Suzanne Juhasz: On "Olga Poems"

The nature of Levertov's political consciousness is indicated by the fact that these first political poems are an elegy for her sister, a sister who was, indeed, long before Denise Levertov, a political person.

The poems reveal Levertov trying to come to terms with her dead sister—particularly with the relationship that existed between them. Olga, the elder: fierce, passionate, anguished, dedicated, wanting "to change the course of the river" (iii); Denise, the younger: "the little sister / beady-eyed in the bed" (i), watching, following, not understanding, yet loving. The poems are a series of memories (meditations) about Olga, which constantly indicate the fascination of the elder sister for the younger as well as the accompanying disapproval:


Everything flows

                            she muttered into my childhood . . .


I looked up from my Littlest Bear's cane armchair

and knew the words came from a book

and felt them alien to me



Many years of such observation allows her to characterize Olga with exquisite insight:


. . . dread

was in her, a bloodbeat, it was against the rolling dark

oncoming river she raised bulwarks . . .



Black one, incubus—

                she appeared

riding anguish as Tartars ride mares


over the stubble of bad years.



Oh, in your torn stockings, with unwaved hair,

you were trudging after your anguish

over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.



But it is when she encounters the fact of herself in Olga, Olga in herself, that the poem (which was written over a four-month period, from May to August 1964) draws together.


As through a wood, shadows and light between birches,

gliding a moment in open glades, hidden by thickets of holly


your life winds in me.



The final sequence of the poem focuses upon Olga's eyes, "the brown gold of pebbles underwater."


. . . Even when we were estranged

and my own eyes smarted in pain and anger at the thought of you. 

And by other streams in other countries; anywhere where the light

reaches down through shallows to gold gravel. Olga's

brown eyes.


She thinks of the fear in Olga's eyes, wonders how through it all "compassion's candle" kept alight in those eyes. The river that has become in the poem a symbol of the forces of time and history against which Olga had fought, in vain, or so it had always seemed to Denise ("to change, / to change the course of the river!") is now recognized as a part of the poet's life, too; and she wishes that she had understood more fully Olga's whiteness as well as her blackness ("Black one, black one, / there was a white / candle in your heart" [ii]).


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 . . .



The poem's message to herself is clear: you can't only watch; you can't only remember; you must allow yourself to participate, to be touched.


Title Suzanne Juhasz: On "Olga Poems" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Suzanne Juhasz Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition
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