Breathing the Water

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

BREATHING THE WATER is the fifteenth collection of new poems in a career that began in the mid-1940’s. Like its predecessors, it speaks to a need that poetry is empowered to fulfill: the need that countless readers feel to see how another mind (unique, but similar to their own) experiences the world that all minds share. This is a kind of poetic diary, and for those who have been following Levertov’s work there is an added depth of meaning that can only be gained in slow time: a reader’s sense of the writer’s life unfolding even as his own life is passing, a history that is at once personal and social, the record of a time and place.

This book is best read as a whole, without asking too much of any given poem. Some of the poems are flat, prosaic; a few are extraordinary, worthy of anthologizing--in particular, the sequence entitled “The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416.” The religious sensibility that has always informed Levertov’s work was muted in the 1960’s and 1970’s by anguish at suffering, self-doubt, and political anger. In CANDLES IN BABYLON (1982) and OBLIQUE PRAYERS (1984), however, anguish and doubt were balanced by a new affirmation of redemptive hope, at times explicitly Christian. That hard-won hope animates BREATHING THE WATER as well, and is most powerfully expressed in “The Showings.”

Julian of Norwich is generally classified as a “mystic,” thus posing no challenge to our everyday business. It is Levertov’s belief that we need to make Julian’s mystical way of seeing our own; like Julian, we need to “turn our gaze/ inside out,” to see the entire world as “a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, held safe/ in God’s pierced palm.”