Denise Levertov’s poetry is a perpetual irritant to the pragmatist. As Robert Duncan demonstrated in The Truth and Life of Myth (1968), modern critics disliked the young Levertov’s Hasidic fancies of angels disguised as peddlers on a New York street. For Levertov, the natural world manifests revelation, and if realists are impatient with her, she is frustrated with their resignation:
why should peopleplod forever on foot, not glide like heronsthrough the blue and whitepromise unfoldingover their heads, overthe river’s thawing?
This from A Door in the Hive, a question that Levertov’s father pondered after spotting the same flying man whom Marc Chagall saw and painted flying over his town. Levertov’s father also discovered the Messiah, Christ himself, but his fellow Jews, realists worn with waiting nineteen hundred years, would have none of that either.
Levertov has inherited her father’s hopefulness, and it has not diminished if the current book is indicative. Her title comes from the poem “Dream ’Cello,” in which she wonders about possible revelations from a hidden world. She imagines a fertile brain—a granary of mental seeds, musical notes, images for artists—containing “unpremeditated congeries of wisdoms.” Here is where the real words are found, and if a poet does not receive hers from this stock she fusses with their “pale understudies.” Like Alice, she requires a suitable key or metamorphosis:
Invisible hive, has it no small doorwe could find if we stoodquite still and listened?
The muse of this book appears to be Rainer Maria Rilke: The volume opens with “To Rilke” and concludes with “Variation on a Theme by Rilke.” Another Rilke variation appears about half-way through. Rilke is Levertov’s admitted spiritual poet—forefather. He challenges her to read the word of God in nature, to look hard at things and interpret the pattern, and, when stymied by enigma, to read one’s incomprehension as yet more of the pattern. Rendezvous with pattern occurs for Levertov at borderlands. Poem after poem posits frontiers, transition points, meetings of opposites, verges of transcendence. Gloomily hovering over many of the poems is the meeting of the current century with the next; as humanity heads to the third millennia, it seems doomed. In its technological dreams, mankind intends to desert Earth for a spaceship home, independent of all borders, especially that one between the soles of the feet and the earth’s surface.
Imagine it, they think,way out there, outside of ’nature,’ unhampered,a place contrived by man, supremetriumph of reason. They know it will happen.They do not love the earth.
Levertov scolds like this, intermittently. Was Robinson Jeffers right, she wonders: Should humanity never have been born? Still, she asserts her clearcut Christianity, and reads the incarnation, yet one more border crossing, as God’s goodness to a race which failed to evolve. There are poems about her own desire for transformation, even at the cost of isolation from a mentor, Robert Duncan. Section 1 is all about literal travel prefiguring soul rebirth. Traveling takes her to new places and new senses of the earth. The section ends with “The Blind Man’s House at the Edge of the Cliff.” His is the ultimate in border patrol, a front-row seat for viewing the latest releases from golden hives...
(The entire section is 1609 words.)