Friday, September 6, 2019

Climate Strike Poetry: Denise Levertov

First stop, 
a celebration of what is all around us, all the time; 
being curious, attentive to how things grow, how things change according to the light, the look in the eye of a lover, the look in the eye of a rabbit sighted at the side of the road...

And so, 
the poetry of Denise Levertov. 

I discovered Levertov in the late 80's when I picked up the book O Taste and See in a used bookstore simply because of the cover. It was a battered old first edition (I still have it and it's even more battered), published in 1964. I opened the book to the first page and read this: 

Song for Ishtar*

The moon is a sow
and grunts in my throat
Her great shining shines through me
so the mud of my hollow gleams
and breaks in silver bubbles

She is a sow
and I a pig and a poet

When she opens her white
lips to devour me I bite back
and laughter rocks the moon

In the black of desire
we rock and grunt, grunt and

* Ishtar is the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex, counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna.

What? How did she manage to hypnotize me in only 13 lines? Humor and depth at the same time. I bought the book, read it through that night. The next day I memorized "Song for Ishtar." Years later I incorporated it into a song about Hieronymous Bosch. I still know the poem by heart. 

Levertov was one of the poets that got me to look up from the page, curious, entranced, and see what was around me with wonder. To see and feel that most of the world (especially the non-human) is mysterious, and so sacred.

Sphinx moths, cat-faced spiders, the curve of a pear, coyote calls, bear shit, the curiosity in an orangutan's eye, the curious fear of a girl reaching out to touch a devil's flower praying mantis, the dreams of a boy after hearing an alligator yawn in the middle of the night - what is this world?

Levertov was an activist - she wrote and marched and campaigned in opposition to the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons and power, US aid to the death squads in El Salvador, The Gulf War, among many other horrors of her time, and was briefly jailed on numerous occasions for civil disobedience.

If she were still alive, she would probably be a voice for sanity, for climate justice, for a systemic change away from the fossil fuel economy, still writing poems that could help others look up from one of her books and suddenly SEE...the beauty, the terror, the strangeness, and the ecstasy in the smallest of details...and so want to protect it all from the forces of greed and ignorance.  

I'm finally coming around to the poem I was originally going to post. It's from a collection called The Jacob's Ladder, published in 1961. 

Come into Animal Presence

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn't
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.





Denise Levertov:

 Reading "O Taste & See" 1971



And this interview at the 92Y, 1991 (where she's asked what was her original inspiration to write as a child and she says "fairies." Simply because it's true. Gotta love it.)   


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