"Help thou mine unbelief": perception in Denise Levertov's religious poetry.
Some characters associated with religious belief recur throughout Levertov's work as metaphors of poetic creation. The Muse, for example, intervenes in inspiration and poetic processes. Apart from these figures that the poet uses to reflect upon the most mysterious and less objective phases of poetic creation, Levertov resorts to divine entities, either taken from mythology or from her Christian beliefs. Levertov also reflects in her poetry upon the influence that divine entities have on the lives of human beings. Rudolph L. Nelson places Levertov's poetry in the frame of the quotidian realm: "Levertov's calculated avoidance in her poetry of the language of traditional transcendence is evidence that she, much more than [Robert] Duncan, is a product not only of the real world of immediate sights and sounds but of the equally real world of twentieth-century science, philosophy, and theology" (200). Thus, as Nelson asserts, the poetry of Levertov strongly depends on her intense attention to perception, but avoiding the reductionism and localism, characteristic sometimes of a poetry based exclusively on the immediate realm, in order to rise to a superior reality posited by the disciplines already mentioned. In other words, the immediacy of sensitive experience for Levertov quite often leads to the perception of a divine entity or incident. Our intention is to examine the important role of perceptual processes in Levertov's poetical approaches to the existence of such beings.
Feminist criticism usually understands that Levertov uses the mirror as an object that reflects the woman's body showing a more personal and intimate aspect of the subject, more open and candid on some occasions and more undecipherable, mythic and feared on others. However, the poet uses the mirror as a window through which it is possible to find other levels of existence, other worlds not usually revealed to human beings. Acquiring the poetic value of a threshold metaphor in Levertov's lines, the mirror displays a great variety of literary meanings and belongs to a vast literary tradition. The poem entitled "Looking-glass," from O Taste and See (Poems 1960-1967 139), includes the following lines:
I slide my face along the mirror sideways, to see that side-smile, a pale look, tired and sly. Hey, who is dancing there? Shadow-me, not with malice but mercurially shot with foreknowledge of dread and sweat.
In these lines, the lyrical subject tries to describe her relation with the mirror. The poem is divided into two stanzas of equal numbers of roughly symmetrical lines, imitating the visual effect of the mirror. In the first stanza the speaker says that she offers the profile of her face to the mirror with the aim of seeing only one side of her smile, and to observe her pale, tired and curious look each time. The second stanza introduces the figure of a perhaps supernatural being, both known and an outsider to her. The question "who is glancing there?" points to the perspective shift adopted in the poem. The blank space separating both stanzas is presented as the moment of revelation for the speaker. The reflection she scrutinizes is suddenly converted into an "other," an alter ego, an unknown being looking back at her.
The poetic "I" addresses the mirror image acknowledging that, though it is a shadow or a hidden revealed being, something of her is also implicit in the reflection. The description of that "other-self' suggests an image that seems to come from the future and to know it. The use of "mercurially" presents a number of different meanings, since mercury is identified with the quicksilver employed for mirrors, while it also points towards the god Mercury, and in consequence signals a threshold to another world.
The relation of the poetic voice to mirrors does not always adopt a supernatural quality. In the poem "Keeping Track," contained in Relearning the Alphabet (Poems 1968-1972 57), the lyrical voice resorts to the mirror as a medium to check herself: "Between chores--/ hulling strawberries, / answering letters--/ or between poems, / returning to the mirror / to see if I'm there." On this occasion, the mirror is seen as a visual tool to verify her own identity. The image found in this poem is shown as a faithful reflection of her private dimension, often hidden behind everyday activities. It allows the convergence of her physical body with this evasive and supernatural component.
The poetic space is also understood as a quicksilver surface where the lyrical subject contemplates herself. That is to say, the poem performs a diagnostic function carried out by the mirror, where the subject checks the state of affairs of, on one hand, her exterior and her interior and, on the other, the threshold allowing access to other non-human worlds. In sum, the poem on the page provides the re-creation of such dimensions. However, the reader is aware that, hidden behind these dimensions, there is a mercurial stratum generating the poetical piece.
The Greek god Eros receives poetical attention in the section entitled "To Eros," included in the poem "Holiday," (Candles in Babylon 64). In this part, Levertov presents a rich sensorial exploration of typically human activities as worship to the god:
Eros, O Eros, hail thy palate, god who knows good pasta, good bread, good Brie. The beauty of freckled squid, flowers of the sea fresh off the boat, graces thy altar, Eros, which is in our eyes. And on our lips the blood of berries before we kiss, before we stumble to bed. Our bed must be in thy service, earth--as the strawberry bed is earth, a ground for miracles. The flesh is delicate, we must nourish it: desire hungers for wine, for clear plain water, good strong coffee, as well as for hard cock and throbbing clitoris and the glide and thrust of sentence and paragraph in and up to the last sweet sigh of a chapter's ending.
