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


If there’s an Ur-language still among us,

hiding out like a pygmy pterodactyl

in the woods, sighted at daybreak sometimes,

perched on a telephone wire, or like

prehistoric fish discovered in ocean’s

deepest grottoes, then it’s the exclamation,

universal whatever the sound, the triumphant,

wondering, infant utterance, ‘This! This!’,

showing and proffering the thing, anything,

the affirmation before the naming.

Robert Creely, American poet and close friend of Denise Levertov, has written: ‘The exceptional grace - a dancer’s I liked to think - of (Denise Levertov’s) work, the movement so particular to a complex of thought and feeling accomplished a rare unity. That unique quality is present in all she does…’ Each time I have felt myself getting stuck, or more frequently lost in writing this piece on Denise Levertov, I have returned to spend time with her poetry. There she continues to give me something fresh, wakes me up to the world a little more. And there too it’s as if, gently admonishing, she has sent me back into my floating thoughts, back to my blank screen, and pressed me forward on a track; wondering, enticed. It’s a good creaturely way to move with such a graceful poet dancer. Denise Levertov believed that her poetry was ‘testimonies of life lived.’ She called language ‘her Jerusalem.’ Her poetry was born out of her life. In all, she wrote 24 volumes of poetry, 4 volumes of essays and 8 translations. There is also a substantial body of correspondence and personal letters, diaries and notebooks. Her writing continued to be throughout her life piercing with insight, alive to her imagination and attentively wrought. As in her own lived life, her poetry and poetics evolved. Memories and apprehensions of life, like layers of soil being built up over time, became mixed with new understanding and insight. In this presentation I shall be looking at her later poetry for this very reason - in them can still be detected the early strata of her early work. Denise Levertov was born in England in 1923 and died in America in 1997. Her father, Paul Levertoff, was a Russian born Jew. He descended from Shneour Zalman, a Russian founding father of the Habad branch of Hasidism. When Paul converted to Christianity he was ostracised by his family, and chose to leave Russia after finishing University to make his own way in the world as a teacher and academic. Denise’s mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, was Welsh born. She was orphaned at a young age and brought up by relatives who were strict Congregationalists. As an adult she travelled and then studied under Paul Levertoff’s supervision in Constantinople. They married in 1911 and moved to London. There, as Anglican priest, Paul Levertoff worked in a London Church of England Parish, but he was also the Director of the East London Centre for Jews and a member of the Hebrew Christian Church. Later, Levertov described them as ‘exotic birds in the plain English coppice of Ilford, Essex.’ She called her mother, who was a naturalist and artist, a ‘pointer outer’. Beatrice planted the seed for Levertov’s own call to ‘pay attention’ to all things, to movements and changes in the natural world. For Denise, this also translated to attentiveness to fine tunings within the self. And it’s a call she extends to us, as reader or listener of her poetry. The final poem in the last book of her poetry, (Sands of the Well 1996) published in her lifetime:

Days pass when I forget the mystery.

Problems insoluble and problems offering

their own ignored solutions

jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber

along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing

their colored clothes, caps and bells.

And then once more the quiet mystery

is present to me, the throng’s clamor

recedes: the mystery

that there is anything, anything at all,

let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,

rather than void: and that, O Lord,

Creator, Hallowed One, You still

hour by hour sustain it

Although from a very young age Denise Levertov declared herself to be an agnostic, she nonetheless, celebrated ‘mystery’ and later attributed her keen sense of ‘wonder’ and ‘marvels’ to her own childhood education in Hasidism. Dana Greene in her comprehensive biography of Levertov writes: from a young age we see that Levertov ‘ discovered mystery in the divine sparks of the Hasidism and in her search for “inscape.”’ But it wasn’t only her Jewish heritage which had a lifelong influence on her writing about wonder. Greene goes on to say: ‘” The ‘negative capability” of Keats, the “disinterested intensity” of Rilke, the “dialogical relationships” of Buber, each brought her closer to its revelation……(the) search for mystery is everywhere in her poetry, but she claimed not to have belief. She considered herself a “syncretist or a dilettante of religions”.’There was a spirit in Denise Levertov from a very young age which sought expression through writing poetry, but refused to be contained. Words became Levertov’s primary and lifelong interest. At the end of her life she lamented that the English working vocabulary in America was shrinking. She herself wrote her first poem at the age of 5, dictating it to her older sister Olga. At the age of 11 she sent a poem to TS Eliot who was then Editor of The Criterion. Though he did not publish the poem, he took the time to write back to her and advised to keep writing poetry and translate of other poets. Rilke, was one of a number of poets she translated and went back to again and again for inspiration throughout her life. Levertov was mainly home schooled by her mother. Their house was filled with books. As she grew up increasingly she enjoyed solitary visits to London galleries and museums; places that become repositories to feed her awakening imagination. For a time as a young adult she pursued ballet, but then at 19 became a nurse. However, it was when she left England in 1948, aged 25, having married an American, Mitchell Goodman, that writing became her primary focus.

