Classics  
English    1923 - 1997   
Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997) was a British-born American poet. Born in Ilford, Essex, England, her mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, was Welsh. Her father, Paul Levertoff, immigrated to England from Germany, was a Russian Hassidic Safardic Jew who became an Anglican priest. While being educated at home, Levertov ... Read more
Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997) was a British-born American poet. Born in Ilford, Essex, England, her mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, was Welsh. Her father, Paul Levertoff, immigrated to England from Germany, was a Russian Hassidic Safardic Jew who became an Anglican priest. While being educated at home, Levertov ... Read more

The flowerlike
animal perfume
in the god’s curly
hair —

don’t assume
that like a flower
his attributes
are there to tempt

you or
direct the moth’s
hunger —
simply he is
the temple of himself,

hair and hide
a sacrifice of blood and flowers
on his altar

if any worshipper
kneel or not.

Genial poets, pink-faced
earnest wits—
you have given the world
some choice morsels,
gobbets of language presented
as one presents T-bone steak
and Cherries Jubilee.
Goodbye, goodbye,
I don’t care
if I never taste your fine food again,
neutral fellows, seers of every side.
Tolerance, what crimes
are committed in your name.


And you, good women, bakers of nicest bread,
blood donors. Your crumbs
choke me, I would not want
a drop of your blood in me, it is pumped
by weak hearts, perfect pulses that never
falter: irresponsive
to nightmare reality.


It is my brothers, my sisters,
whose blood spurts out and stops
forever
because you choose to believe it is not your business.


Goodbye, goodbye,
your poems
shut their little mouths,
your loaves grow moldy,
a gulf has split
the ground between us,
and you won’t wave, you’re looking
another way.
We shan’t meet again—
unless you leap it, leaving
behind you the cherished
worms of your dispassion,
your pallid ironies,
your jovial, murderous,
wry-humored balanced judgment,
leap over, un-
balanced? ... then
how our fanatic tears
would flow and mingle
for joy ...

Rose Red's hair is brown as fur
and shines in firelight as she prepares
supper of honey and apples, curds and whey,
for the bear, and leaves it ready
on the hearth-stone.

Rose White's grey eyes
look into the dark forest.

Rose Red's cheeks are burning,
sign of her ardent, joyful
compassionate heart.
Rose White is pale,
turning away when she hears
the bear's paw on the latch.

When he enters, there is
frost on his fur,
he draws near to the fire
giving off sparks.

Rose Red catches the scent of the forest,
of mushrooms, of rosin.

Together Rose Red and Rose White
sing to the bear;
it is a cradle song, a loom song,
a song about marriage, about
a pilgrimage to the mountains
long ago.
Raised on an elbow,
the bear stretched on the hearth
nods and hums; soon he sighs
and puts down his head.

He sleeps; the Roses
bank the fire.
Sunk in the clouds of their feather bed
they prepare to dream.

Rose Red in a cave that smells of honey
dreams she is combing the fur of her cubs
with a golden comb.
Rose White is lying awake.

Rose White shall marry the bear's brother.
Shall he too
when the time is ripe,
step from the bear's hide?
Is that other, her bridegroom,
here in the room?

The tree of knowledge was the tree of reason.
That's why the taste of it
drove us from Eden. That fruit
was meant to be dried and milled to a fine powder
for use a pinch at a time, a condiment.
God had probably planned to tell us later
about this new pleasure.
We stuffed our mouths full of it,
gorged on but and if and how and again
but, knowing no better.
It's toxic in large quantities; fumes
swirled in our heads and around us
to form a dense cloud that hardened to steel,
a wall between us and God, Who was Paradise.
Not that God is unreasonable – but reason
in such excess was tyranny
and locked us into its own limits, a polished cell
reflecting our own faces. God lives
on the other side of that mirror,
but through the slit where the barrier doesn't
quite touch ground, manages still
to squeeze in – as filtered light,
splinters of fire, a strain of music heard
then lost, then heard again.

Down through the tomb's inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food--fish and a honeycomb.

When I found the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
whispers.
My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I'll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop
peacefully.

Brilliant, this day – a young virtuoso of a day.
Morning shadow cut by sharpest scissors,
deft hands. And every prodigy of green –
whether it's ferns or lichens or needles
or impatient points of buds on spindly bushes –
greener than ever before. And the way the conifers
hold new cones to the light for the blessing,
a festive right, and sing the oceanic chant the wind
transcribes for them!
A day that shines in the cold
like a first-prize brass band swinging along
the street
of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds
with the claims of reasonable gloom.

