Shortly before her death in 1997, the renowned English-born American poet Denise Levertov published two volumes of selected poems. The Stream and the Sapphire brought together 38 poems on Religious Themes from Levertov’s large and varied corpus. It traced, in the poet’s words, my slow movement from doubt to Christian faith. A companion volume, The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature, was intended as both a celebration of and warning about the fragility of the great web of human interaction with the natural world. The books functioned, like Levertov’s poetry itself, as gently forceful protests against the axiom that poetry makes nothing happen. In issuing small volumes that could be slipped into a pocket or a purse, like a pamphlet, Levertov and her publisher, New Directions, clearly saw these books as messages in bottles or imaginative seeds.
In Making Peace, Peggy Rosenthalwhose books include The Poets’ Jesus extends this laudable publishing venture with a collection, important in itself, that should also shed new light on its companions in the trio. Levertov took a good deal of flak for publishing, beginning in 1966, explicitly political poetry (as she would later for writing on religious themes after her conversion in the early 1980’s). But, as Peggy Rosenthal points out in her understated yet penetrating (that is to say, Levertovian) introduction, there is absolutely nothing forced or out of character, and very little that is merely topical and ephemeral, in these poems. On the contrary, they are entirely of a piece with the rest of Levertov’s work, in that they are centered in the poet’s attempts to focus rigorously and honestly on the evidence of her own experience. It is when I feel the political/ social issues of the day personally, Levertov says in an interview quoted in Making Peace, that I’m moved to write of them, in...a spirit of quest...[for] revelation or illumination. The poems were written in passionate response to the constant threat of nuclear war and to specific atrocities from the 1960’s to the early 90’s in Vietnam, El Salvador, Rwanda, Zaire and the Persian Gulf during the first gulf war. Sadly, they are no less relevant to our present situation.
The 30 poems (or parts of poems) included here are divided into four sections, each named for the keynote poem included in that section. Life at War, the grimmest of the four, presents violence as the antithesis of art. It is a pervasive dust, the exhaust of untold holocausts that chokes the singer and impedes full and creative thought and expression: The same war/ continues./ We have breathed the grit of it in, all our lives,/ our lungs are pocked with it,/ the mucous membranes of our dreams/ coated with it, the imagination/ filmed over with the gray filth of it. Most of the poems are rhythmically and symbolically constrained; the sole hope is that the pervasive silence of the wasteland represents only the retreat of the birds deeper into the forests, and not their obliteration (Land of the Death Squads).
The next section, Protesters, features poems that respond to the choking dust by speaking out nonetheless, no matter how haltingly or seemingly ineffectively: Living on the rim/ of the raging cauldron....The choice: to speak/ or not to speak. We spoke for those who had not that choice. As often as not, the speaking out is one or another attempt to reassert ritual order in the midst of destructive chaos: Buddhist altars erected by children in the streets of Saigon; Dom Helder Câmara participating in a dance involving circles within circles on the grounds of a nuclear test site. Psalms surface as an important genre, taking over from the pervasiveness of lament in section one.
Part Three, Writing in the Dark, focuses more specifically on the hope that springs from poetic imagination. Like the bird of life flown to the forests in Land of the Death Squads, the power of human imagination survives, even if it has been driven into the dark. It labors there if only to give a record of the night, or of words that flew through your mind, strange birds/ crying their urgency with human voices...words that have the power/ to make the sun rise again.
In Part Four, Making Peace, Rosenthal presents Levertov mining a more hopeful vein. Like Hopkins looking squarely at a creation bleared and smeared, but recognized deep down as always fresh and never spent, Levertov calls for the poets to give us an imagination of peace/ to oust the intense, familiar imagination of disaster. Peace, not merely the absence of war, is imagined as found, not in fleeing from, but in penetrating into the dark. I have seen, Levertov writes in City Psalm, not behind but within, within the dull grief, blown grit, hideous/ concrete facades, another grief, a gleam/ as of dew, an abode of mercy.... I saw Paradise in the dust of the street.
Making Peace, along with The Stream and the Sapphire and The Life Around Us, seeks to call us to recognize and attend to the deep and indestructible human and humane rhythms underlying the noise of daily existence in a world seemingly in thrall to violence of many kinds. This third volume of New Directions’ prayer books for the contemporary spirit is a welcome contribution, enhancing Denise Levertov’s reputation as one who heard those rhythms and embodied them in her life and work.