the space of this dialogue does that which is addressed take form and gather around the I who is addressing it.” In the mountain poems, she intensely focuses on directly grasping the mountain’s physical form so that she can make visible its invisible presence.

In “Elusive,” the mountain is now here, then not on the horizon, a rhythm that the opening lines replicate:

The mountain comes and goes
on the horizon,

a rhythm elusive as that of a sea-wave
higher than all the rest, riding to shore
flying its silver banners—

you count to seven, but no,
its measure
slips by you with each recurrence.

Appearing and disappearing, the massive mountain becomes fluid, a “sea-wave,” flowing in time as Denise’s perception of it flows in the poem, and yet its cadence is beyond measure. The poem’s artistry actualizes what cannot be known—that the mountain is inescapably physical and yet unfixed, an ever-changing and so non-existent essence.

The paradox of the real becoming a way to see inwardly the nature of the absolute is also the subject of “Looking Through”:

palest blue,
as if
snow and rock,
the whole great mass of mountain,
were transparent
and one could look
through at more sky
Luminous mountain,
unreal sky.

While Denise’s mountain metaphysics cannot be exactly correlated with a single religion, some do take place within a Christian context. For example, in “the mountain’s daily speech is silence,” the silence is that of God’s throughout the centuries. In (“Effacement”), insubstantial clouds cloak the mountain’s immensity, turning it into the humble “archangel walking with Tobias on dusty roads.”

* * *

Halfway through our tea, our talk turns as it usually does to poetry. We discuss which books we’re reading, poetry we’ve recently discovered that we like, and of course, our own work—what we’re writing about and whether we’re writing or struggling to write. That afternoon I boasted about setting up a new routine so I could be more disciplined about writing. She paused, looked at me intently, and replied matter-of-factly, “You know, Emily, I’ve never written according to a schedule.”

On my way home along the Lake, and many times afterward, I have thought of that remark. Denise didn’t doggedly pursue poetry projects. She didn’t force herself to write when she had nothing to say. Her poems arrived out of an intensity and delight in watching for the extraordinary in daily life. They were “always to trying / to share out joy as if it were cake or water, / something ordinary, not rare at all.” (“Translucence”)

Six weeks later Denise passed away. Her absence has become a presence for me. I see St. Simon in every heron on Lake Washington. When I drive around a bend and suddenly see snow-covered rocky clefts in the clouds, it’s her mountain and not Mt. Rainier. I feel as if I’ve also glimpsed her, my sightings unpredictable and ephemeral, conspiratorial and companionable as our friendship: ” … next time,” she writes in the last line of her last poem, “I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open / the door by fractions, eavesdrop / peacefully.”

Emily Warn has published five collections of poetry, including three books: The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008), all from Copper Canyon Press, and two chapbooks: The Book of Esther (1986) and Highway Suite (1987). Her essays and poems appear widely, including in Poetry, Blackbird, Parabola, The Seattle Times, and many others.

photo credits:

detail from Fishing the Gulf via photopin (license)
High Tea Kettle via photopin (license)