The fragment includes references to almost all senses. "To Eros" is inaugurated with an address to the Greek god. The poem is composed of four stanzas of irregular arrangement. The closing and beginning of each stanza is marked by the end of complete syntactical segments, in addition to the blank space and the indentation in the next line producing a series of regular gaps. The first stanza starts with the invocation of this god and a salutation to his palate. Eros is addressed using courtesy expressions, such as the use of the possessive adjective "thy," showing reverence and respect for the god. The taste sense pervades in this first part of the poem. The poet characterizes Eros (never using the capital letter to address him) as a god who knows good food. Such reference is not formulated around the physiological need to eat in order to subsist. Yet, the emphasis is on the adjective "good," repeated up to three times, anaphora insisting on food considered as a delicacy.
The next stanza experiments with a change from the previous one, from the food tasted by Eros to the altar where it is praised. The devotees of this god are the couple, the poetical subject and her lover. Most surprising is the place where the altar is placed: on their eyes and lips. This means that the elements adorning the altar are any beautiful place or thing they look at or eat, for example a nice marine landscape or berries. The lovers "stumble to bed" because they fall in a trance which makes them lose their balance and unable to remain still. Then, the altar built to Eros is nothing but the capacity they have to observe the beauty in a marine landscape, to taste simple but sumptuous food and to enjoy sexual intercourse together. The poet, in the end, suggests that worshipping the god Eros consists in the enjoyment of the senses with the loved person.
The third part identifies the totality of the world with the lover's bed. The universe, that is, their bed, has to be at the service of the god. The poet widens the description of such terrain when describing it as "a ground for miracles," as a place where the god's magic is manifest in everyday life.
The last stanza synthesizes the previously mentioned senses, but it also adds new ones. The skin, that is, the tactile sense, so necessary in sexual intercourse, has to be specially attended. This is dealt with as if it were a being in itself that must he fed. Levertov affirms that the desire is hungry for very different kinds of food. This avidity encompasses the sense of taste with wine, water and coffee. But it also consists in the craving for sexual delight and erotic excitation. Indeed, it also includes a third need, compared in the poem to the repetitive movement carried out in sexual intercourse, the need to read that causes a sense of agitation, of mental fluctuation and a final moaning in the reader when the book is over, as if it were a sexual climax.
Hence, the sensory re-creation in the poem covers several themes; on one hand, the description of Eros as mainly characterized by his capacity to taste good food; on the other, the description of the rites dedicated to the god, including activities where all the senses play a fundamental role as, for instance, the contemplation of beautiful landscapes, the taste of fruits and the sexual act with the lover. The universe where this god governs is the bed where they lie and where miracles, that is, events attributed to the divine intervention of Eros, are identified with sexual intercourse. In this sense, the poet ascribes a divine character to the relationship between the lovers.
The language employed in order to refer to male and female sexual organs, as "hard cock" and "throbbing clitoris," belong to a colloquial register. The use of such words and others of similar tone has been analyzed by feminist literary theorists to vindicate the importance of the sexual identity of women in the love relationship with the lover. At the same time, the poet wants to approach their intercourse from a point of view which breaks with the traditionally dominating male literary style and its model established to codify the sexual act poetically. Thus, according to feminism, the poet aspires to widen the traditional limits of love literature in order to empower a female literary voice, by means of the treatment of sexual topics in a less euphemistic and more direct manner.
Nevertheless, the frank exposition of the sexual encounter that the poet carries out in "To Eros" is in the same tonality, in musical terms, as the references made to food and literature. The language employed in order to refer to taste is based on colloquial language. The anaphora in the first stanza and the food items selected, very common in everyday life, underline the value that the poet gives to these elements perceived through the senses. A very common activity such as reading a book acquires in the poem a deeper significance. The interaction with the book is codified as a rocking movement suggesting the sexual act.
Actually, all perceptions referred to in the poem finally acquire holy status. The taste of food (used more as palate delight than as a necessity of life), the sexual intercourse of the lovers (not engaged in for procreation, but as physical enjoyment), and the pleasure of reading all become holy ceremonies despite being ordinary acts. Thus, the poet presents a modus vivendi based on the sacralization of prosaic acts and quotidian activities in life.
In the poem entitled "From Afar (II)," included in the volume Life in the Forest (87-88), there is another, different use of love literature. The speaker assumes her lover's word as if it were the Holy Scriptures. This fact strengthens her faith in their love and future encounter:
The first poem becomes the last. The world is round. I am wayfaring. I learned the tense and slender warmth of your body almost by heart. The bluest, furthest distance is what you carry within you--the cold of it inexorable. I know you can't hear me. I'm gleaning alone in a field in the middle of the world, you're listening for a song that I don't know, that no one has yet sung. This is not farewell. I have your word for it, inviolate. The last poem enclosed in the lucid amber of the world becomes the first.
