James McCorkle

Sandra M. Gilbert: On "Life at War"

Inevitably, perhaps, for a poet of Levertov’s bent, a poet who trusts that a thread of potential joy is woven into every inch of the fabric that constitutes daily reality, any ripping or clipping of that secret, sacred thread threatens cataclysm. Thus, like such other poets of affirmation as Bake, Shelley, Whitman, or in our own age Bly, she is a deeply political writer—and I am using the word "politics" in its most ordinary sense, to mean public matters having to do with "the policies, goals, or affairs of a government" (American Heritage Dictionary). For in the "real" world, it is political action—the burning of villages, the decapitation of villagers, the building of bombs—that most threatens the authority of the daily joy. Yet, paradoxically enough, despite their often revolutionary intensity, Levertov’s most artistically problematic poems are precisely those no doubt overdetermined verses in which she explicitly articulates her political principles.

Comparatively early in her career, Levertov began to try to find a way of confronting and analyzing the horrors of a history—especially a twentieth-century history—which denies the luminous integrity of flesh-and-spirit. But even one of her better poems in this mode, "Crystal Night" (in The Jacob’s Ladder), now seems rhetorically hollow, with its generalized description of "The scream! The awaited scream" which "rises," and "the shattering / of glass and the cracking / of bone" (Poems, 68). The better-known "Life at War," in The Sorrow Dance, is more hectic still, in its insistence that


We have breathed the grits of it [war] in, all our lives,

our lungs are pocked with it,

the mucous membrane of our dreams

coated with it, the imagination

filmed over with the gray filth of it


and in its editorial revulsion from the complicity of "delicate Man, whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" (Poems, 229).

In a splendid essay on verse in this mode ("On the Edge of Darkness: What is Political Poetry?" in Light up the Cave, 1981), Levertov herself observes, about the "assumption by partisan poets and their constituencies that the subject matter carries so strong an emotive charge in itself that it is unnecessary to remember poetry’s roots in song, magic, and ... high craft," that such a belief is "dangerous to poetry" (Light, 126). Yet in most of her political verse she seems herself to have disregarded her own astute warning. Because she has little taste or talent for irony, her comments on social catastrophe lack, on the one hand, the sardonic ferocity that animates, say, Bly’s "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" (e.g., "It’s because we have new packaging for smoked oysters that bomb holes appear in the rice paddies"), and, on the other hand, the details of disillusionment that give plausibility to, say, Lowell’s "For the Union Dead" (e.g., "When I crouch to my television set, / the drained faces of negro school-children rise like balloons"). At the same time, despite the impressive sincerity of her political commitment, her exhortations fail to attain (as perhaps postmodernist exhortations inevitably must) the exaltation of, for instance, Shelley’s "Men of England, wherefore plough / For the lords who lay ye low?"

Still, as Levertov’s personal commitment to the antinuclear movement and to support for revolutionary regimes in Central America has intensified, the proportion of politicized work included in her published collections has risen drastically. Oblique Prayers (1984) contains a section of ten manifestos, most of which, sadly, dissolve into mere cries of rage and defiance. The tellingly titled "Perhaps No Poem But All I Can Say And I Cannot Be Silent," for instance, protests against "those foul / dollops of History / each day thrusts at us, pushing them / into our gullets" (Oblique, 35) while "Rocky Flats" depicts "rank buds of death" in "nuclear mushroom sheds," and "Watching Dark Circle" describes the experimental "roasting of live pigs" in "a simulation of certain conditions" as leading to "a foul miasma irremovable from the nostrils" (Oblique, 38, 39). Though I (along with, I suspect, the majority of her readers and admirers) share most of Levertov’s political convictions, I must confess that besides being less moved by these poems that I have been by the more artful verses of Bly, Lowell, and Shelley, I am rather less moved than I would be by eloquent journalism, and considerably less affected than I would be by a circumstantially detailed documentary account of the events that are the subjects of Levertov’s verses, for certainly there is little song, magic, or high craft in some of their phrases. The muse is still, I trust, "indwelling" in this poet’s house, but she has not presided over some of the writer’s recent work.

To be sure, the muse has inspired several of Levertov’s political verses. "Thinking about El Salvador," in Oblique Prayers opens with the poet’s confession that "Because every day they chop heads off / I’m silent...for each tongue they silence / a word in my mouth / unsays itself," and concludes with a poignant vision


of all whose heads every day

float down the river

and rot

and sink,

not Orpheus heads

still singing, bound for the sea,

but mute.