O Eros, silently smiling one, hear me.
Let the shadow of thy wings
brush me.
Let thy presence
enfold me, as if darkness
were swandown.
Let me see that darkness
lamp in hand,
this country become
the other country
sacred to desire.

Drowsy god,
slow the wheels of my thought
so that I listen only
to the snowfall hush of
thy circling.
Close my beloved with me
in the smoke ring of thy power,
that we way be, each to the other,
figures of flame,
figures of smoke,
figures of flesh
newly seen in the dusk.

The clouds as I see them, rising
urgently, roseate in the
mounting of somber power


surging in evening haste over
roofs and hermetic
grim walls—


Last night
As if death had lit a pale light
in your flesh, your flesh
was cold to my touch, or not cold
but cool, cooling, as if the last traces
of warmth were still fading in you.
My thigh burned in cold fear where
yours touched it.


But I forced to mind my vision of a sky
close and enclosed, unlike the space in which these clouds move—
a sky of gray mist it appeared—
and how looking intently at it we saw
its gray was not gray but a milky white
in which radiant traces of opal greens,
fiery blues, gleamed, faded, gleamed again,
and how only then, seeing the color in the gray,
a field sprang into sight, extending
between where we stood and the horizon,


a field of freshest deep spiring grass
starred with dandelions,
green and gold
gold and green alternating in closewoven
chords, madrigal field.


Is death’s chill that visited our bed
other than what it seemed, is it
a gray to be watched keenly?


Wiping my glasses and leaning westward,
clearing my mind of the day’s mist and leaning
into myself to see
the colors of truth


I watch the clouds as I see them
in pomp advancing, pursuing
the fallen sun.

Rain-diamonds, this winter morning, embellish the tangle of unpruned pear-tree twigs; each solitaire, placed, it appearrs, with considered judgement, bears the light beneath the rifted clouds -- the indivisible shared out in endless abundance.

White dawn. Stillness.When the rippling began
          I took it for sea-wind, coming to our valley with rumors
          of salt, of treeless horizons. But the white fog
didn't stir; the leaves of my brothers remained outstretched,
unmoving.
                    Yet the rippling drew nearer – and then
my own outermost branches began to tingle, almost as if
fire had been lit below them, too close, and their twig-tips
were drying and curling.
                              Yet I was not afraid, only
                              deeply alert.
I was the first to see him, for I grew
                    out on the pasture slope, beyond the forest.
He was a man, it seemed: the two
moving stems, the short trunk, the two
arm-branches, flexible, each with five leafless
                                        twigs at their ends,
and the head that's crowned by brown or golden grass,
bearing a face not like the beaked face of a bird,
                    more like a flower's.
                              He carried a burden made of
some cut branch bent while it was green,
strands of a vine tight-stretched across it. From this,
when he touched it, and from his voice
which unlike the wind's voice had no need of our
leaves and branches to complete its sound,
                                        came the ripple.
But it was now no longer a ripple (he had come near and
stopped in my first shadow) it was a wave that bathed me
                    as if rain
                              rose from below and around me
                    instead of falling.
And what I felt was no longer a dry tingling:
                    I seemed to be singing as he sang, I seemed to know
                    what the lark knows; all my sap
                              was mounting towards the sun that by now
                              had risen, the mist was rising, the grass
was drying, yet my roots felt music moisten them
deep under earth.

                    He came still closer, leaned on my trunk:
                    the bark thrilled like a leaf still-folded.
Music! There was no twig of me not
                              trembling with joy and fear.

Then as he sang
it was no longer sounds only that made the music:
he spoke, and as no tree listens I listened, and language
                    came into my roots
                              out of the earth,
                    into my bark
                              out of the air,
into the pores of my greenest shoots
          gently as dew
and there was no word he sang but I knew its meaning.
He told me of journeys,
          of where sun and moon go while we stand in dark,
          of an earth-journey he dreamed he would take some day
deeper than roots ...
He told of the dreams of man, wars, passions, griefs,
          and I, a tree, understood words – ah, it seemed
my thick bark would split like a sapling's that
                              grew too fast in the spring
when a late frost wounds it.

                                        Fire he sang,
that trees fear, and I, a tree, rejoiced in its flames.
New buds broke forth from me though it was full summer.
          As though his lyre (now I knew its name)
          were both frost and fire, its chords flamed
up to the crown of me.
          I was seed again.
                    I was fern in the swamp.
                                        I was coal.

