Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666
An attempt to resolve the poet’s conflicts regarding her sister informs the entire poem, perhaps is its raison d’etre, and certainly determines its rises and falls, its ongoing insistence, its tabulations of Olga’s activities, its discords and harmonies. The poem’s many breaks, stops and starts, and shifts in rhythm and mood suggest a similar array within the poet’s own feelings about Olga. Without being fitful, the poet displays conflicting attitudes toward her sister. The poem opens with the poet as a child eyeing her sister undressed and already well developed. How did the child feel: suspicious—“beady-eyed in the bed”—unconcerned—“or drowsy was I? My head/ a camera”—or envious—“Her breasts/ round, round, and/ dark-nippled”?
Olga’s political activities also stir conflicting feelings in the poet. As a child, she mocked Olga’s social consciousness, and she has felt the sting of Olga’s passionate nature, felt the alienation that came from Olga’s superior knowledge and “rage for order,” all the while feeling a close bond between herself and her sister—“but linked to words we loved.” Pity follows Olga through her “bad years,” her “pilgrim years,” her hospitalization, to the end. These images of a harried, driven, “burned out” Olga are interrupted by a recollection of the sisters as they played in the sylvan setting of their childhood. This magical tour is the closest the sisters get in the poet’s journey toward a synthesis of feeling and understanding, for in this brief interlude, the poet confesses, “your life winds in me.”
Levertov’s vision is fluid from beginning to end, as is evident in the water imagery and the many references to water, music, and cadence. Structurally, this theme is expressed in the unendingness of many of the lines—the dashes point the reader onward as the current of a river carries one toward the sea. The cascading lines and stanzas are evidence that the poet is composing her own feelings and shaping her own acknowledgment of her sister’s life and influence on her. The statement “Everything flows” might stand as an epigraph of this elegy and an epitaph to Olga’s life. The sisters were musical, the poem is saying—one was, one is. Olga’s life, played out with the same passion that informed her playing Beethoven “savagely,” was an endurance “in the falls and rapids of the music.” The events of her life were the “arpeggios” that rang out, that were absorbed into the younger sister’s poetics and played like a psychic keyboard. They compose themselves into the images—tree roots, rivers, streams, lines from poems and songs—that run through the poet’s own self: “you set the words to a tune so plaintive/ it plucks its way through my life as through a woodyour life winds in me.”
The poem seems to ask whether the myriad notes, however fluidly shaped and thematically harmonized, can coalesce in the poet’s understanding. In the final section, the dominant images—water, music, lyrical consonance—are brought together in a crowd of lines that review the poet’s main subject, Olga’s passionate and apparently sterile politicism, and call up Olga’s “brown gold” eyes and the candle. Earlier, the candle symbolizes Olga’s purity and political rage; here, it is “compassion’s candle.” Acceptance marks the final mood—“’a hand beckons/ in welcome.’” Yet whether Olga herself ever took the hand remains unknown. The “rolling dark/ oncoming river” flows onward, becomes the “’selva oscura.’” Did the river engulf Olga? Did the dark wood envelop her and extinguish the candle? The answer is as mysterious as the final vision of Olga herself, her eyes hinting of “festive goodness” but hard, veiled, shining, unknowable. The final ellipsis symbolizes Levertov’s failure to arrive at a conclusive understanding of her relationship to her sister—and a triumph of the two sisters’ belief in the eternal flow, in which the poet has discovered an unending confluence.