Harry Marten: On "Olga Poems"

That the roots of responsibility to community run deep in the poet's personal experience, entwining private and public feelings, is evident in the moving "Olga Poems" that Levertov writes in memorial to her much older sister Olga Levertoff, who died at the age of fifty. Recalling the childhoods they spent together but never quite shared because of differences in age and temperament, the poet recreates and speculates upon the impulses, desires, anxieties, and beliefs of the complex person "who now these two months long / is bones and tatters of flesh in earth." What "the little sister" rejected or was intuitively moved by, but couldn't possibly understand, the adult poet now knows and recognizes as an important seedbed of her own understanding. Levertov remembers the ways Olga "muttered into my childhood," sounding her "rage / and human shame" before poverty, her insistence on the worth of change, her love of the musical words of hymns. She recognizes, too, what may be some of the cost of such sensitivity, energy and commitment: "the years of humiliation, / of paranoia . . . and near-starvation, losing / the love of those you loved." Levertov ponders and pays homage to "compassion's candle alight" nonetheless in her sister.

The sequence begins vividly with a sensory recreation of a child's vision, suggesting in its intensity how important the older sister was to the younger, and yet how separate and impenetrable she was. The reader can virtually feel the heat "By the gas-fire" as Olga kneels "to undress"

 

scorching luxuriously, raking

her nails over olive sides, the red

waistband ring—

.................. I............

Sixteen. Her breasts

round, round, and

dark-nippled . . .

 

The reader recognizes, too, how absorbed and apart the poet-child is, taking it all in for a lifetime's reference:

 

(And the little sister

beady-eyed in the bed—

or drowsy, was I? My head

a camera--) ...

 

But the adult poet is less concerned here with the physical moment than with comprehending the emotional tension and energy that shaped her sister and thereby affected her own life. Quickly attention shifts from a camera view of frozen time to moments of meditation and speculation, as Levertov, blending the child's point of view and the remembering adult's more reasoned understanding, relates the physical to the emotional.

Signs of stress predominate in the portrait of a young woman who seems at once forbiddingly old and vulnerably adolescent. They appear in "The high pitch of / nagging insistence" of Olga's voice; in the "lines / creased into raised brows"; and in "the skin around the nails / nibbled sore." The teenager who "wanted / to shout the world to its senses" who knew from the age of nine what defined a "slum" was teased by her small sister reaching the same age, "admiring / architectural probity, circa / eighteen-fifty." But the poet, grown up and mixing memory with her own clear and strong adult social conscience, recognizes that in her dark browed and mercurial sibling was a purity of caring difficult to live with, but crucially valuable in its steady brightness: "Black one, black one, / there was a white / candle in your heart."

Pondering the steps and missteps of Olga's life in relation to her own values and choices, Levertov conjures a vision of her sister's restlessness turned fearfully against itself. Half remembering and half creating moments of the past, Levertov recalls Olga's conviction that "everything flows," expressed as nervous mutterings while she was "pacing the trampled grass" of childhood playgrounds. These were words, the poet acknowledges, that "felt ... alien" to the much quieter small child "look[ing] up from [her] Littlest Bear's cane armchair." Yet they were a source of comfort and bonding as well:

 

... linked to words we loved

                                            from the hymnbook—Time

like an ever-rolling stream / bears all its sons away--

 

"But dread / was in her" sister, Levertov concludes, "a bloodbeat" of fear; and "against the rolling dark oncoming river she raised bulwarks, setting herself / . . . / to change the course of the river." Recognizing clearly now the "rage for order" that "disordered her [sister’s] pilgrimage," Levertov's poem in a sense makes some order out of Olga's anguished life and partly clarifies her own as well:

 

                            I had lost

 

all sense, almost, of

    who she was, what--inside of her skin,

under her black hair

                                dyed blonde—

 

it might feel like to be, in the wax and wane of the moon,

in the life I feel as unfolding, not flowing, the pilgrim years--

 

The poet pictures various scenes of Olga's immense fretful energy, and envisions the final "burned out" hospital days and nights: "while pain and drugs / quarreled like sisters in you." She comes, after all, not to answers, but to questions which, being raised relentlessly, offer a recognition of the shapes of two lives linked in their diverse ways by questing and caring. As Levertov explains, addressing her sister, "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." Sounding the most crucial of them, she exclaims that "I think of your eyes in that photo, six years before I was born," remembering "the fear in them," wondering what became of the fear later, and "what kept / compassion's candle alight in you" through many difficult years.

The question of how to keep compassion's candle alight in the face of numbing horror and frustration is not simply one of hindsight or family discovery. It is one of the most perplexing questions that faced Levertov in the coming years, as her commitments were fired and tried by her growing awareness of what one nation can justify doing to another in the name of abstract words and public postures. To an extent, she found her answer in her early political poetry by looking to her own strengths as a poet and affirming the human capacity for creative imagining and communication. These were qualities to both counterbalance and reveal the powerful capacities of humankind for manipulations and destruction.

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Title Harry Marten: On "Olga Poems" 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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