A Door in the Hive

by Denise Levertov

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A Door in the Hive

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1609

Denise Levertov’s poetry is a perpetual irritant to the pragmatist. As Robert Duncan demonstrated in The Truth and Life of Myth (1968), modern critics disliked the young Levertov’s Hasidic fancies of angels disguised as peddlers on a New York street. For Levertov, the natural world manifests revelation, and if realists are impatient with her, she is frustrated with their resignation:

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   why should peopleplod forever on foot, not glide like heronsthrough the blue and whitepromise unfoldingover their heads, overthe river’s thawing?

This from A Door in the Hive, a question that Levertov’s father pondered after spotting the same flying man whom Marc Chagall saw and painted flying over his town. Levertov’s father also discovered the Messiah, Christ himself, but his fellow Jews, realists worn with waiting nineteen hundred years, would have none of that either.

Levertov has inherited her father’s hopefulness, and it has not diminished if the current book is indicative. Her title comes from the poem “Dream ’Cello,” in which she wonders about possible revelations from a hidden world. She imagines a fertile brain—a granary of mental seeds, musical notes, images for artists—containing “unpremeditated congeries of wisdoms.” Here is where the real words are found, and if a poet does not receive hers from this stock she fusses with their “pale understudies.” Like Alice, she requires a suitable key or metamorphosis:

Invisible hive, has it no small doorwe could find if we stoodquite still and listened?

The muse of this book appears to be Rainer Maria Rilke: The volume opens with “To Rilke” and concludes with “Variation on a Theme by Rilke.” Another Rilke variation appears about half-way through. Rilke is Levertov’s admitted spiritual poet—forefather. He challenges her to read the word of God in nature, to look hard at things and interpret the pattern, and, when stymied by enigma, to read one’s incomprehension as yet more of the pattern. Rendezvous with pattern occurs for Levertov at borderlands. Poem after poem posits frontiers, transition points, meetings of opposites, verges of transcendence. Gloomily hovering over many of the poems is the meeting of the current century with the next; as humanity heads to the third millennia, it seems doomed. In its technological dreams, mankind intends to desert Earth for a spaceship home, independent of all borders, especially that one between the soles of the feet and the earth’s surface.

   Imagine it, they think,way out there, outside of ’nature,’ unhampered,a place contrived by man, supremetriumph of reason. They know it will happen.They do not love the earth.

Levertov scolds like this, intermittently. Was Robinson Jeffers right, she wonders: Should humanity never have been born? Still, she asserts her clearcut Christianity, and reads the incarnation, yet one more border crossing, as God’s goodness to a race which failed to evolve. There are poems about her own desire for transformation, even at the cost of isolation from a mentor, Robert Duncan. Section 1 is all about literal travel prefiguring soul rebirth. Traveling takes her to new places and new senses of the earth. The section ends with “The Blind Man’s House at the Edge of the Cliff.” His is the ultimate in border patrol, a front-row seat for viewing the latest releases from golden hives or the vast enigma incommunicado. This fellow is Levertov’s vision of herself (“he has chosen a life! pitched on the brinkrdquo;) and his blindness is the emblem of her faith: “He knows that if he could see! he would be no wiser.”

There are several poems about painters and paintings. Artists are the definitive border inhabitants, taking human senses into things as far as they will go. Their pictures then enter the material world, and a poet reads the message from a fellow frontiersman:

As if the forks themselveswere avid for the fish,dead scrawny fishon dead-white plate.

The world of matter is at risk, unsustained by human desire, which Levertov feels is approaching inertia. People do not enter nature any longer, and there are not sufficient artists and poets to limn the contours of the real, to cheerlead, to continue believing. A world ignored becomes a world polluted, and the escapees in space stations are fooling themselves:

The body being savagedis alive.It is our own.