                (Oblique, 34)


And the much earlier "A Note to Olga (1966)" dramatizes the poet’s sudden vision of her dead sister at a political rally:


                     It seems

you that is lifted


limp and ardent

off the dark snow

and shoved in, and driven away.

                    (Poems, 239)


But what moves these poems, as opposed to Levertov’s less successful polemics, seems to be not ferocious revulsion but revolutionary love—not the hate that is blind to all detail except its own rhetoric ("foul dollops") but the love that sees and says with scrupulous exactitude the terror of the severed heads that are "not Orpheus heads" and the passion of the ghostly Olga, "limp and ardent." And as these works show, such rebellious caritas, perhaps as surely as Bly’s ironic inventiveness, Lowell’s meticulous weariness, or (even) Shelley’s hortatory energy, can impel the poetics of politics.

In fact, the phrase "revolutionary love" itself is from Levertov’s fine essay on Pablo Neruda: "Poetry and Revolution: Neruda is Dead—Neruda Lives" (in Light up the Cave), a piece that beautifully complements and supplements her meditation on political poetry. "Neruda’s revolutionary politics," she declares here, "is founded in revolutionary love—the same love Che Guevara spoke of. Revolutionary love subsumes a bitter anger against oppression and oppressors... But revolutionary love is not merely anthropocentric; it reaches out to the rest of creation." For, she adds, Neruda’s celebrations of animals and vegetables, of the earth and sky and sea, "are not irrelevant, dispensable, coincidental to his revolutionary convictions, but an integral part of them" (Light, 133-34).

About Levertov’s own revolutionary love, with its often brilliantly precise elaborations of the joyfulness of joy, the same statement could be made. Yet it is instructive to compare her expressions of "bitter anger" with those of her Chilean precursor. Neruda’s classic "The United Fruit Co.," for instance, begins with scathingly sardonic, surrealistic detail:


When the trumpet sounded, it was


all prepared on the earth,

and Jehovah parceled out the earth

to Coca-Cola, Inc., Anaconda,

Ford Motors, and other entities:

The Fruit Company, Inc.

reserved for itself the most succulent,

the central coast of my own land,

the delicate waist of America.

        (translated by Robert Bly, Neruda,

        and Vallejo: Selected Poems, 85)


And even more strikingly than Levertov’s "Thinking about El Salvador," Neruda’s poem ends with a terrifying image:


                            Indians are falling

into the sugared chasms

of the harbors, wrapped

for burial in the mist of the dawn:

a body rolls, a thing

that has no name, a fallen cipher,

a cluster of dead fruit

thrown down on the dump.


Though of course it is intellectually coherent with the poem’s theme ("sugared chasms," "a cluster of dead fruit"), this brilliant detail, in which we recognize "the known / appearing fully itself," is an image shaped by revolutionary love, by the love that yields itself not so much to editorial convictions as to the muse’s telling the goddess’ indwelling.

When Levertov is at her best, such love underlies both her celebrations and her cerebrations; indeed, precisely because she is not an artist of irony or disillusionment but a poet of revolutionary love, she succeeds at recountings of the authentic in daily experience and fails at what Swift called saeva indignatio. Clearly, moreover, she knows this in some part of herself. One of the best poems in Candles in Babylon is "The Dragonfly-Mother," a piece in which Levertov reexamines the split between earthwoman and waterwoman specifically in terms of her own split commitment to, on the one hand, political activism, and, on the other hand, poetry.


I was setting out from my house

to keep my promise


but the Dragonfly-Mother stopped me.


I was to speak to a multitude

for a good cause, but at home


the Dragonfly-Mother was listening

not to a speech but to the creak of

                            stretching tissue,

tense hum of leaves unfurling.


"Who is the Dragonfly-Mother?" the poem asks, then goes on to answer that she is the muse, "the one who hovers / on stairways of air," the one—by implication—who sees and says the authentic in the ordinary, the revolutionary love continually surprised, and inspired, by joy. Her imperatives are inescapable: "When she tells / her stories she listens; when she listens / she tells you the story you utter."

It is to such imperatives that, one hopes, this poet will continue to be loyal, for what the Dragonfly-Mother declares, over and over again, is that the political is—or must be made—the poetical: the fabric of joy should not be ripped or clipped, yet the activist artist must struggle to praise and preserve every unique thread of that fabric, against the onslaughts of those who would reduce all reality to "foul dollops." Toward the end of this poem, Levertov seems to me to express the central truth of her own aesthetic, the truth of the joy and the pain born from revolutionary love:



a messenger,

if I don’t trust her

I can’t keep faith.

