poems by others #9: the distance by Denise Levertov
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
Bringing together nearly fifty years of original work, this long-awaited volume is the definitive record of Levertov’s contributions to American poetry in the twentieth century. Contained here are Levertov’s trademark antiwar poems, written in protest of the Vietnam War, in which “delicate Man…whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs…still turns, with mere regret / to the scheduled breaking open of breasts.” Poems from early books, like The Double Image, published in 1946, allow readers to see Levertov honing her bravery in the face of loss, as when she tells death to “enter with riches.” The poems in To Stay Alive, published in 1971, offer some of Levertov’s first and most probing insights into war’s effects upon the psyche in which, she writes, one is left to hear “the cocks crow all night / far and near.” In later poems, Levertov contends with spiritual desire, uncertainty, and a divine beauty that charges the world. In “Annunciation” and “A Nativity” Levertov writes with plainspoken awe about the religious figure Mary, “a child who played, ate, slept / like any other child—but unlike others, / wept only for pity, laughed / in joy not triumph.” These qualities—charity and selflessness—became a defining subject for Levertov in her later work, who describes “the village woman / who sometimes came from down the street / and gently, with the softest / of soft old flannel, / soaped and rinsed and dried / her grubby face,” which refers to Levertov’s grandmother’s face as a child. It’s this precise “memory, / grateful and longing” that Levertov tells readers she intended to carry with her toward her own death.
This review was originally published in American Poet, Fall-Winter 2013, Volume 45. https://poets.org/book/collected-poems-denise-levertov
While we lie in the road to block traffic from the air-force
over there the daed are strewn in the roads.
While we are carried to the gusto be ‘pro-
over there the torn-off legs and arms of the living
hang in burnt trees and on broken walls.
While we wait and sing in ugly but not uninhabitable cells
men and women contorted, blinded, in tiger cages, are
biting their tongues
to stifle, for each other’s sake, their cries of agony.
And those cruel cages are built in america.
While we refuse the standard prison liverwurst sandwiches,
knowing we’ll get decent food in a matter of hours,
over there free fighters, yung and old, guns never laid
eat a few grains of rice and remember
Uncle Ho, and the long years he ate no better, and smile.
And while we fear
for the end of earth-Life, even though we song
and rejoice in each other’s beauty and comradeship,
over there they mourn
the dead and mutilated each has seen.
They have seen and seen and heard and heard
all that we will ourselves with such effort to imagine,
to summon into understanding…
from: Poetry Against the War, September 1972 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=32365