Audrey T. Rodgers: On "Olga Poems"

The Sorrow Dance was dedicated to the memory of Olga Levertoff, the poet’s sister, who died in 1964, and the "Olga Poems" are important not only because of their intrinsic value as fine elegiac poetry, but because of the way in which they explain and mirror Levertov’s ever-increasing social conscience. In an interview in 1971, the poet spoke about the importance of structure: ". . . in other works of art which I value I often see echoes and correspondences. . . . It’s the impulse to create pattern or to reveal pattern. I say ‘reveal,’ because I have a thing about finding form rather than imposing it. I want to find correspondences and relationships which are there but hidden, and I think one of the things the artist does is reveal." It is those echoes and correspondences that hold special interest for us. It would therefore be simplistic to view the Olga poems, as one critic has, as Levertov’s absorption with the theme of death. While the poems are nostalgic and often lyrical—for unredeemable time, for the "older sister" clearly a "presence" in the life of the younger child—they are more than this. The poems are also a "portrait," an observation that "everything flows," a painful recapitulation of Olga’s death (at which the poet was not present), and a search for "a clearing in the selva oscura"—a reference not only to Olga’s favorite poem "Selva Oscura" by Louis MacNiece but an oblique reference as well to Dante’s "dark wood." For our purposes, the poem is a crucial road sign in the development of Levertov’s social consciousness, for Olga was a political activist; and, indeed, in later poems about anti-war activity, Olga appears like a benevolent ghost on the fringes of the crowd. The poems are part of a larger section, "The Sorrow Dance," and the first mention of Olga comes in "A Lamentation" preceding the "Olga Poems." In the poem, it is Olga who dances "Sorrow" and the younger sister who dances "Summer":


That robe or tunic, black gauze

over black and silver my sister wore

to dance Sorrow, hung so long

in my closet. I never tried it on.

                        And my dance

was Summer—they rouged my cheeks

and twisted roses with wire stems into my hair.


"A Lamentation" is grief, recollected joy of youth, and grief dismissed. It is something of a prelude to the six poems that follow. As often in Levertov’s most troubled poems, there is a hint of the leavening moment—of joy, of nostalgia, of humor: "(and the little sister / beady-eyed in the bed— / or drowsy, was I? My head / a camera—)"—to balance the "bones and tatters of flesh in earth." The "Olga Poems" offer a portrait of a headstrong, idealistic, intelligent, fated woman who set herself against the world to "shout the world to its senses." Olga’s social conscience evoked here swept in the great inequalities around her that she could not deny and militated against. The poet traces Olga’s journey in search of "a clearing / in the selva oscura": ". . .What rage for order / disordered her pilgrimage—so that for years at a time / she would hide among strangers." Olga’s tortured story is interspersed with memories of childhood that persist. "Your life winds in me," the poet writes, remembering childhood pleasures. The poem is replete with visual and tactile images of Olga’s striking beauty framed by her intellect and sensitivity. "Your eyes were the brown gold of pebbles under water. . . . And by other streams in other countries anywhere where the light / reaches down through shallows to gold gravel. Olga’s / brown eyes."

The moving final lines of the poem are not only a glowing collage of the golds and browns and olivewood of the entire sequence, but a poignant reminder for the mature Levertov, her own sense of protest aroused by the "human shame" she now experienced, poised on the threshold of decision, yet still looking toward Olga for guidance:


                                        I cross

so many brooks in the world, there is so much light

dancing on so many stones, so many questions my eyes

smart to ask of your eyes, gold brown eyes,

the lashes short but the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or



unknowable gaze. . .


The metaphors in the poem—Olga herself, the figures of "dancing" and Sorrow’s black and silver tunic—deepen the otherwise personal utterance. Olga is inspiration, keeping "compassion’s candle alight," and this is the Olga whom Levertov will recall. In this crucial poem, Levertov has revealed the source of her own pilgrimage—social consciousness but one leavened by compassion and hope and vision. This was her own interpretation of Olga’s legacy.

