Harry Marten: On "Life at War"

In "Life at War," the final grouping of her poems in The Sorrow Dance, Levertov presents a profoundly disturbing vision of violence that brings together unflinching directness of imagery with what seems in the context to be restrained, at times almost delicate, abstract language. The matter-of-fact picture of slaughter and mutilation is shocking, as is the contrast between presentation and meaning. But the very mix of gritty detail and controlled, often elegant, diction permits unusual recognitions. Levertov offers a language that confronts terrible human acts honestly, while still demonstrating the human potential for grace and imaginative reclamation. While indicting humankind for its savagery, she reminds herself and her readers, with irony but also with hopefulness, that human beings possess qualities of responsiveness that make a promise of peace thinkable.

"Man," Levertov explains, speaking with an almost metaphysical diction, is an animal "whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" and "whose understanding manifests designs / fairer than the spider’s most intricate web" ("Life at War," Sorrow 79). But metaphysics disconcertingly collides with the immediate as the poet continues, suggesting with language that mixes abstractions and direct images, that this same human animal

 

still turns without surprise, with mere regret

to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk

runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,

transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,

implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys (80).

 

Levertov affirms that writer and readers alike are "the humans, men who can make; / whose language imagines mercy, lovingkindness," and have "believed one another / mirrored forms of a God we felt as good." But she suggests we must not refuse recognition that it is we "who do these acts, who convince ourselves / it is necessary," and that "these acts are done / to our own flesh; burned human flesh" (Sorrow 80). We must not use our ability with words to transform the truths of our deeds. Yet, too, because we are "men who can make," who can imagine a "God" that is "good," and a language that "imagines ... / lovingkindness," our acts are recoverable.

"Knowledge" of hideous crimes of war, Levertov writes, "jostles for space / in our bodies along with all we / go on knowing of joy, of love":

 

our nerve filaments twitch with its presence

day and night,

nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,

nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,

the deep intelligence living at peace would have.

                                                        (Sorrow 80)

 

Even as readers are compelled to know their guilt of action or of complacency, the poet has succeeded in reminding them with her visible joy of making, her love of language and clarity of vision, that they have the capacity for creation and for creative perception. Her readers have seen the ugliness of human affairs, but the surprising and disarming mix of formal beauty, strength and elegance of language, and horrific images, has made it possible for them to grasp the horror not just turn away in fear and loathing. Levertov, distancing herself from the nightmare even as she has looked into the heart of it, has offered readers a compassion that has made possible their seeing. She has begun to point toward a way of comprehending the violence of war that modern men "have breathed the grits of ... all [their] lives, / the mucous membrane of [their] dreams / coated with it, the imagination / filmed over with the gray filth of it" (Sorrow 79).

In poems that are at times openly didactic yet lyrical, invariably questioning, The Sorrow Dance reveals the nature of human brutalities enacted on behalf of the political state, imagining the thoughts and lives of victims and victimizers alike ("What Where They Like," "The Altars in the Street," "Didactic Poem"). For all its shock, the impact is oddly that of relief, for at last the unspeakable is given voice. As Levertov suggests, "To speak of sorrow / works upon it"

 

                        moves it from its

crouched place barring

the way to and from the soul’s hall....

                            ("To Speak," Sorrow 63)

 

The reader discovers, too, that the dance of sorrow does not dispel the dance of joy. Thus the poems of The Sorrow Dance offer a "Hymn to Eros" (21), and a loving celebration of a son who "Moves among us from room to room of our life" (18). Levertov takes a cue from Thoreau, who suggests that "You must love the crust of the earth on which you dwell. You must be able to extract nutriment out of a sandheap. You must have so good an appetite as this, else you will live in vain" (quoted in "Joy," Sorrow 33).

Though the verses of The Sorrow Dance accept no denials of the human predicament, neither do they accept the easy answers of self-pity, cynicism, or despair. Throughout, Levertov is "faithful to / ebb and flow," affirming that: "There is no savor / more sweet, more salt / than to be glad to be / ... myself" ("Stepping Westward," Sorrow 15). "If I bear burdens," she explains,

 

they begin to be remembered

as gifts, goods, a basket

 

of bread that hurts

my shoulders but closes me

 

in fragrance. (16)

 

Whether exploring family memories, personal relationships, or public events in this, her most politically engaged book to date, Levertov brings her readers to a recognition of their deep human flaws and possibilities:

 

The honey of man is

the task we’re set to: to be

‘more ourselves’

in the making:

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

In our gathering, in our containing, in our

working, active within ourselves,

slowly the pale

dew-beads of light

lapped up from flowers

can thicken,

darken to gold:

 

honey of the human.

                ("Second Didactic Poem," Sorrow 82-83)

 

Details

Title Harry Marten: On "Life at War" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Harry Marten Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Understanding Denise Levertov
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