The poem makes use of the circle as an image of the world: "the world is round." But more circular shapes are present in its lines. The opening "The first poem / becomes the last" and the closing verses "the last poem / ... / becomes the first" create a kind of circular movement in the poetic space. This suggests a circular structure and, therefore, it is not easy to elucidate where the beginning and end of each element starts. This notion resembles the Romantic idea of the synthesis of opposites in the universe. In addition, it also reminds the reader of the image of the uroboros, in Jungian terms, the winged serpent swallowing its own tail, which symbolizes cyclicality and infinity. Friedrich Nietzsche's eternal return also deepens in the same concept. The notion of circularity implies the idea of the geometrical figure as perfect, as it was believed in ancient Greece. In this sense, it is interesting to remember Aristotle's mistaken contribution to astronomy. The Greek philosopher believed that all the heavenly bodies were perfectly circular and that they moved in perfect circular orbits. The circle, by its own nature, was a perfect geometrical figure.
Moreover, more contrasting elements can be found in these lines. There is an opposition between the colors blue and amber, both with their respective features of coldness and warmth. Another contradiction exists between the voyage of the lover towards his own interior and the speaker's pilgrimage towards the outer reality, represented by the center of the world. Throughout the poem, the physical distance separating the lovers and the remoteness of their past encounter greatly contrasts with the sense of unity and peace with which the poem finishes.
In the third stanza, the voice goes back to a past event, related to the physical encounter of the lovers. The subject insists on the tense and elegant warmth of the lover's body. Then she refers to the distances governing world geography. Surprisingly, she states that the longest journey in the world does not belong to the physical geography of the world, but to the inner part of her lover, whom she describes with the "bluest" color and a tactile inevitable feeling of "cold." The distance between both characters has widened. The poetic subject is in a country landscape, harvesting wheat and singing, conscious of not being perceived by her lover. Yet, she knows that he is listening to another song, a voiceless melody, still not intoned by human voices.
The positioning of the first and last lines in the poem seems to be caused by the reflection of the poem itself on a mirror. When the reader finds the first lines, they represent only a discrete fact. But the appearance of the last lines brings about a transformation of an isolated event into an infinite and eternal phenomenon. As we finally discover that the end becomes the beginning and vice versa, the extremes of a previously linear process identify with each other and it turns into a cyclic process returning towards the infinite. Thus, the conversion of a single and discrete fact into a non-finite process is reminiscent of the visual effect of a mirror, giving access to realities not yet perceived by the reader.
The poetic explanation of the ways of life of both the speaker and her lover is based exclusively on sensory experiences. Their existence is depicted by one listening to a melody and the other singing a song. Their past encounter is described in terms of tactile feelings: "the tense and slender / warmth of your body," in contrast with "the cold of his interior." Two colors appear in these lines: blue and amber. The color "bluest" is characterized as cold and identified with separation and loneliness: "furthest distance." Amber, conversely, is the color of the fields of the world, suggesting order, fertility and connectedness.
The concept of the world and the universe provided in this poem is based upon the existence of opposing and conflicting elements which finally become essential phases in a recurrent process. At the end of the poem all of them change into their opposites and the cycle starts again. Coldness is changed into warmth, blue into amber, silence into song, loneliness into connectedness, and end into beginning. All these transformations can take place because the subject has faith in her lover's word.
At the end of the poem the lyrical voice insists that the poem the reader has in front of him / her is not created as a farewell to her lover, since there is a promise he made. The lover's word, then, resembles God's word, a promise providing peace and safety to her. The subject does not experience doubt, since the word, "inviolate," meaning "pure," acquires the power of a mantra, protecting her faith from vacillation.
As pointed out by Lacey, pagan deities had always been present in Levertov's work, even before her conversion to Catholicism in the last part of her life. Poems like "St. Thomas Didymus" and "Ascension," which will be analysed shortly, reveal the connections between Levertov's writing and the work of certain mystical figures. The words of Antonio M. Artola and Sanchez Caro in Biblia y Palabra de Dios offer a good explanation of the process of writing in a religious sense (translation is mine):
All the religions based in the book [the Bible] understand that in their origin there is a revealing word that later takes shape in Holy writing. In Christianity this stage of the word / writing culminates in Incarnation. Indeed, the Word coming from the Father assumes Jesus Christ's human body by elevating it to a strictly divine order. That is why in the Christian religion the treatment of the Holy Word demands the mystery of intra-Trinitarian life that self-communicates in revelation and Incarnation. For a Christian there is no doubt that the Holy Word is marked by a strictly divine meaning in the Incarnation (27). (1)
Artola and Sanchez Caro do not hesitate to endow Logos with the power to act by means of language. The divinity of God resides, then, unlike the work carried out by poets, in the performative capacity of the pronounced word. In this sense, the best biblical example is the beginning of the book of Genesis, where God creates by means of language acts. Likewise, the presence of Jesus Christ is also a consequence of God's Word, in two main senses. First, in that God has expressed that Jesus has to be incarnated in human form to transmit His message. Second, in that the message spread by Jesus Christ comes directly from God.
A very interesting analogy can be found between some of the ideas expressed in the above excerpt and the poetry of Levertov. This analogy can be established between God, the Bible and human beings respectively with the poet, the poem and readers. This means that, for example, the Bible as a poetic text can be compared to poetry. The Holy Scriptures are provided to the human race as a vital guide; meanwhile for Levertov, the main task of poetry is to awaken the conscience of her readers by means of the messages bearing truths unveiled in its lines. If poets are certainly not godlike creatures, their capacity to create poems can be compared to the dictation God gave of the Bible to His prophets, saints and mystics.
