Life in the Forest

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

The literary reputation of Denise Levertov has long been established, but with Life in the Forest, her most recent publication, she once again affirms her place and assures her permanence in the mainstream of belles lettres. Further, this volume of verse marks the poet’s deliberate attempt to move beyond the freely confessional mode still currently in vogue and considered her forte. Striving to weave a narrative thread through poetic depictions of persons and places, scenes and landscapes, however, she still succeeds in imbuing them all with her personal voice and poetic presence.

Appropriately, the first of five sections comprising the collection is called a “Homage to Pavese,” and as Levertov’s notes corroborate, the poetry of Cesare Pavese more or less ratified the role she was obscurely taking in her own endeavors:Pavese’s beautiful poems are about various persons other than himself . . . and in his accompanying essays he speaks of his concept of suggesting a narrative through direct recounting of events as such. . . . Those poems of my own which have, I feel, some humble affinity—however oblique—with what Pavese achieved in Lavore Stanca, tend to rather long lines and a discursive structure.

Significantly, then, “Human Being,” the poem initiating the “Homage” group, establishes the seemingly dispassionate and disparate observations of a persona who metaphorically meditates upon man’s timeless journey:

. . . walkingin doubt from childhood on; walkinga ledge of slippery stone in the world’s woodsdeep-layered with wet leaves—rich or sad: on oneside of the path, ecstasy, on the otherdull grief.

Thus, philosophizing upon life, death, love, loneliness, joy, and sorrow, Levertov runs the gamut of universal emotions and aspirations. Skillfully, she links the poems in this and within each subsequent sequence by reinstating words, images, ideas, and metaphors with varying tones, themes, or shades of meaning. In “Chekhov on the West Heath,” for example, she suggests that the past is always with us—blending memory and desire, bringing us back to the place of our birth which “gives and gives, as we return” in need. In this long, discursive narrative she traces the ever-present influence of both author and heath of her childhood upon her later life and work. Conversely, in “A Woman Meets an Old Lover” the poet proposes—with interlocking phrase and ironic pun—a woman’s apparent ability to obliterate the past and particularly a love that caused her pain:

He who seemed always totake and not give, who took meso long to forgetremembered everything I had so long forgotten.

Likewise, “A Woman Alone,” a companion piece to the preceding poem, foregoes both the pleasure and pain of the past in a forgetfulness that alleviates self-pity, remorse, and moments of mourning for dear, departed lovers. Since “no one can walk the world any more,” the woman acquires the ability to remain alone and the endurance to face a “euphoric solitude” devoid of guilt and deceit.

Following a series of poetic observations of fellow “travelers” through time—“A Young Man Traveling,” “Fellow Passengers,” and “A Mystery in Mexico,” the first section concludes with a poetic sequence far more personal in phrase and more prophetic of the tone and themes extant in Section Two. Somewhat transitionally, then, the final phase of the “Pavese” collection pays fitting homage to the nostalgic impact of time past upon time present; while, concurrently, it prefigures the opening poems of the “Continuum” sequence in their elegiac longing for the lost garden of childhood and their pervasive guilt and grief for an aging mother’s suffering and death.

In “The 90th Year,” for example, the poet assumes the first-person approach of the confessional mode, as she juxtaposes the pleasurable memories of childhood past with the timeless process whereby a beloved mother grows weary of life and waits for the eternal peace of death. In this regard, the sequence assumes a narrative chronology all its own, as subsequent poems unfold the effects of age and infirmity—the mother’s debilitating dependency and impending death. Symbolically refurbishing a familiar image, the poet suggests the mother’s diminishing life through the demeaning encroachment of weather and weeds upon her otherwise idyllic garden. Thus, the crackling seedpods and broken blossoms prefigure the human “husk/a shell/from which the soul of life still struggles to be freed.”

In “A Daughter (I)” and “A Daughter (II),” however, the persona focuses less upon the indignities of the dying and more intently upon the anguish of the bereaved on the eve and in the aftermath of a mother’s death. With careful scrutiny to domestic detail, she perceives the mundane needs to which she must minister—the “milk to be boiled . . . hair to be brushed,” and bandages to bind firm the “old bones” broken in a fall. And, in the manner of Emily Dickinson, she anticipates the meaningless words and myriad decisions to be determined for funeral, burial, and final disposition of effects. With both compression and concentration, Levertov strikes a compelling emotive response, as she simulates the agony of love lying inarticulate, locked like “a cube of Pain” in the daughter’s throat. Further, she effectively assimilates the woman’s doubt and dilemma—wondering if she should have remained those many years before, yet wishing even now to flee from the sight of her mother’s silent suffering. More than ever, of course, she laments the precipitate passing of time:

. . . one minuteof communion, here in limbo. All the years of it,talk, laughter, letters. Yet somethingwent unsaid. And there’s no place

(The entire section is 2607 words.)

Life in the Forest Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXV, October 1, 1978, p. 271.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, November 15, 1978, p. 1300.

Library Journal. CIII, September 15, 1978, p. 1752.