Sandra M. Gilbert: On "Life at War"

Inevitably, perhaps, for a poet of Levertov’s bent, a poet who trusts that a thread of potential joy is woven into every inch of the fabric that constitutes daily reality, any ripping or clipping of that secret, sacred thread threatens cataclysm. Thus, like such other poets of affirmation as Bake, Shelley, Whitman, or in our own age Bly, she is a deeply political writer—and I am using the word "politics" in its most ordinary sense, to mean public matters having to do with "the policies, goals, or affairs of a government" (American Heritage Dictionary). For in the "real" world, it is political action—the burning of villages, the decapitation of villagers, the building of bombs—that most threatens the authority of the daily joy. Yet, paradoxically enough, despite their often revolutionary intensity, Levertov’s most artistically problematic poems are precisely those no doubt overdetermined verses in which she explicitly articulates her political principles.

Comparatively early in her career, Levertov began to try to find a way of confronting and analyzing the horrors of a history—especially a twentieth-century history—which denies the luminous integrity of flesh-and-spirit. But even one of her better poems in this mode, "Crystal Night" (in The Jacob’s Ladder), now seems rhetorically hollow, with its generalized description of "The scream! The awaited scream" which "rises," and "the shattering / of glass and the cracking / of bone" (Poems, 68). The better-known "Life at War," in The Sorrow Dance, is more hectic still, in its insistence that


We have breathed the grits of it [war] 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


and in its editorial revulsion from the complicity of "delicate Man, whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" (Poems, 229).

In a splendid essay on verse in this mode ("On the Edge of Darkness: What is Political Poetry?" in Light up the Cave, 1981), Levertov herself observes, about the "assumption by partisan poets and their constituencies that the subject matter carries so strong an emotive charge in itself that it is unnecessary to remember poetry’s roots in song, magic, and ... high craft," that such a belief is "dangerous to poetry" (Light, 126). Yet in most of her political verse she seems herself to have disregarded her own astute warning. Because she has little taste or talent for irony, her comments on social catastrophe lack, on the one hand, the sardonic ferocity that animates, say, Bly’s "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" (e.g., "It’s because we have new packaging for smoked oysters that bomb holes appear in the rice paddies"), and, on the other hand, the details of disillusionment that give plausibility to, say, Lowell’s "For the Union Dead" (e.g., "When I crouch to my television set, / the drained faces of negro school-children rise like balloons"). At the same time, despite the impressive sincerity of her political commitment, her exhortations fail to attain (as perhaps postmodernist exhortations inevitably must) the exaltation of, for instance, Shelley’s "Men of England, wherefore plough / For the lords who lay ye low?"

Still, as Levertov’s personal commitment to the antinuclear movement and to support for revolutionary regimes in Central America has intensified, the proportion of politicized work included in her published collections has risen drastically. Oblique Prayers (1984) contains a section of ten manifestos, most of which, sadly, dissolve into mere cries of rage and defiance. The tellingly titled "Perhaps No Poem But All I Can Say And I Cannot Be Silent," for instance, protests against "those foul / dollops of History / each day thrusts at us, pushing them / into our gullets" (Oblique, 35) while "Rocky Flats" depicts "rank buds of death" in "nuclear mushroom sheds," and "Watching Dark Circle" describes the experimental "roasting of live pigs" in "a simulation of certain conditions" as leading to "a foul miasma irremovable from the nostrils" (Oblique, 38, 39). Though I (along with, I suspect, the majority of her readers and admirers) share most of Levertov’s political convictions, I must confess that besides being less moved by these poems that I have been by the more artful verses of Bly, Lowell, and Shelley, I am rather less moved than I would be by eloquent journalism, and considerably less affected than I would be by a circumstantially detailed documentary account of the events that are the subjects of Levertov’s verses, for certainly there is little song, magic, or high craft in some of their phrases. The muse is still, I trust, "indwelling" in this poet’s house, but she has not presided over some of the writer’s recent work.

To be sure, the muse has inspired several of Levertov’s political verses. "Thinking about El Salvador," in Oblique Prayers opens with the poet’s confession that "Because every day they chop heads off / I’m silent...for each tongue they silence / a word in my mouth / unsays itself," and concludes with a poignant vision


of all whose heads every day

float down the river

and rot

and sink,

not Orpheus heads

still singing, bound for the sea,

but mute.

                (Oblique, 34)


And the much earlier "A Note to Olga (1966)" dramatizes the poet’s sudden vision of her dead sister at a political rally:


                     It seems

you that is lifted


limp and ardent

off the dark snow

and shoved in, and driven away.

