‘…..intently listening’: Silence and Word as Eucharistic Feast in the Poetry of Denise Levertov
A paper delivered at the Carmelite Centre, Middlepark on Tuesday 21 June 2016, for the Spiritual Reading Group.
But Levertov’s social activist spirit in the late 1960s and 1970s began to burn her out: ‘There is a cataract filming over / my inner eyes’ she writes in her poem Advent 1966. She felt as if a ‘monstrous insect / has entered my head.’ She had to Relearn the Alphabet. She recognised that her poetic space, writing and teaching, had to be her primary journey, not social activism. She also recognised that for her poetry was a craft and had a prophetic dimension, but it was not therapy or confessional. Amusingly in 1978 she said: ‘A poem is not vomit!...It is something very different from bodily purge.’ Poetry was organic, coming out of lived experience, which carefully uses shape and form, line break, rhythm, punctuation, indentation to articulate this intense experience like melody to the reader. The poet has an inner voice which seeks to articulate something pre-verbally intuited. This something is deeply personal which seeks to meet the personal in another. It is born ‘in the presence of a god.’
Levertov understood herself as ‘by nature, heritage and as an artist, forever a stranger and pilgrim.’ She understood herself as an ‘air plant,’ rootless, wandering, whilst remaining true to that instinct within herself to press on. In some ways she could never let anything go. She explored memories, kept a dream diary, reflected on her friendships. Accumulating knowledge, experience and understanding she would then seek to distil this into language. But by the mid-1970s her engagements with Anti-Vietnam War efforts had ceased with the end of the War, she finally broke off her marriage to Mitchell Goodman, and disconnected herself from Robert Duncan.
During the years 1979-1982, Levertov wrote the long poem entitled: A Mass for the Day of St Thomas Didymus. The process of writing this poem she described as a conversion process. As with other poems written during this period, including El Salvador: Requiem and Celebration, such poems became vehicles through which she was able to wrestle with spiritual and theological issues. She now talked about poems which ‘enfaith’, in other words help birth faith in God. But conversion to Catholicism came slowly for her. Later she also attributed her conversion to the figures of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Oscar Romero. And before deciding on Catholicism she visited many churches, Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic in Boston and London.
The poem The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velazquez) is based on a 17th painting, 'The Kitchen Maid' or 'La Mulata' in Spanish, by Velazquez in 17th century. A mulata is a woman of mixed race. The word itself actually comes from the Spanish, la mula, which means ‘mule.’ Levertov would have been aware, there are two versions of this painting. One on display in Dublin, the one which Levertov had seen on a visit, and one in Chicago. In a 1933 cleaning of the Dublin painting, a depiction of the supper with Jesus at Emmaus was revealed. So before we even read this poem it’s of note that the painting itself is contextualised within two ideas of great interest to Levertov - the double: one painting has the Emmaus scene, the other doesn’t, and; the uncovering of the hidden, the not-seen becoming revealed.
The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velazquez)
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 had ever 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 morning, alive?
Those who brought this stranger home to their table
don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching thewinejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,
swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.
The poem itself refers to the story in Luke after the death of Jesus when Cleopas and another unnamed person are pondering recent events as they walk along the road of Emmaus. They meet Jesus who helps them understand the revelation of scripture more deeply, but they do not recognise him. They invite this stranger home for dinner and it is only at the end of this meal when he departs that they recognise him as Jesus. Levertov’s poem, like Velazquez’ painting, draws on two main themes in the Gospel story: the recognition of Jesus, and Jesus’ affirmation and inclusivity of the outsider. The scene painted by Velazquez is of a mulata slave whose body position is turned away from Jesus as she makes bread in an adjacent room. But her head is slightly turned towards him; she is overhearing his conversation, listening to ‘that voice’. Is this the man who had looked at the mixed raced servant, ‘once, across the crowd, / as no one had ever looked’? Chretien says that listening is a ‘truly palpitating activity, it can happen only with this heart that beats, this air breathed in and breathed out, this patient activity of the entire body. It is with all one’s body that one listens…The always unfinished truth of listening is a heartfelt truth.’ In order to truly identify Jesus, the servant girl has to hear the silence within herself to then verify the voice of someone who once ‘looked at her across the crowd’, who had ‘seen’ her. This is a seeing that is both interior as well as exterior. It’s happening within Jesus, and within the servant-girl. It’s the very memory of the sound of Jesus’ voice that recognises and affirms her. She remembers his past recognition of her own selfhood being shown to be worthy. In both instances he doesn’t even need to say her name and he doesn't even need to speak with words to her. But she holds back her breath, can’t let go of it until she is sure that it is him. She is in a gap space between heartbeats. Like Doubting Thomas she needs more evidence. And it is only she alone who can take that final bodily action to turn around and see. To answer this call, she must risk all. She:
swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure
That Jesus has already recognised the mulata and his hosts, from the very start, is assumed by the poet. Here again we have listening-gaze: a perceiver perceiving, and the perceived - Jesus -is also perceiver. Jesus is recognised in the poem as the recogniser of all; though he sits with those who are still blind to the truth of his identity. His table is a Eucharistic gathering. The whole poem, like the painting, is centralised and sacramentalised in him. And, in both poem and painting, the Eucharist is at its centre, yet placed off-centre stage. This is a Jesus who seems to be in the background, but actually is drawing everyone, including the reader or viewer, to Him, and to God. Both poem and painting are titled The Servant Girl, but everything is actually directed toward Jesus. He invites inclusion and identity for everyone, including the servant girl at a much greater feast, the Eucharist. At the end of the poem, though she is still doubly excluded from society - by her class, and her race - through the risen Christ she is given recognition, affirmation and belonging in the kingdom of God.