Breathing the Water

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me--a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

Denise Levertov

Levertov had an intriguing family inheritance - a father who was the descendent of a famous Hasidic rabbi and yet who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and had become an Anglican priest (after a roundabout journey from Russia) with a mission to the Jews and an orphaned Welsh mother. They were parents who contrived to be, paradoxically, both demanding and distant, controlling and freeing. Levertov was effectively home schooled (as was her older sister) and whilst reading copiously and learning several languages, she never learnt to multiply!

Her vocation as a poet came early - a thread she followed - first a pulling from an unknown mystery that over time deepened and extended into an explicitly religious vocation. She was eventually to become a Catholic - though always a questing, sceptical one - and one convinced that no religious tradition can claim exclusivity over the truth. Truth is something that wells up within our experience, when faithfully attended to, and is always open to correction. She was always a poet first, a poet who happened to be a Christian rather than a Christian poet (or for that matter a 'woman' poet).

What is most moving in her life, as beautifully portrayed in Dana Greene's excellent 'Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life', is both that faithfulness to her vocation and her ability to let it transform her. She was always and ever a complex and conflicted person, a great and difficult friend, a wife and mother lovingly grained with imperfections and failures and yet she kept moving, sinking deeper into her own experience and fashioning from it poems that were never 'confessional' but that strove to offer ways of seeing that would be liberatory, of imagining new wholes. For her, imagination was our greatest gift for it enabled you to see with empathy, birthing compassion. She was touched by presence and she sang what she had been given and known, continually stepping through the limitations of her fragile person.

Last night after finishing Greene's book, I re-read Levertov's cycle of six poems on 'The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich 1342-1416' in her late collection: 'Breathing the Water'. In these six short works, she is able to re-imagine Julian's life, encapsulate the essence of her vision of God's grace, never striking a false note, making Julian wholly contemporary because wholly a truth bearer of an imaginative vision to be pondered, digested and remade as one's own.

"...God for a moment in our history
placed in that five-fingered
human nest
the macrocosmic egg, sublime paradox,
brown hazelnut of All that Is-
made, and belov'd, and preserved.
As still, waking each day within
our microcosm, we find it, and ourselves."

At heart what was most amazing for Levertov was:

"the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it."

In that Levertov could sustainingly sing it, from it, out of it, into it - a life of poetic witnessing.


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