                (Candles, 13-15)

James McCorkle: On "At the Fishhouses"

At the end of "At the Fishhouses," the narrator moves from the shore and its human population, to the seal, and finally to the elemental, the water itself:

If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Knowledge for Bishop comes to be "derived" from concretes and is itself phenomenal: "dark, salt, clear, moving," the sea itself, the primordial grounding of form, formlessness, and life. In the phenomenal resides mystery: the constant and erosive flux; thus, the object can never be simply objectified or held fixed and distant. Likewise, our knowledge is "flowing, and flown"; subject to change and decay, knowledge is temporal and governed by linguistic constructions. The relation between things, such as knowledge and sea, rather than distinctions, is expressed in the final repetitive and connective music of "flowing and drawn ... flowing, and flown."

Definition exists only in terms of relation, where each thing is linked to another, shadows the other, ebbs from the other, and overflows with the other:

The big fish tubs are completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with creamy iridescent coats of mail, with small iridescent flies crawling on them.

The scales plaster everything here, and everything turns iridescent. Seeing links things physically and syntactically with the repetition of "iridescent." The connectedness blooms etymologically, for "iridescent" links with the iris plant, the iris of the eye, and the rainbow. The rich descriptions link the narrator to the world described as, analogously, seventeenth-century Dutch paintings re-present the world. Taxonomic detailing draws the narrator (or viewer) into the landscape and begins the process of meditative self-reflexivity--where, as Merleau-Ponty writes, "the perception of a thing opens me up to being." Everything resides in the events of being, in the commonality of the perceptual field of one another. Thus, Merleau-Ponty continues, "the perception of the other founds mortality by realizing the paradox of an alter ego ... by placing my perspectives and my incommunicable solitude in the visual field of another and of all the others." The solitude of the poet, mapmaker, and traveler necessitates not only active looking but also the lucid regarding of the copiousness of others. The visual description in "At the Fishhouses," and throughout Bishop's poetry, insists the observer enter into the perceptual field and come into relation with others, and thus, however provisionally, stave off isolation, silence, and death.

From The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets. Copyright © 1989 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

James McCorkle: On "Questions of Travel"

… The extreme process of self-definition, for Bishop, is the provisional and momentary act of writing and self-revelation. The poem becomes an interiorized debate – the two voices are less separate characterizations than they are a compound self that interrogates itself and reveals, not affirmation, but doubt. …

`[McCorkle quotes the italicized stanzas.]

The inclusion of the italicized transcriptions from a notebook emphasizes the durational quality of writing. Despite the seemingly multitudinous range of experience and possibility, Bishop asserts "the choice is never wide and never free," because we are governed by experience and language. The concordance of experience is not a Linnaean process if ordering chaos and intellectual control but a converse process where ordering and interrogation lead to further uncertainty. The moment of "golden silence" recalls the adage levelled at children, "silence is golden." The transcendent silences the two voices while returning us to writing and uncertainty. The adage, paradoxically, returns us to childhood and the subversive play of children. We thus return to the beginnings of the poem, the journal’s entries and questions, which break the imposed silence of that Victorian adage and admonishment authorized by the discourse of fathers.

From James McCorkle, "Concordances and Travels: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop," Chapter 1 in The Still Performance: Writing, Self and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989), 20, 23. 

James McCorkle: On "The Fish"

Perhaps nowhere else in Bishop's poetry is the eye's journey so celebrated as in her much anthologized poem "The Fish," The journey begins with the external, in the realm of the unseeing self, with the prosaic opening lines:

I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth.

The first word, "I," a pun on the self and the self that sees, preludes the opening--and flowering--of our eyes and our language. The direct and graphic description of a situation remains a moment when we look but are not yet actively and imaginatively engaged. We are external and separate since we have no connection with the other.

While Bishop examines the fish, she also begins to enter the body of figurative language:

his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper: shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age.

The simile creates depth: we enter the house of language, where things stand behind things and each is dependent on the others--for they are linked by the trope's marker "like." By repeating the wallpaper simile, the apparent domesticity of the narrator is revealed and there is a convergence of two distinctly different worlds. Implicit in this convergence is a revelation of decay and mutability through the lucidity of her observation of the fish's patterned and peeling skin.

After continuing the examination of the exterior of the fish with an increasing degree of metaphor and precision--barnacles are "fine rosettes of lime," the fish is clothed with "rags"--the poet is rhetorically self-defined and imaginatively penetrates the fish:

I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, [. . .] and the pink swim-bladder like a big peony.

