Paul Breslin: On "Life at War"

Confessional poetics, as I interpret it, is in effect a tragic version of Altieri's "aesthetics of presence." Levertov's response, though obviously not confessional, shares the same premise: that the madness of the nation reaches deep into the psyche, distorting the very processes of thought, feeling, and perception. As Cary Nelson has remarked, Olson "associates open form with an Adamic childlike, innocent perceptiveness"; but what happens when "process" becomes demonic, the content of perception no longer innocent?

One can see Levertov struggling with these problems in "Life at War," part of the closing section of The Sorrow Dance (1966) in which she writes about the war for the first time. She begins by lamenting her own inability to respond: "The disasters numb within us" (SD, 79). Since the war is far away, and we know of it only through pictures and news accounts of "the disasters," one has trouble making it present to the imagination. In a sense, the Vietnam war is but a particular instance of an omnipresent war. Not only the conflict in Vietnam, but all instances of violent cruelty can occur only because of a failure of imagination:

 

The same war

 

continues.

We have breathed the grits of it 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.

 

In this passage, "war" in the larger sense is in the air we breathe. Considering the importance of "breath" in Olsonian poetics, the reflection that we have breathed the contaminated air of war "all our lives" becomes even more melancholy. The rhythm of the breath was to have shaped the lineation of poetry, joining "the HEART . . . to the LINE" (SW, 19). Moreover, breathing is Olson's central emblem both of the continual interchange between self and environment and of the bond between poetry and the life of the body: "breath is mans special qualification as animal" (SW, 25). Levertov, in this passage, gives us a fallen version of Olsonian process, its Adamic innocence poisoned by "war." She cannot fathom why "delicate man, whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" (SD, 79), nonetheless

 

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.

 

The problem, then, is that by breathing the war in daily, by becoming used to "scheduled" brutalities, we lose our capacity to grasp the brutalities as such. The imagination becomes "filmed over, " unable to respond with anything more than "mere regret."

There is surely some validity to this understanding of how the American public condoned the war; Godfrey Hodgson remarks on the government's use of statistical quantification to lend a "pseudorational" logic to its arguments; statistics also treat abstractly what those in Vietnam experienced concretely, in their own flesh. And yet, Levertov's poem itself shows a failure of imagination, most of all in its very preoccupation with imagination. However sincere its expression of outrage against the war, the poem seems finally more preoccupied with the consequences of the war for Levertov's poetics than with the war itself.

"Life at War" ends by lamenting that "nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness, / the deep intelligence living at peace would have" (SD, 80). By closing with these lines, Levertov fixes our attention not on the plight of the Vietnamese, but on the way the war spoils life at home—the war is bad because it is bad for us. The images from Vietnam, torn from any context and programmatically lurid, protest too much. Instead of testifying to an imaginative grasp of the war, they betray an imagination flogging itself to respond.

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Criticism Overview
Title Paul Breslin: On "Life at War" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Paul Breslin Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties
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