(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Tesserae are the individual fragments of glass, stone, or tile used to create a mosaic. In her memoir, Denise Levertov does not claim to have created a complete mosaic of her life but instead offers the reader a handful of fragments—“memories and suppositions”—written “from time to time . . . between poems.” Each of the “tesserae” presented here reflects light at a different angle to illuminate a portion of the path the poet’s life has followed.

Levertov has written elsewhere (in The Poet in the World, 1973) about her sense of life as pilgrimage and the importance of mythology, both universal and personal, in her poetry. Tesserae opens with a fragment of her personal mythology: her father’s boyhood memory of a Russian street peddler whose bulging sack the boy believed held wings that would allow people to fly like birds. After her father’s death more than half a century later, Levertov discovered that the painter Marc Chagall, who grew up in the same time and place as Paul Levertov, had also recognized the magic of the peddler’s sack and had painted the old man in flight. This magical memory is connected with another piece of the poet’s personal mythology, the story of her father’s great-grandfather, the Rav of Northern White Russia, who in his youth declined to learn the language of the birds but nevertheless came to understand their speech in his old age. The Rav appears in Levertov’s poem “Illustrious Ancestors” (Overland to the Islands, 1958); thus the one-page essay “The Sack Full of Wings” sheds a little light on the process that transmutes myth and memory into poetry.

The next three essays are more family stories, handed down over generations until they have acquired the soft patina of myth. “A Minor Role” tells the remarkable story of the conversion of Levertov’s father, a scholarly Russian Jew, to Christianity. At the age of eight or nine, the boy, already a Talmud scholar, found trampled in the snow a scrap of printed paper that told of a boy like himself expounding Scripture to rabbis in the Temple. Not until he was a university student did he discover the source—the Gentiles’ Gospel—of the fragment that had so captured his imagination. His fascination led him to conversion and, eventually, to lodgings in the home of an evangelical pastor; the marital designs of the pastor’s elder daughter, however, led him to flee, first to Jerusalem and then to Constantinople, where he met the young Welsh woman whom he would marry. The poet recounts her father’s story with a fine sense of the way human destiny works itself out in seemingly inconsequential, chance events.

“A Dumbshow” is a snapshotlike memory of her mother’s own fateful journey to Constantinople. In the early-morning silence in Budapest, she happened to witness a little drama: “A maid, airing pillows on the balcony; the maid goes in; the pillow falls at the feet of a surprised little Hungarian girl, who seizes the prize in a flash and makes off with it; the maid comes out to search in vain for the vanished pillow.” This charming vignette is capped with a few sentences of Levertov’s evocative “supposing”: What became of the child who took the pillow, and what events in her life followed inexorably from that single, chance, impulsive act?

The next dozen fragments of Levertov’s mosaic, possibly the heart of the book, are memories and suppositions from the poet’s own childhood, up to the age of about twelve, in and about London between 1923 and 1935. “Cordova” tells how the humdrum task of carrying freshly ironed handkerchiefs through the house to put them away was transformed by her imagination into a thrilling and dangerous journey through the mysterious lanes and alleys of a bustling “Arabian Nights” city crowded with Moorish architecture, and how the sounds or patterns of certain works of art can still elicit Levertov’s imaginary memory of this place. Nearly everyone has dwelled in such mythic realms in childhood; Levertov’s gift is to capture and evoke their magical essence, as she has done here in transparent prose, or, once again, to transform personal mythology into poetry as she did in the related poem “A Doorkey for Cordova” (Breathing the Water, 1987).

“Gypsies” provides another fragment of her parents’ mythic history. En route by boat from Constantinople to Venice, they happened to do a favor for a fellow passenger who proved to be the king of the Romany Gypsies; they were rewarded with a solemn promise of help from Gypsies anywhere in the world for the rest of their lives. As a child, hiking with her family in Wales, Levertov witnessed how her mother’s recounting the story to a Gypsy woman they met elicited powerful, frightening predictions concerning the poet’s sister, Olga—predictions that were evidently borne out in essence if not in detail.

Two of Levertov’s childhood memoirs treat another theme...

(The entire section is 2020 words.)