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‘…..intently listening’: Silence and Word as Eucharistic Feast in the Poetry of Denise Levertov

Image: en.wikipedia.com

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Levertov wrote this poem in 1987. She herself is that servant girl at Emmaus. Her past and present are depicted there. She described herself as a ‘mongrel’. Before she could dare to swing round, look at the Christ squarely, she had to find the courage to ‘risk all’. She was becoming much more attuned to this newly transformed, yet ever ancient, inner voice she had always heard and trusted, but never quite in this way before. Though she had always known that the visible and the invisible, and the audible and inaudible are not rigidly separated, she was coming to understand the nature of excess that is poured out from the silence. However, right up until her death in 1997 Levertov remained adamant in the distinction that she was a poet who was a mystic, not a mystic who was a poet. As Dana Green puts it, for her: ‘Mystic and artist were singular ways of being and distinctive vocations.’ But the distinction was becoming very blurred.

Levertov’s concern for social justice issues remained strong throughout her life. Invited to give a Pentecost sermon on Peace at the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston in 1988 she said: ‘If we neglect our inner lives, we destroy the sources of fruitful outer action. But if we do not act, our inner lives become mere monuments to egotism.’ In the 1980s she not only recognised poetry as her primary means for expressing social concerns but it is that space whereby the attunement of one’s whole self enables one to became more alive than ever. And as a pilgrim, she felt ever called to pressing out past the boundaries of self and journeying onwards into the unknown.


In 1982 Levertov took up a teaching position at Stanford University, which became the Institution she ultimately sold all her correspondence and journals to and which house them still today. Although finally settling in Seattle, she continued to write poetry, read widely, ask questions, give talks, teach, and reflect on the craft of poetry in her journals, letters and books. In doing this she was also able to cover her own costs and look after the financial needs of her adult son, Nikolai, who at 33 was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Right up to her death in 1997, she was awarded honours and prizes. In these last 15 years of her life she became engaged with works such as The Cloud of Unknowing, and wrestled with the ideas of people such as Benedicta Ward, Anthony Bloom, Basil Pennington. Murray Bodo, the Franciscan father, became a spiritual mentor who advised and helped her in particular with her challenges with Nikolai. She worked with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola with Lee Dapfer as her director. For ‘temperamental’ and ‘ideological’ reasons, she chose not to have a spiritual director, but Julian of Norwich became a nominal one.


Impatient and irritable, by her own admission, Levertov had alienated many people in her life. However, as Dana Green comments: ‘The late 1980s were for Levertov a time of making peace and reconciling. Through imagination she restored a relationship with persons in the past and forged a link between her vocation as poet and Christian. The result was greater personal tranquillity and a desire to ‘clear the decks’ and risk a new beginning.’ As her own self was being transformed during the last 15 years of her life, immeasurable reconciliations began to place - with Mitch, with the memories of Robert Duncan and her family, with Adrienne Rich, and increasingly with Nikolai.

Visitation. Overflow.

1

The slender evidence……

The you must take
my word for it.

The intake of a word.
Its taste, cloud in the mouth.

The presence, invisible,
impalpable, air to
outstretched arms,

but voiced, tracked easily
in room’s geography,
among the maps, the gazing-window,
door, fire, all in place, internal
space immutable.

The slenderness
of evidence,
narrow backed
tapir undulating
away on
rainforest paths,
each
tapir bearing
a human soul.

2

Amazon basin,
filling, overflowing
spirits in every
plant, in bark, in every
animal, in
juice of bark. Words taken

by lips, tongue, teeth, throat,
down into body’s
caverns, to
enter
blood, bone, breath, as here:

as here the presence
next to that window, appearance

known not to sight,
to touch,
but to hearing, yes, and yet
appearing, apprehended

in form, in color, by
some sense unnamed,

3

moving slenderly
doorwards, assured, re-
assuring, leaving

a trace, of certainty, promise
broader than slender
tapir’s disappearing
sturdy back, the
you can only
take my

word for it, a life,
a phase,
beyond the
known geography, beyond familiar

inward, outward,
outward, inward. A

‘time and place’ (other terms
unavailing)
of learning, of casting
off of dross, as when
hunters steam off fur, skin,
feathers in cauldrons, leaving
the flesh to share
with all, the humble
feast, slender

evidence, take it
or leave it, I give you
my word.

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