Some critics consider Denise Levertov’s poem “The Blue Rim of Memory” one of the many written about her mother’s death in Mexico that make up much of Life in the Forest, in which it first appeared in 1978. While this may well be the case, the poem could also reflect the poet’s thoughts on any sorrowful occasion, as her mother is not specifically mentioned in it, and the images described would be as effective, regardless of the particular event. The poem is wholly metaphorical and divided into four primary images, each describing “the way sorrow enters the bone.” Levertov turns to a historical reference—appropriate in discussing the concepts of memory—and to the natural world—specifically, fire, fish, and snow—to express the presence of sadness as it persists in the human mind, soul, and body. Both the message of the poem and its clarity depend on the beauty of language and the power of creating a sharp picture in the reader’s mind to exemplify what sorrow feels like. In each of the four instances portrayed, the reader is offered a sensory experience to consider, a provocative image detailing how sorrow operates in memory.
“The Blue Rim of Memory” was also published in Poems 1972–1982, which compiles Levertov’s books The Freeing of the Dust (1975), Life in the Forest (1978), and Candles in Babylon (1982). This book was released by Levertov’s former publisher, New Directions Press, in 2001.
The first line of “The Blue Rim of Memory” sets up the premise for all the images and events that follow throughout the poem. Everything from this point on will be a description of “the way sorrow enters the bone,” and the poet will rely on metaphors to get her point across. Line 2 generalizes the specific images that are about to come, suggesting that sorrow is sometimes felt quickly and can be as painful as the “stabs” of a knife. At other times, it seems to linger on the sidelines of a person’s thoughts and emotions, an ever-present grief that permeates the memory.
These lines open the first of four central metaphors in the poem, and the most extended one as well. “From a torn page” implies that this image is like one taken from a book, a moment alienated from the rest of the story. The scene described is reminiscent of eighteenth-century transportation. A “cabriolet” is a two-wheeled, one-horse carriage with room for two people and a top that folds down. Today, they are popular for sporting newlyweds around city streets as part of the wedding celebration, but in “The Blue Rim of Memory” the cabriolet is a strange, even haunting figure from long ago. Perhaps representing sorrow, it “approaches over the crest of a hill,” more like a suspended, hovering entity than a quick, sharp stab.
These two lines simply embellish the image of the cabriolet. Anyone who has seen a horse pulling a carriage can picture the animal’s “nodding, straining head,” and anyone who has seen a movie set in the eighteenth century or earlier, recognizes the “blind lamps, peering” from the darkness, apparently held out by the riders.
The fact that there are “ladies” riding in the carriage (a cabriolet here resembles a humpy “insect” with long feelers up front) may be inconsequential, and the poem would work the same if the inhabitants were two men or a man and a woman. The only significant reason for placing two women here instead may fall in line with some critics’ belief that this poem is Levertov’s reflection on her relationship with her mother and her sorrow over the older woman’s death, which occurred a year prior to the release of Life in the Forest. Line 9 suggests that the ladies are anxious about their surroundings and apparently unaware of what lies ahead, for they are “awaiting the vista,” or distant view.
(The entire section is 1,258 words.)