On the other hand, despite differences, the poet and the mystic have many similarities. The mystic wants to come close to the Verbum, and once s/he has been in contact with it, s/he writes about the ecstasies and revelations experienced. The poet expects inspiration to guide him / her in the writing of the poem. In this sense, the prophet receiving the revelation of God's message communicates it and progressively comes closer to the process of poetic writing. According to the reasons provided by Artola and Sanchez Caro, the relation established between the writing of poetry and the writing of the Bible through God's prophets coincides. When referring to the moment of revelation, Artola and Sanchez Caro seem to be referring to the poetic act of inspiration:
The act of choosing that occurs in the eternity of God has its first moment of realization in the call. The divine irruption in the life of humans has a double side. If it is considered on God's side, it is an infinite, indeterminate, total action. That is why it is impossible to define and to specify. On the human side, it has differentiated effects. And it is depending on these specific and determined aspects that the divine action is named. Thus, we can speak of revelation, call, locution, vision, mandate, etc. But even on the human side, there is a first primordial moment in which the perception of the acting presence of God is also total, indeterminate, simple and not fragmented. It is the simple apprehension of the acting presence of God or the pure impression of the reality of the being of God. One of the most immediate reactions to the perception of the divine is the acceptance of its reality and the submission to its exigencies (178). (2)
From the moment that the event explained in this quotation takes place, the human being takes upon him / herself the task to communicate it to others. These authors continue explaining the process of linguistic expression in the moment of revelation:
The impression of divine reality experienced in the closeness of God necessarily tends to the exteriorization and to the expression in linguistic signs in order to express what has been experienced and to communicate it to the receivers of the divine revelation. In the pristine moment there is nothing else but the intense and true perception of the otherness of the divine being intervening. In a second moment the simple, total and indeterminate impression is articulated in different perceptions depending on the variety of the capacities affected by the impression of reality of the divine action.... The passage of the inner experience of the inspired towards the expression in human language is the crucial point where the phenomenon of both the inspiration and the consecration of the word takes place. Indeed, the experience of divine communication has to be translated into human words (3) (178-179).
At this point, Artola and Sanchez Caro turn to linguistic theories and explain the linguistic process in terms of the philosophy of language: "the philosophy of language has shown a particular preference for casting light on the mystery of the speaking capacity. From W. yon Humboldt until X. Zubiri, the passage from the interiority of knowledge to the expression has fascinated language theoreticians" (iv) (179).
The poems that Levertov wrote as a Catholic quite frequently deal with problems of faith as they strike the poetical subject. The critic James Gallant analyzes the evolution of Levertov's religious poetry and explains that her first Catholic poems dealt with anxiety, existentialism and religious doubt. However, the critic rightly points out the change in her last writings towards the acceptance of doubt, death and absence in lines where uneasiness is substituted by peace, depth and wisdom. Gallant affirms that "Levertov's Christian poems explore the paradox of being and nothingness, wrestle with uncertainty and doubt, and search for 'fragments of light' embedded in the darkness" (126). Levertov uses the images containing opposites in order to symbolize the struggle between her constant search for faith and disbelief. The appearance of light and shadow and of presence and absence in her poetry is reminiscent of the coexistence of opposites in the universe, as was also appreciated in the poem "From Afar (II)." These conflicting items create a chiaroscuro effect in Levertov's lines and finally represent the necessary steps for both personal and religious growth. According to Gallant, her poetry reflects her wrestling to overcome the paradox of faith: "the poem is a vivid expression of the unresolvable dilemma, the aporia of transcendence" (127). Finally, Gallant explains that Levertov accepts the phases leading her to spiritual peace:
Levertov has come to understand her own lack of understanding ... Levertov has become comfortable in her state of limbo, of not knowing, of knowing that she does not know. In embracing the paradox of faith, Levertov gains a spiritual strength ... Although Levertov has dealt with religious concerns in her work for over a decade, these recent poems are perhaps the most profound and moving. If Levertov's faith seems more tenuous, it is at the same time deeper and wiser (132-133).
The poem entitled "St Thomas Didymus," included in A Door in the Hive (A Door in The Hive and Evening Train 100-102) reflects upon the suffering implicit in the lack of faith, through the lyrical voice of Thomas Didymus, the most incredulous of Christ's disciples. The title of the poem already focuses its attention on the apostle, also called by his Greek name, meaning "brother" or "twin." The poem deals with the confession of St. Thomas. This poem cannot be understood completely without reading Mark 9.17-24. One of the most striking aspects of these verses resides in the frustration of Jesus, caused by the faithless attitude in his disciples. This was causing their inability to work wonders, a gift Jesus had already given to them.