The Rav
of Northern White Russia declined,
in his youth, to learn the
language of birds, because
the extraneous did not interest him; nevertheless
when he grew old it was found
he understood them anyway, having
listened well, and as it is said, 'prayed
          with the bench and the floor.' He used
what was at hand--as did
Angel Jones of Mold, whose meditations
were sewn into coats and britches.
          Well, I would like to make,
thinking some line still taut between me and them,
poems direct as what the birds said,
hard as a floor, sound as a bench,
mysterious as the silence when the tailor
would pause with his needle in the air.

In the Japanese tongue of the mind's eye one two syllable word tells of the fringe of rain clinging to the eaves and of the grey-green fronds of wild parsley.

Some people,
no matter what you give them,
still want the moon.

The bread,
the salt,
white meat and dark,
still hungry.

The marriage bed
and the cradle,
still empty arms.

You give them land,
their own earth under their feet,
still they take to the roads

And water: dig them the deepest well,
still it’s not deep enough
to drink the moon from.

As the stores close, a winter light
opens air to iris blue,
glint of frost through the smoke
grains of mica, salt of the sidewalk.
As the buildings close, released autonomous
feet pattern the streets
in hurry and stroll; balloon heads
drift and dive above them; the bodies
aren't really there.
As the lights brighten, as the sky darkens,
a woman with crooked heels says to another woman
while they step along at a fair pace,
'You know, I'm telling you, what I love best
is life. I love life! Even if I ever get
to be old and wheezy—or limp! You know?
Limping along?—I'd still ... ' Out of hearing.
To the multiple disordered tones
of gears changing, a dance
to the compass points, out, four-way river.
Prospect of sky
wedged into avenues, left at the ends of streets,
west sky, east sky: more life tonight! A range
of open time at winter's outskirts.

Weißer Tagesanbruch. Stille. Als das Kräuseln begann,
hielt ich es für Seewind, in unser Tal kommend mit Raunen
von Salz, von baumlosen Horizonten. Aber der weiße Nebel
bewegte sich nicht; das Laub meiner Brüder blieb ausgebreitet,
regungslos.
Doch das Kräuseln kam näher – und dann
begannen meine eigenen äußersten Zweige zu prickeln, fast als wäre
ein Feuer unter ihnen entfacht, zu nah, und ihre Spitzen
trockneten und rollten sich ein.
Doch ich fürchtete mich nicht, nur
wachsam war ich.
Ich sah ihn als erster, denn ich wuchs
draußen am Weidehang, jenseits des Waldes.
Er war ein Mann, so schien es: die zwei
beweglichen Stengel, der kurze Stamm, die zwei
Arm-Äste, biegsam, jeder mit fünf laublosen
Zweigen an ihrem Ende,
und der Kopf gekrönt mit braunem oder goldenem Gras,
ein Gesicht tragend, nicht wie das geschnäbelte Gesicht eines Vogels,
eher wie das einer Blume.
Er trug eine Bürde,
einen abgeschnittenen Ast, gebogen, als er noch grün war,
Strähnen einer Rebe quer darüber gespannt. Von dieser,
sobald er sie berührte, und von seiner Stimme,
die, unähnlich der Stimme des Windes, unser Laub und unsere
Äste nicht brauchte, um ihren Klang zu vollenden,
kam das Kräuseln.
Es war aber jetzt kein Kräuseln mehr (er war nahe herangekommen und
stand in meinem ersten Schatten), es war eine Welle, die mich umspülte,
als stiege Regen
empor von unten um mich herum,
anstatt zu fallen.
Und was ich spürte, war nicht mehr ein trockenes Prickeln:
Ich schien zu singen, während er sang, ich schien zu wissen,
was die Lerche weiß; mein ganzer Saft
stieg hinauf der Sonne entgegen, die nun
aufgegangen war, der Nebel hob sich, das Gras
wurde trocken, doch meine Wurzeln spürten, wie Musik sie tränkte
tief in der Erde.

Er kam noch näher, lehnte sich an meinen Stamm:
Die Rinde erschauerte wie ein noch gefaltetes Blatt.
Musik! Kein Zweig von mir, der nicht
erbebte vor Freude und Furcht.

Dann, als er sang,
waren es nicht mehr nur Klänge, aus denen die Musik entstand:
Er sprach, und wie kein Baum zuhört, hörte ich zu, und Sprache
kam in meine Wurzeln
aus der Erde,
in meine Rinde
aus der Luft,
in die Poren meiner grünsten Knospen
sanft wie Tau,
und er sang kein Wort, das ich nicht zu deuten wußte.
Er erzählte von Reisen,
davon, wo Sonne und Mond hingehen, während wir im Dunkeln stehen,
von einer Erden-Reise, von der er träumte, sie eines Tages zu tun
tiefer als Wurzeln…
Er erzählte von den Menschenträumen, von Krieg, Leidenschaften, Gram
und ich, ein Baum, verstand die Wörter – ach, es schien,
als ob meine dicke Rinde aufplatzen würde, wie die eines Schößlings,
der zu schnell wuchs im Frühling,
so daß später Frost ihn verwundete.