Thus the "Olga Poems" are both personal and universal—as fine elegies are meant to be. The theme is both private and public, for it addresses the poet’s own problem of finding a "clearing / in the selva oscura," and the dilemma posed by the need for the artist to speak out of the experience within, responding to the disorder of the world without. The language of the poems is controlled and evocative, sensuous at times, coldly realistic at times, the figurative language both immediate and symbolic in its overtones.


On your hospital bed you lay

in love, the hatreds

that had followed you, a

comet’s tail, burned out

as your disasters bred of love

burned out,

while pain and drugs

quarreled like sisters in you—


The emotion is strong, but it is reigned in by the necessity of looking past the poet’s grief for her dead sister and toward the immediacy of her own concerns as both artist and "poet of the world." The "Olga Poems" testify to the belief that Levertov was able to combine her aesthetic gift with what would become now a lifelong concern: the need to give expression to her social consciousness, careful not to betray her artistic calling.

Olga is a haunting echo in Levertov’s poetry—a motif that appears and reappears as Levertov groups her poetry—not according to chronology, she points out, but according to theme. Thus, in as late a volume as Breathing the Water, a poem "To Olga" appears. It is a poignant backward glance at childhood, before they spoke "less and less." Most moving is the penultimate stanza that reveals Levertov’s remarkable ability for portraying the sisters "benighted but not lost":


I felt the veil

of sadness descend


but I was never afraid for us,

we were benighted but not lost, and I trusted

utterly that at last,

however late, we’d get home.

No owl, no lights, the dun ridges

of ploughland fading. No matter.

I trusted you.


Whatever Levertov’s personal feelings about her "brave . . . lost" sister, Olga shines in her poetry like an exiled spark.

[. . . .]

One senses that Denise Levertov’s sister, Olga, an activist through most of her brief life, is ever present in Levertov’s consciousness—and particularly when her themes are driven by conscience. "A Note to Olga, 1966" is the poet’s account of a peaceful rally to "Stop the War." The hue and cry had already spread throughout the country. Olga is the ghostly presence supporting the demonstration as the haunting words of "We Shall Overcome" linger in the air:


Though I forget you

a red coal from your fire

burns in that box.


The lost sister seems to be one with the "limp and ardent" protesters dragged off in the police paddy-wagon. As I have already noted, the poet conjures up the vision of Olga in her own moments of "engagement," who would have proudly marched with those who shuffle along in the dark snow. From this point, Levertov recounts her role as an activist in an already popular cause. The poem is yet another perspective on the war—group action—which Levertov chronicles in future poems. While this is history, it is also poetry, because "A Note to Olga" with its poignant memories and comparisons of past and present activism is also reinforced by the form of the poem: its stanzaic pattern, its regular meter, and its sharp and unusual images—especially the opening image—visual and tactile— which sets the tone of the poem:


Of lead and emerald

the reliquary

that knocks my breastbone,


slung round my neck

on a rough invisible rope

that rubs the knob of my spine.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


To Stay Alive, Denise Levertov explained in the "Author’s Preface," is "one person’s inner / outer experience in America during the ‘60's and the beginning of the ‘70's, an experience which is shared by so many and transcends the peculiar details of each life, though it can only be expressed in and through such details." Many of the poems were written while Mitchell Goodman, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and three other war resisters were on trial in the spring of 1968. But the volume also contains several poems, under the section titled Preludes, that had been included in The Sorrow Dance and Relearning the Alphabet: "Olga Poems," "A Note to Olga (1966)" (Olga had died in 1964), "Life at War," "What Were They Like?" "Advent 1966," "Tenebrae," and "Enquiry." The justification for their inclusion, Levertov explains "is esthetic—it assembles separated parts of a whole. . . . that whole being seen as having some value not as mere ‘confessional’ autobiography, but as a document of some historical value. . . ."


Title Audrey T. Rodgers: On "Olga Poems" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Audrey T. Rodgers Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement
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