At the beginning of the poem, the lyrical voice tells of an event witnessed at noontime in the streets. It is the transcription of the Biblical episode. A mature man was holding his son, who was trembling and grinding his teeth; meanwhile he was shouting from the crowd the sentence with which the following excerpt finishes: "Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief." After hearing this petition, Thomas affirms that this phrase converts that father into his twin brother: "and knew him my twin." The question called out by this man reveals his incapacity to understand the reason why a child spends his childhood suffering. Thomas insists on the brotherhood uniting them together, even more than if they were of the same family. This is a stronger union than the fraternal bond. The empathetic identification between the disciple and this man is shown in the poem through the suffering evident in the physiological processes of the apostle: "the twin of my birth / was not so close / as that man I heard / say what my heart / sighed with each beat, my breath silently / cried in and out, / in and out." These lines focus on the suffering, understood as a physiological mechanism, a phase of organic character in its evolution.
Next, Thomas confesses that after the miraculous healing carried out by Jesus, he kept a very intense memory of his identification with that father, adding: "Despite / all that I witnessed, / his question remained / my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer, / known / only to doctor and patient. To others / I seemed well enough." The tragedy of such a character resides in keeping his lack of faith in silence, hidden from the rest of the disciples, a deficiency revealed as an illness which is progressively killing the sick person. Thomas tells his vital experience in physiological terms:
So it was that after Golgotha my spirit in secret lurched in the same convulsed writhings that tore that child before he was healed. And after the empty tomb when they told me He lived, had spoken to Magdalen, told me that though He had passed through the door like a ghost He had breathed on them the breath of a living man--even then when hope tried with a flutter of wings to lift me--still, alone with myself, my heavy cry was the same: Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief. I needed blood to tell me the truth, the touch of blood. Even my sight of the dark crust of it round the nailholes didn't trust its meaning all the way through to that manifold knot in me that willed to possess all knowledge, refusing to loosen unless that insistence won the battle I fought with life.
The apostle insists on his lack of faith as a "manifold knot;" it is a neoplasm affecting him. For Thomas, the vision of the wounds in Jesus Christ crucified is not a test solid enough to drive this need of knowledge out of his mind. He must, indeed, experience it through the sense of touch. Only a multi-sensorial verification of the wounds of the risen-again will avail to dispel his doubts. Another biblical passage describes the meeting of Thomas Didymus and the resurrected Son of God. The material for the poem comes from the well-known incredulous words of the apostle: "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20.25), and Christ's response: "Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing" (John 20.29).
The poet deduces that the apostle could have felt shame and pain for his incapacity to believe without testing with his senses and experiencing what had happened. However, the disciple receives an unexpected compensation from Jesus Christ:
But when my hand led by His hand's firm clasp entered the unhealed wound, my fingers encountering rib-bone and pulsing heat, what I felt was not scalding pain, shame for my obstinate need, but light, light streaming into me, over me, filling the room as if I had lived till then in a cold cave, and now coming forth for the first time, the knot that bound me unravelling, I witnessed all things quicken to color, to form, my question not answered but given its part in a vast unfolding design lit by a risen sun.
The lack of faith affecting the saint comes from the implicit clumsiness in needing to experience by means of his senses a reality confirming his faith. The subject expresses it as follows: "I needed / blood to tell me the truth, / the touch / of blood." The testimonies that he listens to about the absence of Christ's corpse, the conversation held between Mary Magdalen and him, and the meeting of the other disciples with him are not enough for Thomas. Despite feeling happy for such narrations, the apostle needs something more than those words. Thomas needs to confirm reality by means of his own sensory experience. Saint Thomas admits that, besides touching His blood, he needs to corroborate by his sight the ring of dry blood around His wounds.
In the poem, Saint Thomas describes his physical confirmation of such facts. In addition to the sensory experiencing of Christ's resurrection, the incredulous apostle received one more gift. The feeling which invaded him at the moment he realized that the Son of God had risen from the dead was not negative, but very reassuring. He felt neither remorse for having doubted nor shame for his need to find out by means of his
senses. The divine presence of God manifests itself as a light going through him, pervading the room, allowing him to discover that he had spent his whole life hidden from that bright light. Any kind of vacillation about his master was dispelled at that very moment, and Thomas could appreciate a significant change in his way of perceiving reality. He felt that his eyes could clearly perceive colors and a more intense and defined shape of things. Thomas did not only confirm in his senses the resurrection of Christ's human body; he also enjoyed the benefits of divine illumination, letting him understand the importance of suffering "in a vast unfolding design." The perception of the apostle experienced a substantial improvement, in such a manner that his way of knowing and relating to the world allowed him to develop his self-consciousness and a better understanding of the reality surrounding him.
In the case of both the poems. To Eros and St Thomas Dldymus, the perception acquires an essential value so that gods can be worshipped. Levertov argues in these poems that the sensitive knowledge is the medium to praise those godlike presences and a fundamental method to consolidate her faith as well. Far from supporting the notion that faith must be based on believing without experiencing, the poet insists on the vital encounter of the apostle as a positive example.
