Richard Jackson: On "Olga Poems"

It is certainly appropriate, then, that one of Levertov's first forays into directly "political" poetry occurs in a sequence, "The Olga Poems" (SD 53-60), that is structured by the echoing consciousnesses of herself and her sister. The sequence itself has six main sections whose concerns gradually expand—a sort of rippling out of consciousness within a structure that dialectically opposes the personal and the political. The first section is very personal and brackets a particular memory, and leads to the memory of Olga's growing political consciousness in section two. Section three, in three parts, analyzes the concepts of history and time from a phenomenological perspective. The fourth section questions larger patterns of history, as opposed to individual awareness; beside Olga's deathbed is a candle—"all history," she says, "burned out, down / to the sick bone, save for / / that kind candle" (SD 57). The fifth section continues the critique of history, attempting to substitute a personal mythology of memories, as the narrator says—"A fairy tale existence." The last section counterpoints this mythic past against the present and a larger history to attempt, a dialectic synthesis.

The critical point in the sequence is section three. It begins with a conventional view of time "from the hymnbook" through which the narrator and her sister were "linked to words we loved"—"Time like an ever-rolling stream / bears all its sons away." Through memory she is able to "inhale a sense of her [sister's] livingness in that instant," and a sense of the way her sister attempted to extend beyond the childhood confinements of their garden wall, their way of life. For her sister, this was a matter of revolutionary restructuring—"To change, / to change the course of the river! What rage for order / disordered her pilgrimage." The flow of the river implied fate, acceptance; now Levertov can understand time in its historical movement, in its consciousness of "dream," absence, the "unremembered," ''as unfolding, not flowing, the pilgrim years." Unfolding implies choice, openness; it is a notion that she will refer to later in "Staying Alive"—"I want the world to go on unfolding" (SA 29)—with a more political, day-to-day consciousness. Here in the Olga poems, unfolding suggests the way Olga's life and political perspective "winds in me." The climax of the poem in the last section is a kind of encomium on Olga's eyes, the way they provoke and are the focal point of memories; what the narrator sees in those eyes, beyond the associations of what the narrator herself sees and how her sister could "sightread" Beethoven, is fear: "I think of your eyes in that photo, six years before I was born, / the fear in them." It is as if Olga could foresee the failures and tortures of her own life, the failed political movements of her time. The sequence ends with the narrator attempting to decipher the memory of her sister's gaze; while there is an "echo of our unknowing there," as there is in "Night on Hatchet Cove," there is also a faith that Olga's eyes knew, and that the narrator might learn from them. The glitter of the elsewhere, the nothing, becomes, here, the possible light of vision:

 

                                        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 shining,

unknowable gaze. . . .

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Title Richard Jackson: On "Olga Poems" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Richard Jackson Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Dismantling of Time in Contemporary Poetry
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