Sandra M. Gilbert: On "The Ache of Marriage"

In other love poems, however, Levertov explores the tension between the desire for merging with the beloved that is manifested in her erotic verses and the inexorable separateness of lovers. "Bedtime" begins with near-fusion—"We are a meadow where the bees hum / mind and body are almost one"—but moves to an acknowledgment of what Whitman called the "solitary self": "by day we are singular and often lonely" (Poems, 167). Similarly, "The Ache of Marriage," which deserves to be quoted in its entirety, dramatizes the paradoxes of separateness-in-togetherness, unity and duality:

 

The ache of marriage:

 

thigh and tongue, beloved,

are heavy with it,

it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion

and are turned away, beloved,

each and each

 

It is leviathan and we

in its belly

looking for joy, some joy

not to be known outside it

 

two by two in the ark of

the ache of it.

 

(Poems, 77)

 

"It is leviathan": though, as I have already noted, Levertov is not an aggressively feminist writer, her rigorous attentiveness to the realities of her own life as a woman has inevitably forced her to confront the contradictions implicit in that condition. Desire entraps lovers in an ark—a covenant as well as a Noah’s ark steering toward survival—that is also an ache, an institution in which the married pair are buried as in the belly of the whale. "Don’t lock me in wedlock, I want / marriage, an / encounter—" (Poems, 140) the poet exclaims in "About Marriage," yet, despite her reverence for those details of desire and domesticity which manifest "the authentic," she often implies that the wife-mother who is an artist, a woman who sees and says what she sees, can never be wholly one with her life, for to see is to be set apart by the imperatives of perception and expression. Where the clean and comely homemaker wears "a utopian smock or shift" (Poems, 143) and, "smelling of / apples or grass," merges with the nature of her life and life of nature, the artist-wife, "dressed in opals and rags," separates herself from the kindly routines of the household.

In a number of poems, therefore, Levertov characterizes herself as two women—the one who lives, loves, nurtures, and the one who observes, sings, casts spells. Such a strategy of doubling is of course a traditional one for women artists: as Susan Gubar and I have argued elsewhere, nineteenth-century writers from Charlotte Brontë to Emily Dickinson frequently imagined themselves as split between a decorous lady and a fiercely rebellious madwoman. Interestingly, however, where her precursors experienced such splits as painful if liberating, Levertov usually describes them as purely liberating, further sources of "the, ‘well...joyfulness of / joy.’" The early "The Earthwoman and the Waterwoman," from Here and Now (1957), dramatizes polarities of female experience that appear throughout most of the poet’s subsequent volumes. The wholesome, nurturing "earthwoman" has children "full of blood and milk," while her opposite, the prophetic "waterwoman / sings gay songs in a sad voice / with her moonshine children" (Collected, 31); at night, while the earthwoman drowses in "a dark fruitcake sleep," her waterwoman self "goes dancing in the misty lit-up town / in dragonfly dresses and blue shoes." Yet despite the opposition between these two, both are exuberant, both celebrate "the authentic" in its different manifestations.

The speaker of the later "In Mind," from O Taste and See (1964), is more frankly confessional about her own relationship to these antithetical selves, and franker, too, about the pain that at least one of them, the mystically self-absorbed waterwoman, may cause to others. "There’s in my mind a woman / of innocence," the poet explains, a woman who "is kind and very clean...but she has no imagination" (Poems, 143). But the double of this woman, she adds, is a "turbulent moon-ridden girl // or old woman...who knows strange songs"—and she "is not kind." Unkind though she may be, however, the visionary singer inexorably exists, and significantly Levertov does not apologize for her existence. On the contrary, even while in "The Woman" (The Freeing of the Dust, 1975) she concedes the problems that the female split self poses for a "bridegroom"—

 

It is the one in homespun

you hunger for

when you are lonesome;

 

the one in crazy feathers

dragging opal chains in dust

wearies you...

 

—she is adamant about this complex psychic reality: "Alas, / they are not two but one," she declares, and her groom must "endure / life with two brides...." (Freeing, 53).

In fact, it is particularly when she undertakes to analyze and justify female complexity that Levertov makes her most overtly "feminist" political statements. "Hypocrite Women," from O Taste and See, simultaneously expresses contempt for "a white sweating bull of a poet" who declared that "cunts are ugly" and rebukes women for refusing to admit their own strangeness, their own capacity for prophetic dreaming. Cunts "are dark and wrinkled and hairy, / caves of the Moon," yet

 

                            when a

dark humming fills us, a

coldness towards life,

we are too much women to

own to such unwomanliness.