                    (Poems, 239)


But what moves these poems, as opposed to Levertov’s less successful polemics, seems to be not ferocious revulsion but revolutionary love—not the hate that is blind to all detail except its own rhetoric ("foul dollops") but the love that sees and says with scrupulous exactitude the terror of the severed heads that are "not Orpheus heads" and the passion of the ghostly Olga, "limp and ardent." And as these works show, such rebellious caritas, perhaps as surely as Bly’s ironic inventiveness, Lowell’s meticulous weariness, or (even) Shelley’s hortatory energy, can impel the poetics of politics.

In fact, the phrase "revolutionary love" itself is from Levertov’s fine essay on Pablo Neruda: "Poetry and Revolution: Neruda is Dead—Neruda Lives" (in Light up the Cave), a piece that beautifully complements and supplements her meditation on political poetry. "Neruda’s revolutionary politics," she declares here, "is founded in revolutionary love—the same love Che Guevara spoke of. Revolutionary love subsumes a bitter anger against oppression and oppressors... But revolutionary love is not merely anthropocentric; it reaches out to the rest of creation." For, she adds, Neruda’s celebrations of animals and vegetables, of the earth and sky and sea, "are not irrelevant, dispensable, coincidental to his revolutionary convictions, but an integral part of them" (Light, 133-34).

About Levertov’s own revolutionary love, with its often brilliantly precise elaborations of the joyfulness of joy, the same statement could be made. Yet it is instructive to compare her expressions of "bitter anger" with those of her Chilean precursor. Neruda’s classic "The United Fruit Co.," for instance, begins with scathingly sardonic, surrealistic detail:


When the trumpet sounded, it was


all prepared on the earth,

and Jehovah parceled out the earth

to Coca-Cola, Inc., Anaconda,

Ford Motors, and other entities:

The Fruit Company, Inc.

reserved for itself the most succulent,

the central coast of my own land,

the delicate waist of America.

        (translated by Robert Bly, Neruda,

        and Vallejo: Selected Poems, 85)


And even more strikingly than Levertov’s "Thinking about El Salvador," Neruda’s poem ends with a terrifying image:


                            Indians are falling

into the sugared chasms

of the harbors, wrapped

for burial in the mist of the dawn:

a body rolls, a thing

that has no name, a fallen cipher,

a cluster of dead fruit

thrown down on the dump.


Though of course it is intellectually coherent with the poem’s theme ("sugared chasms," "a cluster of dead fruit"), this brilliant detail, in which we recognize "the known / appearing fully itself," is an image shaped by revolutionary love, by the love that yields itself not so much to editorial convictions as to the muse’s telling the goddess’ indwelling.

When Levertov is at her best, such love underlies both her celebrations and her cerebrations; indeed, precisely because she is not an artist of irony or disillusionment but a poet of revolutionary love, she succeeds at recountings of the authentic in daily experience and fails at what Swift called saeva indignatio. Clearly, moreover, she knows this in some part of herself. One of the best poems in Candles in Babylon is "The Dragonfly-Mother," a piece in which Levertov reexamines the split between earthwoman and waterwoman specifically in terms of her own split commitment to, on the one hand, political activism, and, on the other hand, poetry.


I was setting out from my house

to keep my promise


but the Dragonfly-Mother stopped me.


I was to speak to a multitude

for a good cause, but at home


the Dragonfly-Mother was listening

not to a speech but to the creak of

                            stretching tissue,

tense hum of leaves unfurling.


"Who is the Dragonfly-Mother?" the poem asks, then goes on to answer that she is the muse, "the one who hovers / on stairways of air," the one—by implication—who sees and says the authentic in the ordinary, the revolutionary love continually surprised, and inspired, by joy. Her imperatives are inescapable: "When she tells / her stories she listens; when she listens / she tells you the story you utter."

It is to such imperatives that, one hopes, this poet will continue to be loyal, for what the Dragonfly-Mother declares, over and over again, is that the political is—or must be made—the poetical: the fabric of joy should not be ripped or clipped, yet the activist artist must struggle to praise and preserve every unique thread of that fabric, against the onslaughts of those who would reduce all reality to "foul dollops." Toward the end of this poem, Levertov seems to me to express the central truth of her own aesthetic, the truth of the joy and the pain born from revolutionary love:



a messenger,

if I don’t trust her

I can’t keep faith.

                (Candles, 13-15)


Title Sandra M. Gilbert: On "Life at War" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James McCorkle Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Conversant Essays Contemporary Poets on Poetry
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