Those lines are from “Two Threnodies and a Psalm,” prophetic about the ebbing of life force while advocating the self as terminus for heretofore avoided celestial combustion: “Our bones! ash and cinder of star-fire.! Our being/tinder for primal light.rdquo;

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Once alert to Levertoy’s borderland aesthetic, the eye finds it on nearly every page. Turned to at random, “The Book Without Words” tells of a book made from lead arising at the margin of sea and land: “You have come to the shore.! There are no instructions.” Another turn gives “The Life of Art” and its opening: “The borderland—that’s where, if one knew how,! one would establish residence.” Yet borders are doubly problematic when they are of human construction. A painting is an illusory world across the border for the eye to study, but is also a nonillusory compound of stuff: canvas impregnated with brushed—on pigment, the tangible brush technique, the smell of turpentine. How can the eye accept the painted room, be seduced by the illusion of air, temperature, furniture, for more than an instant? Levertov uses this dilemma for yet one more image of the life of faith. As best as one can, one believes in the painting’s “carpet nubs of wool, the cold fruit in a bowl:! one almost sees! what lies beyond the window, past the frame, beyond.”

Occasionally Levertov’s horizon-squinting blinds her to what happens before her nose. In “On the Parables of the Mustard Seed” she argues that in the oft-quoted parable Jesus was not referring to real mustard plants but to an “as if” plant. Jesus, master of nature, knew that mustard plants do not grow as large as shrubs or trees where birds have their nests. His mustard plant was imaginary, a metaphor for faith, as impossible to have as tree-sized mustard bushes. The parable as Levertov reinterprets it is thus not an encouragement to faith and its power but a bemoaning of miracle’s scarcity on Earth. Yet anyone who has passed a spring in a Mediterranean climate, whether California’s or Israel’s, has seen rain- soaked mustard plants growing seven to eight feet tall with branches suitable for blackbird nests. There is an arrogance to Levertov ’5 assumed correction of the glib Bible readers who have thought for generations that Jesus was depicting the magic of faith. If Levertov is wrong in this poem about the mustard plant, the farmer who knows it will be at a disadvantage reading the rest of her poetry. Is she simply hyping with poetry, blasting the ordinary with rhetorical aplomb for an audience of one?

A Door in the Hive is strongest where preaching is minimized or, at least, displaced. There are some fine, short Gary Snyder-like nature poems, and there is a powerful long poem, “El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation,” which produces through dialogue an interesting thesis about the despoiling of Salvadorians by their white conquerors. The poem, ballasted by library research, says that the unity of preconquered El Salvador was a marriage of agriculture and religion. White economics forced disintegration into single-crop, demand-oriented production. With each century a new crop-whether indigo, rum, coffee, or corn—was harvested to the exclusion of others, in disregard for traditional rhythms of planting. The Salvadorians became slaves to the secular view of nature as capital. What livens the thesis is its utterance by the likes of Archbishop Romero. Levertov has him pronounce the names of fifty- eight men, women, and children who were murdered by envoys of the white capitalists. Such a poem is a wake-up call for North Americans, and is more effective than direct Levertov invective since it is mediated “as if” from the mouths of the sufferers themselves.

Another poem effective for its dramatic extension is “St. Thomas Didymus.” Levertov becomes Thomas and imagines the reason for his infamy as a doubter: his sensitivity to suffering. Jesus heals the epileptic, but Thomas wonders with the epileptic’s father what the young man did to deserve the affliction in the first place, other than simply being born. Jesus’ death stirs the same agony of questioning in Thomas. The reappearance of the resurrected Christ, the confirmation provided by Thomas’ hand in His side, is a supreme moment of border crossing. The divine is revealed:

But when my hand   led by His hand’s firm claspentered the unhealed wound,     my fingers encounteringrib-bone and pulsing heat,    what I felt was notscalding pain, shame for my     obstinate need,but light, light streaming     into me, over me, filling the room

Other poetry of such straightforward Christian desire is hard to find in the late twentieth century. The imagination of what it is to be spirit trapped in flesh is Levertov’s private poetic practice. Jesus Himself has not been so thoroughly identified with, existing on the border of life and Life: “and Spirit/ streaming through every cell of flesh/ so that if mortal sight could bear/to perceive it, it would be seen/ His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,/ and aching for home.” Yet Levertov’s mood has not wholly deserted her messiahless brethren. Other poems acknowledge an aloof God, and a vapor of humanity which can only construct a hope of God. Driving each of these poems, however, is a wish for final unity with the design from which “we were broken off.”


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10

Library Journal. CXIV, November 1, 1989, p.92.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, October 13, 1989, p.48.

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