In "Ascension," in Evening Train (A Door in the Hive and Evening Train 207) Levertov deals with the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a godlike awakening in a human body, a superior form of consciousness contained in a physical body:
Can Ascension not have been arduous, almost, as the return from Sheol, and back through the tomb into breath? Matter reanimate now must relinquish itself, its human cells, molecules, five senses, linear vision endured as Man--the sole all-encompassing gaze resumed now, Eye of Eternity....
In these lines, the poet tries to understand the process of resurrection by means of which Jesus Christ's formerly human body progressively stops feeling the finiteness and limits imposed on his physical being as his divine part invades his flesh. Likewise, Levertov reflects on the physical transformation His corpse must have suffered in order to be brought to life. In these two processes referred to in the poem, it is especially noteworthy to underline the presence of the senses in His body: "its human cells, molecules, five senses, linear vision endured as Man." The whole body awakens from death, progressively comes to life, from the smallest atoms to the five senses, paying special attention to the "linear" vision of human beings. The expression "linear" applied to vision implies that time guides humans through their existence, allowing them to contemplate only the consecutive and successive unfolding of reality. However, Jesus Christ, after having enjoyed the perception typical of humans and having died, has to give up these human characteristics in order to re-assume his godlike proportions when he rises from the dead and ascends. This means that the organic matter in his body has to be transformed in order to retain his now regained godlike features. In this poem, the divine state is established by means of the "all-encompassing gaze," that is to say, a look embracing the wholeness of things. Thus, for Levertov the characteristics defining divinity imply a supreme perception.
The poems looking at faith issues in depth frequently develop the same concept. The contradiction for the poet lies in the fact that she must believe in something which is not verifiable through the tools of investigation that human beings possess: their senses. Faith is then consolidated as a feeling that has to establish a link between the mundane and the divine. The human body is considered in these poems as the medium through which faith has to be sifted, so that it can be assimilated by means of physiological processes.
The most interesting thought about the feeling of faith and its close relation to body can be appreciated in "Visitation. Overflow ... ," from This Great Unknowing (38-40). The poem is divided into three parts. The first part closely examines a biblical sentence and emphasizes the importance of the word as a medium for representing reality and verifying faith:
I The slender evidence ... The you must take my word for it. The intake of a word. Its taste, cloud in the mouth. The presence, invisible, impalpable, air to outstretched arms, but voiced, tracked easily in room's geography, among the maps, the gazing-window, door, fire, all in place, internal space immutable. The slenderness of evidence, narrow backed tapir undulating away on rainforest paths, each tapir bearing a human soul.
According to the first two lines, this is a very fragile and scarce form of evidence. In the following stanza, the reader discovers that the evidence is a word, the Sacred Word. The lyrical voice deepens in the sentence taken from the Bible, where the only guarantee offered to the believer lies in the power of the word. Due to that, the subject carries out an analysis of the process by which the word becomes part of her own body, that is, the mechanism allowing the apprehension of the word in its totality and achievement of a strengthened faith. The digestion of the word starts in the mouth. The poetical voice tries to taste the word, said to have the texture of a cloud in her mouth. The combined use of taste and touch is alternated with the ungraspable character of a cloud, that is, with the ungraspable quality of the word. The word, as it comes out from these lines, is shaped as a handful of steam. It has neither taste nor shape.
The decision of the lyrical subject to put the word inside her mouth recalls the process babies follow in their growth when they put any new object in their mouths with the aim to know it and to test the possibilities it can offer. Consequently, the human race appears before the presence and the word of God as a newborn baby who wants to know the reality surrounding it, but that can only reach it through the exploration with its body and senses.
Next, the poetic subject describes the word present in the room, the place where she is taking refuge. She refers to the word as a presence that cannot be seen or touched because it is only air. Only the ear can apprehend the word resounding in the room. The closing of this stanza finishes: "internal space immutable." Here it is possible to discover that the speaker is referring to her own interior. The word moves through the room, over different maps that the subject is scrutinizing and over which the word of faith has an apparent influence.
The reference to the inner geography of the lyrical voice points towards the spiritual dimension of human beings, where the word settles as a medium enabling a state of faith. The last stanza of this first part focuses on the presence of an animal similar to a wild boar. The tapir walks in the paths of the dense forests in the basin of the Amazon. The animal symbolizes doubt and faith, weakness in the human soul. This stanza also establishes another similarity between the coming and going of men and women in the paths of life and the movement of such animals along the Amazon paths.
This excerpt offers the visual perspective of God who contemplates humans from above as if they now were a tapir (as before they were a newborn baby). This poetic section, in sum, establishes an invisible but close relation between the interior geography of the poetical voice and the physical landscape of the earth. The connection established between the spiritual and cartographic geography has to imitate the close relation between the holy word, present in the dimensioned reality of time and space, and the faith that informs the inner landscape of men and women.
