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A Shadow in the Day’s Brilliance: Denise Levertov on Living with Our Grief for the World

by David Shaddock

This regular column for Poetry Flash looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today.

IN THIS COLUMN, I want to continue my search for poems that articulate and respond to human suffering, including the murder of innocent children in Texas and the persistence of a World War II-like conflict in Ukraine. As if by rote my hands find Denise Levertov's poem "Human Being," from her 1978 collection Life in the Forest. It is also the first poem in The Stream and the Sapphire, her collection of poems on religious themes. For those who want to companion this discussion with the text, here's a URL:

The poem is a meditation on how we humans coexist with the wall, her metaphor for the barrier in our consciousness between our ordinary lives and the daily, unspeakable horrors that surround us:

the wall, the wall

of brick that crumbles and is replaced,

of twisted iron

of rock,

the wall that speaks, saying monotonously:

Children and animals

who cannot learn

anything from suffering

suffer, are tortured, die

in incomprehension.

The last lines turn and turn in the mind, suggesting the horror of our inability to comfort, to reassure, to cradle a head, to kiss a forehead. Psychologists are familiar with this wall of repression, fantasy, denial, dissociation. Necessary, but often limiting devices for psychic protection. Here the protection is only partial. The wall's very existence speaks of the unsayable suffering it is trying to hide. What is it like being human, in the light of this suffering? the poem asks. How can we praise the world, or have the faith required to keep on living?

Echoing, it would seem, Blake's "Mental Traveller," (I travell'd thro' a land of men/…And heard and saw such dreadful things) the poem begins:

Human being—walking

in doubt from childhood on: walking

a ledge of slippery stone in the world's woods

deep-layered with set leaves—rich or sad: on one

side of the path, ecstasy, on the other

dull grief.Walking

Grief and ecstasy are the wellsprings of Levertov's poetry. I'm reminded of a hot day in Seattle when Denise and I (she was my friend) walked out from her house to the end of Seward Point in Lake Washington. Her companionable heron was perched on his piling, which immediately put Denise in an even a better mood. My springer spaniel, Chloe, jumped into the lake, and we decided, though dressed, to wade in after her. Denise was game, though in a skirt, and I was glad to offer an arm to steady her. Clearly this was on the side of ecstasy in the dull grief/ecstasy dialectic. But that was the thing about Denise…both were always present. Neither Pollyanna nor depressive, she lived, and invites us, in this poem, to live the tension inherent in the human condition. To celebrate, witness, grieve and condemn in their own order. I find this task growing harder, not easier for me as the years and the news take their toll.

Levertov was born in 1923 and raised outside of London. After the war she married Mitch Goodman, an American writer, and reinvented herself as an American poet in the spirit of William Carlos Williams. Her poetry is alive with the presence of the miraculous in the ordinary things of the world, as well as with witness to its horrors. In her essay "Poetry, Prophecy and Survival," she writes that in addition to "poetry that depicts and denounces perennial injustice and cruelty in their current forms…"

we need also poetry of praise, of love for the world, the vision of the potential good even in our species that has so messed up the rest of creation, so fouled its own nest. If we lose sense of contrast, the opposites of all the grime and gore, the torture, the banality of the computerized apocalypse, we lose the reason for trying to work for redemptive change.

And behind this tension between grief and ecstasy, another stratum of contradiction between belief and doubt.

Denise's prototypical human continues walking, traversing not just landscape, but inscape, a term she got from Hopkins to describe our mental terrain. Now she leaves the dangerous and beautiful woods for "the mind's imperial cities," referencing it seems the distinction between the state of nature (the world's woods) and the world of civilization and culture, symbolized by the world's grand capitals, here perhaps Paris or Beijing:


the mind's imperial cities, roofed-over alleys.

thoroughfares, wide boulevards

that hold evening primrose of sky in steady calipers.

Is Denise preferring these "imperial cities" to nature? To a certain extent, yes, she is affirming the built world, the world of art and culture. But the word "calipers" gives me pause. My mind associates to the famous Blake engraving of white-haired Urizen, God of abstract reasoning, measuring the world with his compass. To Blake a symbol of reduction and limitation. A bit more ambiguous in Denise, in which the city itself measures and frames the landscape. Her calipered sunset is a transient moment, an entry in her catalog of human responses to the world.

Now the primrose sky has darkened, and we find our prototypical human alone, in her room at bedtime. The image Levertov comes up with is that of a child saying her bedtime prayers:

This human being, each night nevertheless

summoning, with a breath blown at a flame,

or hand's touch

on the lamp-switch—darkness,

silently utters,

impelled as if by a need to cup the palms

and drink from a river,

the words 'Thanks.

Thanks for this day, a day of my life.'

I find myself moved and chastised by these simple lines. With the news now available on our cellphones, I often disregard the advice of sleep specialists and read my phone after I turn the light out. In a single week the Supreme Court, as if singularly resurrecting the darkest fantasies of the Patriarchy, affirms the right of men to walk the streets with their firearms concealed, safe in the comfort that they have reasserted their control of women's reproductive rights. News which leaves me, like the poem's protagonist, "Pull(ing) up the blankets, looking/into nowhere," always in doubt. What if instead of perusing Politico or the Times evening feed, I instead uttered a half-believed prayer of thanks? At least we would be offering up something seemly, the poet suggests, a gesture of form offered to the world's gnawing chaos.

The poem concludes with a description of how our human takes

…strange pleasure

in having repeated once more the childish formula,

a pleasure in what is seemly.

And drifts to sleep, downstream

on murmuring currents of doubt and praise,

the wall shadowy, that tomorrow

will cast its own, familiar chill, clear-cut shadow

into the day's brilliance.

The phrase "what is seemly" is key here. It is seemly to make a gesture of prayer, a gesture of art. We note that this final stanza uses conventional line breaks, rather then the jagged ones that precede it. It lulls us to sleep with its murmuring currents of doubt and praise. Nothing is resolved, just an acceptance that doubt and praise will forever alternate, like our in-breath and exhalation. And tomorrow, a brilliant day, like the one's Denise would have in Seattle when Mount Rainier was visible from her yard, but interlaced with the familiar chill, the clearcut shadow of the wall. That's just the way it is, the poet is saying. We go to sleep with a half-mumbled prayer of praise, then wake to a world split between an out-breath of praise and an in-breath of shudder. I personally find comfort in the poem's naming this. [A quick note: for those who might be interested in what Denise, who was completely home-schooled, was like as a teacher, I highly recommend Mark Pawlak's new book, My Deniversity: Knowing Denise Levertov, MadHat Press.]

David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His recent poetry book is A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes. He is also the author of Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field, from Routledge, and two books on relationships and couples therapy. He lectures widely on those topics, and maintains a private practice in Berkeley.

— posted JULY 2022

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