Feuer besang er,
das Bäume fürchten, und ich, ein Baum, erfreute mich seiner Flammen.
Neue Knospen brachen auf in mir, wenngleich es Hochsommer war.
Als ob seine Leier (nun wußte ich ihren Namen)
zugleich Frost und Feuer wäre, ihre Akkorde flammten
hinauf bis zu meiner Krone.
Ich war wieder Samen.
Ich war Farn im Sumpf.
Ich war Kohle.

The old wooden steps to the front door
where I was sitting that fall morning
when you came downstairs, just awake,
and my joy at sight of you (emerging
into golden day—
the dew almost frost)
pulled me to my feet to tell you
how much I loved you:


those wooden steps
are gone now, decayed
replaced with granite,
hard, gray, and handsome.
The old steps live
only in me:
my feet and thighs
remember them, and my hands
still feel their splinters.


Everything else about and around that house
brings memories of others—of marriage,
of my son. And the steps do too: I recall
sitting there with my friend and her little son who died,
or was it the second one who lives and thrives?
And sitting there ‘in my life,’ often, alone or with my husband.
Yet that one instant,
your cheerful, unafraid, youthful, ‘I love you too,’
the quiet broken by no bird, no cricket, gold leaves
spinning in silence down without
any breeze to blow them,
is what twines itself
in my head and body across those slabs of wood
that were warm, ancient, and now
wait somewhere to be burnt.

Hypocrite women, how seldom we speak
of our own doubts, while dubiously
we mother man in his doubt!


And if at Mill Valley perched in the trees
the sweet rain drifting through western air
a white sweating bull of a poet told us


our cunts are ugly—why didn't we
admit we have thought so too? (And
what shame? They are not for the eye!)


No, they are dark and wrinkled and hairy,
caves of the Moon ... And when a
dark humming fills us, a


coldness towards life,
we are too much women to
own to such unwomanliness.


Whorishly with the psychopomp
we play and plead—and say
nothing of this later. And our dreams,


with what frivolity we have pared them
like toenails, clipped them like ends of
split hair.

Among the blight-killed eucalypts, among
trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frosts,
the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,

certain airy white blossoms punctually
reappeared, and dense clusters of pale pink, dark pink--
a delicate abundance. They seemed

like guests arriving joyfully on the accustomed
festival day, unaware of the year's events, not perceiving
the sackcloth others were wearing.

To some of us, the dejected landscape consorted well
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
daily sunshine, disgusted us like smile-buttons.

Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches
more lightly than birds alert for flight,
lifted the sunken heart

even against its will.
But not
as symbols of hope: they were flimsy
as our resistance to the crimes committed

--again, again--in our name; and yes, they return,
year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy
over against the dark glare

of evil days. They are, and their presence
is quietness ineffable--and the bombings are, were,
no doubt will be; that quiet, that huge cacophany

simultaneous. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms
were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed
the war had ended, it had not ended.

This wild night, gathering the washing as if it were flowers
          animal vines twisting over the line and
          slapping my face lightly, soundless merriment
          in the gesticulations of shirtsleeves,
I recall out of my joy a night of misery

walking in the dark and the wind over broken earth,
          halfmade foundations and unfinished
          drainage trenches and the spaced-out
                    circles of glaring light
          marking streets that were to be
walking with you but so far from you,

and now alone in October's
first decision towards winter, so close to you--
          my arms full of playful rebellious linen, a freighter
          going down-river two blocks away, outward bound,
          the green wolf-eyes of the Harborside Terminal
                    glittering on the Jersey shore,
and a train somewhere under ground bringing you towards me
to our new living-place from which we can see

a river and its traffic (the Hudson and the
hidden river, who can say which it is we see, we see
something of both. Or who can say
the crippled broom-vendor yesterday, who passed
just as we needed a new broom, was not
one of the Hidden Ones?)
          Crates of fruit are unloading
          across the street on the cobbles,
          and a brazier flaring
          to warm the men and burn trash. He wished us
luck when we bought the broom. But not luck
brought us here. By design

clean air and cold wind polish
the river lights, by design
we are to live now in a new place.

 
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