‘…..intently listening’: Silence and Word as Eucharistic Feast in the Poetry of Denise Levertov
Visitation. Overflow. was published posthumously, in the volume: This Great Unknowing. There are different ways to move with this poem. Words here are ingested, ‘taste, cloud in the mouth’. They are a visceral experience, but also ‘tracked easily / in a room’s geography’. They are heard and apprehended ‘by some sense unnamed.’ Words travel to become, ‘flesh to share with all’. This ‘humble / feast’ is a Eucharistic image. And it’s a feast centered on and flowing from the word / Word. The overflow that is born in the silence of the body helps us listen for Eucharistic excess born in the cosmic silence.
It’s as if, by implication of the two full stops after each word, Visitation. Overflow. that the poem has two titles. They are two distinct happenings. By this, is Levertov trying to articulate something witnessed as being given and received from a place of unknowing that then is able to pour itself out? Or, does the gift itself continue to be given, feasted on, an overflowing? Here the Visitation and the overflow are one in the present moment, and go on endlessly in the poetic craft and the act of creation itself. When Christians hear the word ‘Visitation’, they think of Mary, who after being visited at the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel and pregnant with Jesus, went to see her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth. Through the recognition of the Christ Child by John, Elizabeth's unborn son, they are both filled with Divine Grace. In this poem the Incarnate Word is enfleshed within the self and it gives birth to poetic utterance. Its journey is like that of a ‘narrow backed / tapir undulating / away on / rainbow paths, each tapir bearing / a human soul.’ When I looked up ‘tapir’ I found that this animal is known as a peaceful wanderer, an endangered species, a shy hermit, a gentle, custodian of the forest, an animal that travels well-worn trails from dense undergrowth, a negotiator of forest paths. It’s journey in this poem is likened to ‘as when’:
hunters steam off fur, skin,
feathers in cauldrons, leaving
the flesh to share
with all, the humble
evidence, take it
or leave it. I give you
The inner tapir is a creaturely spirit that walks through dense forest trails of self to find language, to then share with others.
This is a poem as much about the birth of poetry as the birth of faith itself, within the body. The experience of this birth can only be known via taking the journey itself. The process can only be attested to with ‘slender evidence’ but is backed by the poet’s word. The Visitation is the bearing witness to this enfleshed word; the recognition that this process is dipped in the Divine. The Overflow is its consequent abundant and continuing lifegivingness.
In the last 10 years of her life Levertov had entered a place of much largesse of heart and word. The double image increasingly needed to break open. It is still there - Sojourns in a Parallel World, Writer and Reader. But it seeks break out into a ‘great choir’ or harmonies that combine to ‘make / waves and ripples of music’s ocean’. Levertov continued to struggle with many theological ideas: free will and a suffering world being primary preoccupations. She wrestled as well with the Catholic Church and its teachings, particularly birth control and abortion. But it was also a period where fiercely radical re-facing and re-visioning of her own life took place. As she asked hard intellectual and spiritual questions, she began to find answers in her own poetic space. It was a time whereby many threads of her life integrated and a new wholeness of self emerged. Her striving to love God became a slow recognition that in reality she was actually being offered God’s immense love for her.
Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, Introduction by Eaven Boland, A New Directions Book, 2013
Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, by Dana Greene, University of Illinois Press, 2012
Forrest Clingerman, Book Profile JCRT 6.1 December 2004: Hand to Hand: Listening to the Work of Art by Jean-Louis Chretien, Translated by Stephen E Lewis Fordham University Press, 2003, & The Ark of Speech by Jean-Louis Chretien, Translated by Andrew Brown. Routledge 2004
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