(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Somewhat autobiographically connected to Levertov’s mother, “Death in Mexico” tells the story of the old woman’s attempts to cultivate a British-styled garden in a considerably more arid climate. The narrative’s central plot is simple enough: Levertov muses upon the deterioration of her mother’s well-kept garden over the course of three weeks when the old woman is taken from her home as the result of what will eventually be a fatal illness. The poem’s persona indicates that she did attempt to keep the garden up for the old woman, and encouraged others to as well, but, in lieu of the gardener’s personal care, the garden deteriorates and quickly becomes overwhelmed.

Behind the poem’s narrative lie further examples of Levertov’s Transcendental roots. Death and deterioration are inextricably tied together in the ultimate fate of the old woman and that of her garden. Likewise, death and the transition to it are met not with remorse or even anger but merely with an acceptance that it is a natural state in the cycle of life. The persona, like the gardener, offers up no sentimentality for the garden that took twenty years to assemble, but rather she spends the length and breadth of the poem musing and observing upon the garden as it decays.

What is questioned, though, is whether humanity has the right to attempt such cultivation in the first place. In many ways, Levertov constructs the old gardener as a stubborn and obdurate surrogate for God in her cultivation of a garden in a place where no earthly garden should be (drawing a parallel to God’s creation of a Garden of Eden in what is now an arid desert climate). The old woman’s gaze, shown by Levertov as she is taken away, is one of God’s determined fixity looking upon his creation in disrepair. The gaze fixes upon a single blossom and understands with acceptance that it was only meant to live, as such, for a single day. As the poem closes, the persona notes that the garden, likewise fixed in its place for twenty years, now too will pass away as part of the natural process.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Block, Edward, ed. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 50, no. 1 (Fall, 1997). Special Levertov issue.

Gwynne, R. S., ed. American Poets Since World War II. Vol. 5 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980.

Hollenberg, Donna. “’History as I Desired It’: Ekphrasis as Postmodern Witness in Denise Levertov’s Late Poetry.” Modernism/Modernity 10, no. 3 (September, 2003): 519-537.

Janssen, Ronald, ed. Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 3 (Fall, 1992). Special Levertov issue.

Little, Anne Colclough, and Susie Paul, eds. Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2000.

Long, Mark. “Affinities of Faith and Place in the Poetry of Denise Levertov.” ISLE 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 31-40.

Rodgers, Audrey. Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.

Wagner, Linda W. Denise Levertov. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province. New York: New Directions, 1979.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Denise Levertov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.