The power of observation and looking resides in and rises with the power of imagining. We move closer to the certainty we believe lies in the tactility of physical presence--be it fish or rhetoric. At each of these liminal moments transformation takes place, since we cross the abyss between the two halves of a metaphor or simile.

The movement into the fish also initiates self-interrogation. Through the use of self-reflexive tropes, the narrator crosses the threshold of exteriority--where objects remain either marginalized or idealized discretes--into a realm where objects are interrelated not only among themselves but with us. The narrator stares into the fish's eyes, only to have the fish "not / ... return my stare" and deny any anthropomorphic pathos and sympathy. Self-reflexivity at this moment becomes transparent: the narrator acknowledges her own regard, seeing herself in relation with the other as two beings, rather than a subject distanced from (and desiring appropriation of) an object. The aside that qualifies the event--"It was more like the tipping / of an object toward the light"--qualifies the perception and makes presence more provisional. The fish mediates between the narrator and a language with which she can picture herself. The description of the wallpaper, the flower imagery, and the metaphors of ornament and clothing comprise a taxonomy that composes the speaker and creates the mystery of the speaker's presence. She is both present in these details and absent, in that the details are metaphors whose other term is left unstated. Figurative language becomes the common and defining ground that both the fish and the speaker, in their mutual mysteriousness, share.

The narrator implicitly acknowledges the limitations of language through the use of such asides as "if you could call it a lip." In using language, we impose it upon the world either to bring the world and ourselves into renewed relation or to subject the world to discipline, thus imprisoning the world and refiguring language as disciplinary. Yet figurative language also subverts the subjective and repressive qualities of language. To realize this double bind becomes a form of transcendence, though not the hierarchical transcendence of unicity. Transcendence here is the process of the dialectical movement of figurative language. The sharpening of observation, exemplified by the correction of "five old pieces of fish-line" to "or four and a wire leader / with the swivel still attached," reflects the process of reifying the self, the other, and language. Speculation is transformative and interminable, as exemplified when the fishing equipment becomes medals of valor "with their ribbons / frayed and wavering," before they are transformed again into "a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw." The fish can never be defined or gazed upon as a totality--any definition of any particular is exchanged for another. The generation of metaphors, one displacing another, grants language its continuation and life; thus, the narrator is caught in an interminable process of focusing her vision--but at some point the vision can no longer be sustained; instead it must be relinquished.

Bishop's imperative in "The Monument" ("Watch it closely") echoes "The Fish" ("I stared and stared") and describes this potentially interminable movement of perception, which is tantamount to the poem. During the process of increasing attentiveness, the speaker glimpses a provisional fullness:

I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat, from the pool of bilge where oil had spread a rainbow [. . . ] until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go.

The fish fills with language until it can hold no more. It is at this moment that the generation of language can go no farther. The fish must be discarded and replaced. The self has also reached its own limits of creation and definition. Artifice, if it is to remain coherent, finds itself limited. Still unanswered is whether nature is equally limited, or if it is that which remains limiting and unapprehendable. The rainbow of oil leaking onto the water's surface replaces the fish and allows discursive connections to continue. This dispensation, however, is ironic: it takes place in a grubby rented boat, where the language wears out, indicated by the repetition of "rusted" in two successive lines. The "victory" is the rainbow of a thin film of oil spreading across the bilge waters, overrunning the "pool of bilge," to spread over everything. Similarly, the rainbow draws together the multitude of colors found throughout the poem, which parallels a rainbow's concordance of the undistorted visible colors of the spectrum. The rainbow spreads over the boat and over language "until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Though it is tempting to read the final lines as an ecstatic moment that marks the narrator's full recognition of the fish and interconnectedness, such a reading remains naive, for the poem has come to describe the generative and metonymical functions of language. Jerome Mazzaro considers these final lines a parody of "God's restoration of dominion to Noah" in which Bishop's wry evolutionist stance suggests that humans' dominion is only by accident and technology. Although the rainbow reflects a new dispensation, it is one that inscribes, as Mazzaro argues, departure and uncertainty. The simple rhyme of "rainbow" and "go" underscores the provisionality of any interconnection, since it recalls the passage and loss of childhood. We must let go any notion of totality or synthesis, either rhetorical or existential. Instead, the materiality of language and time comes to be emphasized; the poem lets go of the symbolic, and reinvents the relational. The poem moves toward transcendent closure with "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow," but opens up and initiates a new, though unfigured, process that subverts closure and death: "And I let the fish go."


From The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.