When Denise Levertov moved from Boston to Seattle 10 years ago, almost no one knew she was beginning a protracted battle with cancer. Despite being one of the most popular and influential poets of the last half-century, she remained adamant about keeping her private life private. Having never learned to drive, she needed public transportation for her medical and other needs, she wanted to be near friends, and she wanted a small garden and "a nice place for daily walks" that often served as meditations for poems in the making. Her home near the south end of Lake Washington gave her a view of "the mountain" that would inspire a number of poems, as would the great evergreens. This Great Unknowing
by Denise Levertov (New Directions, $19.95) "I move among the ankles/of forest Elders, tread/their moist rugs of moss,/duff of their soft brown carpets," she wrote in the opening poem of This Great Unknowing, a collection of finished poems to be included in a book she would not live to complete. All of her major themes are represented, from the meditative and devotional to the outwardly political, often spiced by her great good humor. In a taxi driving past "The Poodle Palace," her driver "from somewhere in India" asks about the meaning of the name, and when she explains, gives her "a laughter/dry as fissured earth," noting that "he was not indifferent/to whether I heard it or not." Levertov is, like all great poets, a terrific observer and listener, but unlike most, she is also a precisely articulate theorist and critic, and her essays on the function of the line in open forms (in New & Selected Essays, New Directions, 1992) are among the best of our time. In another poem, she says that "paradise/is a kind of poem," and offers this observation about the paradigm of "a poem's characteristics:/inspiration; starting with the given;/unexpected harmonies; revelations." Indeed these are the precise characteristics of her own poetry over the past 50 years. Born in England in 1923 and educated at home, she trained to become a dancer before World War II. The discovery of American poetry, and especially the poetry of William Carlos Williams, brought her to the United States shortly after the war. Although she became one of our foremost poets, she often reminded her friends that she had never lost her "mid-Atlantic accent," and she remained somehow simultaneously British and American through five decades here, a renowned teacher of "American, not British" verse with no degree—nor even a high school diploma—unique in her views and in her language. She lived through and for her poetry and her passionate love for art. Her powers of observation are formidable. In "Southern Cross," she looks closely at a sculpture by Philip McCracken and finds a "dense abyss of planes and angles,/ pinned by constellations,/celestial stigmata." In "Mid-December," she observes, "The mountain's/western slope is touched/weightlessly with what will be, soon,/the afterglow." It is with utter precision that she writes "will be, soon," rather than "will soon be." The difference in rhythm reflects a difference in meaning. In "Dark Looks," she finds a conventional metaphor when "the mountain" looks like "a frowning/humorless old prophet" in October light, but revitalizes the metaphor by making a startling juxtaposition with "curly cherub clouds/beyond the glittering lake," flirting with but dodging romantic sentimentality. Pathetic fallacy—giving human characteristics to inanimate objects—has been the downfall of many a poet. Her poems on the mountain nearly always walk a fine edge without quite overstepping: "The mountain's speech is silence./ . . . Uninterrupted as the silence God maintains/throughout the centuries. /. . . Will the roar of eruption be/the mountain's owned repressed voice,/or that of fire? Does the mountain/harbor a demon distinct from itself?" Levertov was a practicing Catholic, and by tying "God's silence" to the mountain's and introducing the idea of a "demon" at the end, she asks whether the Christian "devil" is distinct from "God." She asks whether heaven is distinct from hell. In this poem she complains that what is known of "the mountain's moods" are known only "to sight alone," and speculates about the known but unseen "fire that seethes in its depths," and which will one day break open "the mute imperturbable summit." Here again she presents a poem following her own paradigm, beginning with the inspiration located within the given, and finding unexpected harmonies resulting in revelation. There is no summing up, no mention of death or cancer in This Great Unknowing, and that is not surprising, given Denise Levertov's convictions about her duty to poetry and the conduct of her life. She remained true to those convictions throughout her life, a funny, charming, tough-minded, open-hearted poet and social activist who gave us 30 volumes of poetry, essays, and translations. She loved her life here and it shows in these poems. We should build her a monument the size of her mountain. Sam Hamill is the editor of Copper Canyon Press. His latest book, 'Erotic Spirit: An Anthology of Poems of Sensuality, Love, and Longing' was published last month by Shambala.