The poem continues in a second part, where it deepens in the physiological internalization of the Holy word:
2 Amazon basin, filling, overflowing, spirits in every plant, in bark, in every animal, in juice of bark. Words taken by lips, tongue, teeth, throat, down into body's caverns, to enter blood, bone, breath, as here: as here the presence next to that window, appearance known not to sight, to touch, but to hearing, yes, and yet appearing, apprehended in form, in color, by some sense unnamed,
The section starts with another explicit reference to the Amazon basin. But in this poetic phase, a great leap is made towards the exterior, and the poem starts from the dimensioned reality of the world. The poetical subject perceives the divine presence wholly invading the Amazon physical geography. It establishes a comparison between the overflowing of the fiver water and the flooding taking place in the presence of God, felt by all beings living in this forest. In her close scrutiny, the subject tries to "impersonate" an Amazon native in order to fully assimilate the landscape. Certainly the subject is present in that scenery. Next, the subject approaches again a physical internalization of the exterior, and expresses the acquisition process of the word by means of the body. It starts in the lips, goes through the tongue, teeth, throat and, from there, it penetrates the inner cavities of the body. The maximum degree of internalization of outer reality in the human body resides in the blood flow and in the presence of the word in the bone structure. The cyclic process of breathing facilitates the process of apprehension first and second the opposite process of release. That is, after the internalization of the word, the breathing expels air. The poetic voice expresses the importance of the ear in the perception of the word, at the same time as it emphasizes the futility of sight and touch in this vital process.
The subject, in summary, discovers a functional synesthesia, consisting in the capacity of hearing to perceive the color and the shape, that is to say, to develop the functions of sight and touch. Nevertheless, the use of italics in the word "appearing" shows a transmutation that occurs in the exploration and finding of faith. Such transformation starts with the hearing of the Word. Then there takes place inside the subject a kind of digestion or conversion of it into shape and color. Thus, the given word acquires an unexpected and renewed significance, pervading not only the sense of hearing, but sight and touch also. It becomes, therefore, a multi-sensorial ("all-encompassing" we could even say) experience. In the end, the subject finally reaches an affirmation of her faith through an organic and physiological process based on perception.
The last line, "by some sense unnamed," refers to the presence of the Word in that inner and outer room, private and public dimension of the subject. Definitely, that line points to the presence of God in the everyday life of the poetic voice. However, the speaker is concerned with the quality characterizing the establishment of the Holy Word: it cannot be named. Conversely, it is possible to perceive its color and shape once the organic transformation has taken place. Finally, Levertov finishes the excerpt by focusing on Jesus Christ, incarnated in a man's body but being at the same time the Logos. The problem of understanding the coexistence of human and divine features in Jesus Christ's body, as well as comprehending the multi-sensorial perception of the Holy Word, is described in the poem in terms of a breakdown in expression, the inability to name the thing experienced: "by some sense unnamed." Thus, the poem acknowledges the ineffable nature of the experienced Sacred Word. This poetic exploration is also reminiscent of the poem "St. Thomas Didymus." In it, Jesus Christ's resurrected body, flesh wholly pervaded now by divinity, had to be examined by the sight and touch of his followers so that they could believe the miracle. Both the Holy Word and Jesus Christ's body need a specific exploration so that humans can become aware of their nature.
The last line in the second part of the poem directly links to the last part of the poem, where the poetic voice describes the organic process implicit in digesting the word steadying her faith. This last part stresses the notion of cyclic movement connecting the outer with the inner part and vice versa and, lastly, the hypostatic confluence of the immanent with the transcendent:
3 moving slenderly doorwards, assured, reassuring, leaving a trace, of certainty, promise broader than slender tapir's disappearing sturdy back, the you can only take my word for it, a life, a phase, beyond the known geography, beyond familiar inward, outward, outward, inward. A 'time and place' (other terms unavailing) of learning, of casting off of dross ...
The apprehension of the Word causes a movement towards the door, a threshold pointing the subject toward a mysterious place, still unknowing if inside or outside of herself. Such displacement is carried out by a subject wrapped in a halo of peace, leaving behind herself a wake of certitude, security and promise, acquired, in part, by means of biological processes. The animal introduced in the first part of the poem reappears now, as a symbol of the doubt in the human soul. The animal disappears with the magnanimity of this promise and the affirmation in the finally settled faith. The Biblical faith acquires an uncommon dimension, at the beginning of the section, for it is referred to as "a life, / a phase" which transcends the known physical geography and the private spaces of human beings. The transposition of the words "inward, outward, / outward, inward" appears in the middle of the excerpt. This procedure allows the reader to observe how the identification between the outer and the inner reality, and vice versa, takes place by means of a visual effect provided by a mirror. Such a pun again makes reference to the hypostasis, towards identification and union in human nature to the Verbum.
The last part of this section investigates the spatial-temporal dimension implicit in the process of corporal exploration in the Biblical sentence. As specified in the poem, only by experiencing the Holy Word through the body, as a course inevitably shaped in time and space, can the human race be led to learning and to a successful process of spiritual and corporal purification.