The contemporary French phenomenologist, theologian and poet, Jean Louis Chretien, has written about interplay between the gaze, the speech and the silence. I have found the idea of this inter-movement, like a dance, a helpful way of working with Levertov’s poetry. It’s as if Levertov herself is performing a listening-gaze into silence. This act is with her whole self, her body, mind and spirit, and the action gives voice in words born from this. And once uttered, the words themselves seem to fall back into the unheard. According to Chretien, listening is prior to speaking, and ‘speaking does not dominate listening’, thus it provides a common space for community. So this act of listening-gaze into silence, is relational. Throughout her life a great deal of Levertov’s poetry celebrates the natural world. On one level you can read these poems as a celebration of nature and all its attendant nuances - exteriorily witnessed and inwardly apprehended. But when looked closer, what starts happening particularly in her later work, is even more delicately layered, more exceptionally nuanced. In her search to make meaning, there is a delicate balance and understanding between the poet as self-conscious perceiver perceiving, and that which is perceived being both perceived and also perceiving. The silence that rests in all of this, in the perceived and the perceiver, and the silence which enables the listening, precedes all. And this then is all then further mirrored in the world of the listener or reader - their interplay with the words, their gaze, their own listening. Last poem, published posthumously in This Great Unknowing:


When I opened the door

I found the vine leaves

speaking among themselves in abundant


My presence made them

hush their green breath,

embarrassed, the way

humans stand up, buttoning up 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


For Chretien, silence, the unknown, is the ground of speech. And the first dimension of this silence is listening. ‘I opened the door / I found the vineleaves / speaking among themselves in abundant / whispers.’ Secondly, there is silence as response. Chretien says: ‘here the suspension of speech is still itself speech, an eloquent silence, a place of encounter and mutual presence.’ ‘My presence made them / hush their green breath.’ What do the plants do? They ‘button up their jackets, act as if they were leaving anyway’. Mutual encounter and response in silence. And thirdly, according to Chretien, speech as excess. Excess means ‘a surplus of content that defies our attempt at grasping it through our understanding.’ Speech becomes religious. It encounters the Divine. It becomes the Incarnate Word which redeems human silence and helps us listen for a Eucharistic excess in the cosmic silence. It leaves its traces in the ordinary, traces many of us have lost sight of, but still remain for those who are willing to ‘relearn the world.’ Here, for the poet: ‘Next time / I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open / the door by fractions, eavesdrop / peacefully.’ What is the poet wanting to hear? What does she think she will overhear in her eavesdropping? Is it such ‘excess’? We are left wondering too, what is it that we hear and do not hear in the world around us? This is a poem about the privileged articulated view of a listening-gaze into nature: ‘I liked the glimpse I had’, ‘I liked the sound’. And the poem itself becomes the explanation for its title, Aware. To be aware in the world is to be attuned to this interplay of gaze, silence and word. Attuned, and listening deeply.

From their outset in New York, Denise Levertov and Mitch Goodman moved in cultured circles - bohemian, literary, academic and activist. A year after their marriage their only child, Nikolai, was born. Over the next 15 years Levertov formed close ties with older poets in particular William Carlos Williams and H.D., and also The Black Mountain Poets, those of her own generation, Robert Creely and Robert Duncan. In 1955 she became an American citizen. But these were also very difficult years. There were marital and financial problems, frustrations with her own irrepressible passions. She felt trapped and was not only concerned about the health of her parents and sister, but also experienced difficulties with her son. Mitch suffered depression and setbacks with his own writing. They moved around and lived in Mexico for a period. Nonetheless by the end of 1955 Levertov had really begun to make inroads into the American poetry scene. Very quickly, and uniquely for a woman at this time, she was establishing a name for herself. And a decade later she had 5 more published books of poetry and was now benefitting from public readings, fellowships and teaching positions.

For her 31st birthday Mitch gave Denise a two volume set of Buber’s Tales of Hasidism. In it they were delighted to read about her ancestor, Shneour Zalman. The work itself resonated with her mystic heritage. Buber’s writing was influential in other ways. From early on Levertov apprehended in life a ‘double image’ : joy and wonder, fear and promise. Buber helped further her imagination understand the self’s engagement with the interior terrain and exterior world. Also, the self’s connection with another self, with God, with the Other. Later, Thomas Didymus, or doubting Thomas, became one New Testament figure which helped in terms of exploring her own awakening Christian faith alongside doubt. She was discovering a place where faith and doubt could co-exist in art, as in the self.

Central to the work of Chretien is the notion that the relationship between God, human and the world, is a calling forth, and a need for response. For Chretien, silence ‘opens us, wounds us spiritually and bodily, and summons us.’ During the 1960s and 1970s Levertov became actively involved in working for values of human justice; with protest groups she struggled for peace and care of the earth. She worked tirelessly, with Mitch, on anti-Vietnam War campaigns, and they were leading speakers for nuclear disarmanent groups and the environmental movement. She was arrested several times. Her poetry during this period reflects her social and political activism. Such public activism was not new to her. As a child her family had sheltered refugees. With her parents Levertov had publicly demonstrated against fascism. She had wanted to join the British communist party but was too young, resigning herself instead to simply selling The Daily Worker.

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.

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.


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, eachtapir bearing a human soul.


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, toenter 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,


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.

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 feast, slender

evidence, take it or leave it. I give you

my word.

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

  • PDF :>archives>clingerman


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