 

Whorishly with the psychopomp

we play and plead...

 

(Poems, 142)

 

Similarly, "Abel’s Bride," in The Sorrow Dance (1967), urges acquiescence in the female mystery that is associated with the confrontation of earthwoman and waterwoman, a confrontation enacted in the interior household where vision and domesticity coexist. Though "Woman fears for man [because] he goes / out alone to his labors" (and by implication, his death), she must recognize her own complex fate: "her being / is a cave, there are bones at the hearth" (Poems, 163). In fact, those—both male and female—who do not acknowledge the "dark humming" of the spirit that imbues the flesh with meaning are like "The Mutes" (also in The Sorrow Dance), inarticulate men whose "groans...passing a woman on the street" are meant to tell her "she is a female / and their flesh knows it" but say, instead,

 

‘Life after life after life goes by

without poetry,

without seemliness,

without love.’

 

(Poems, 197)

 

Finally, indeed, Levertov declares that it is precisely in her womanhood—in its tangible flesh of earthwoman as well as in its fluent spirit of waterwoman—that her artistic power lies:

 

When I am a woman—O, when I am

a woman,

my wells of salt brim and brim,

poems force the lock of my throat.

 

(Freeing, 49)

 

Given such a visionary and mystically (if not polemically) feminist commitment to female power, it is not surprising that some of Levertov’s strongest and best-known poems offer homage to the muse-goddess whom she sees as patroness of her poetry. Among her earlier verses, the piece called "Girlhood of Jane Harrison," in With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1960), suggests one of the forces that shaped her thought on this matter, for in her monumental Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) the British feminist-classicist had sought to document the dominance of the Great Mother in ancient Greek culture. Levertov’s famous poem "The Goddess," also in With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, plainly develops Harrison’s theories as it praises the deity "without whom nothing / flowers, fruits, sleeps in season, / without whom nothing / speaks in its own tongue, but returns / lie for lie!"—the goddess who empowers not only the flowering grounds on which the earthwoman lives but also the strange songs of the waterwoman. Similarly, "The Well," in The Jacob’s Ladder, as well as "Song for Ishtar" and "To the Muse," in O Taste and See, celebrate "The Muse / in her dark habit" and with her multiple manifestations. Finally, that this divinity inspires and presides over the essential solitude in which the woman poet inscribes her tales of earth and water is made clear in "She and the Muse," from the recent Candles in Babylon, a poem which shows how, after "the hour’s delightful hero" has said "arrivederci," the "heroine...eagerly" returns to the secret room of art, where "She picks a quill, / dips it, begins to write. But not of him" (Candles, 67). In the last analysis, the joyfulness of this woman’s life and love is made authentic through the joy of language, the pleasure of musing words in which "the known" appears "more itself than one knew."

Although Levertov’s joy is sometimes playful ("The authentic! I said / rising from the toilet seat"), it is rarely ironic or skeptical. Neither the relieved exstasis of the sufferer momentarily released from pain (the kind of exhilaration sometimes enacted by, say, Sylvia Plath) nor the brief tentative reconciliation to things-as-they-are of what we might call the eiron maudit (the kind of affirmation sometimes dramatized by Robert Lowell), Levertov’s delight in existence depends, rather, on the steady celebratory patience of the believer who trusts that if you wait long enough, if you abide despite forebodings, the confirming moment of epiphany will arrive. Thus she assimilates those metaphysical anxieties which Wordsworth in a very different context defined as "fallings from us, vanishings" into a larger pattern based on faith in the inevitability of joy renewed.

Even some of her verses about absence—the actual or imminent absence of self, body, spirit—suggest confidence in the restoration of presence. "Gone Away," in O Taste and See, confesses that "When my body leaves me / I’m lonesome for it," but depends on a knowledge that the physical self will return, while two mirror poems, "Looking-Glass" (also in O Taste and See) and "Keeping Track" (in Relearning the Alphabet), trace the "shadow-me" in the glass "to see if I’m there" and, by implication, to verify an expected sense of authenticity. Even more dramatically—and more characteristically—"To the Muse," in O Taste and See, maintains that though the poet, the "host" of the house of art, fears that his aesthetic patroness is hiding.

 

all the while

 

you are indwelling,

a gold ring lost in the house.

A gold ring lost in the house.

You are in the house!

 

And the mystery of creativity is precisely that the muse’s "presence / will be restored" (Poems, 99).

Details

Title Sandra M. Gilbert: On "The Ache of Marriage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James McCorlke Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 08 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Conversant Essays Contemporary Poets on Poetry
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