DENISE Levertov made nonhuman entities habitual dwellers in the lines of her poetry. For her, everyday reality and supernatural dimensions were closely linked. Throughout her work she was intent on helping her readers to become aware of the bridges uniting these two worlds. That is why, as Lacey suggests, Levertov needed to explore doors, thresholds or borderlands. The strong relation between both worlds was more easily found in such bridging terrains. Mirrors were also very useful instruments for investigating these realms, for they offered a new vision of the already known reality and substantially changed the reflection as they provided an image revealing those hidden nonhuman lives. In summary, Levertov tested perceptual processes in order to acquire knowledge about life and experience, both objective and subjective. She forged a poetic procedure based on her perception primarily and on bodily processes secondarily. Thus, Levertov's intense use of perception and organic processes is the means she employs in her work to scrutinize, acknowledge and apprehend that particular reality she so intensely explored.
Levertov's conversion to Catholicism resulted in very beautiful and deep poems dealing with faith and related issues such as the relationship between the body and the spirit, the physical and the divine. Levertov, so expert in chiselling perceptual nuances, faced doubt in her work first in terms of an existential anguish. She could only overcome it, as she had always done, incorporating in her poetry the apprehended perceptions by using her five senses, breathing or digesting processes. As an exmaple, the poetic metaphor for her disbelief was a "stealthy cancer" invading a healthy body. Her struggle for faith progressively vanishes as Levertov discovers that by impersonating other subjects--either taken from Biblical material or other religious sources, adopting their perspectives, imaginatively experiencing what they experienced, and by learning with intense attention from it--it is actually possible to overcome problems of faith. The well-known phrase "you must take my word for it" becomes then the starting point and the end in the poetic process of her search for self-knowledge. Through this process she achieved not only an "all-encompassing" perception of the world but a prominent place in world literature as well.
Artola, Antonio M. and Sanchez Caro, J. Manuel. Introduccion al estudio de la Biblia. Biblia y Palabra de Dios. Navarra: Verbo Divino, 1990.
Gallant, James. "Entering No-Man's Land: The Recent Religious Poetry of Denise Levertov." Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature, 50.1-2 (Fall 1997 / Winter 1998): 123-134.
Lacey, Paul. "'To Meditate a Saving Strategy': Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry." Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature. 50.1-2 (Fall 1997 / Winter 1998): 17-32.
Levertov, Denise. Candles in Babylon. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1982.
--. A Door in the Hive and Evening Train. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1993.
--. Life in the Forest. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1978.
--. Poems 1960-1967. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1983.
--. Poems 1968-1972. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1987.
--. This Great Unknowing. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1997.
Nelson, Rudolph L. "Edge of the Transcendent. The Poetry of Levertov and Duncan." Southwest Review, 54 (1969): 188-202.
(1) Todas las religiones del libro [la Biblia] suponen en su origen una palabra de revelacion que luego toma forma de escritura sagrada. En el cristianismo esta etapa de la palabra-escritura culmina en la encarnacion. En efecto, la Palabra personal del Padre asume al ser humano de Jesus elevandolo a un orden estrictamente divino. Por eso en la religion cristiana el tratamiento de la Palabra de Dios exige como marco propio el misterio de la vida intratrinitaria que se autocomunica en la revelacion y la encarnacion. Para el cristiano no hay duda alguna de queen la encarnacion la Palabra de Dios reviste un sentido estrictamente divino (27).
(2) El acto de eleccion que acontece en la eternidad de Dios tiene su momento primero de realizacion en la llamada. La irrupcion divina en la vida del hombre tiene una doble cara. Si se la considera de parte de Dios, es una accion infinita, indeterminada, total. Por eso mismo es indefinible e imprecisable. De parte del hombre tiene efectos diferenciados. Yes en funcion de estos aspectos concretos y determinados como la accion divina es denominada. Asi podemos hablar de revelacion, llamada, locucion, vision, mandato, etc. Pero incluso de parte del hombre hay un momento primordial en que la percepcion de la presencia actuante de Dios es tambien total, indeterminada, simple y no fragmentada. Es la simple aprehension de la presencia actuante de Dios o la pura impresion de realidad del ser de Dios.
Una de las reacciones mas inmediatas a la percepcion de lo divino es la aceptacion de su realidad y la sumision a sus exigencias (178).
(3) La impresion de realidad divina experimentada en la cercania de Dios tiende necesariamente a la exteriorizacion y a la expresion en signos linguisticos con el fin de manifestar lo experimentado y comunicarlo a los destinatarios de la revelacion divina.
En el instante primero no hay mas que la percepcion intensa y cierta de la alteridad de ser divino que interviene. En un segundo momento la impresion simple, total e indeterminada se articula en percepciones diferenciadas segun la variedad de las potencias que quedan afectadas por la impresion de realidad de la accion divina....
El paso de la experiencia interior del inspirado a su q en el lenguaje humano es el punto crucial donde acontece el fenomeno de la inspiracion y de la consagracion de la palabra. Efectivamente, la experiencia de la comunicacion divina hay que traducirla en palabras humanas (178-179).
(4) "la filosofia del lenguaje ha mostrado una particular preferencia por iluminar el misterio del hablar. Desde W. von Humboldt hasta X. Zubiri, el paso de la interioridad del conocimiento a la expresion ha apasionado a los teoricos del lenguaje" (179).
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|Author:||Fernandez, Cristina Maria Gamez|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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