Themes and Meanings

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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”?

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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,...

(The entire section contains 666 words.)

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Analysis