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Beyond vision: the role of perception in Denise Levertov's examination of blindness.

"You don't understand," he cried, in a voice that was meant to be great and resolute, and which broke. "You are blind, and I can see. Leave me alone!" H.G. Wells

DENISE Levertov affirmed in "The Poet in the World" that

[t]he poet is being born. Blind, he nevertheless is aware of a new world around him, the walls of the womb are gone, something harsh enters his nose and mouth and lungs, and he uses it to call out to the world with what he finds is his voice, in a cry of anger, pathos, or is it pure announcement?--he has no tears as yet, much less laughter. And some other harshness teases his eyes, premonition of sight, a promise that begins at once to be fulfilled. (Poet 107)

Levertov describes the poet's birth evolving from the poet's initial blindness into an intuition of vision. Then, her explanation of the poet's task moves to the process of perception mainly through sight. In "Some Notes on Organic Form," the poet clarifies poetic creation using the same metaphor:

[t]he beginning of the fulfillment of this demand [the poem] is to contemplate, to meditate; words which connote a state in which the heat of feeling warms the intellect. To contemplate comes from "templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur." It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is "to keep the mind in a state of contemplation." (Poet 8)

Perception understood as a resource of poetic creation has been a constant in Levertov's credo: perception of the Other(s), of animals, of plants--of surrounding reality in general--and of inner experience and art itself. (2) In "The Poetry of Political Anguish," Paul Lacey agrees that "for Levertov, deep knowledge has to be known in the body, literally incorporated" (157). I have also pointed out in "'Help Thou Mine Unbelief': Perception in Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry" that 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. (73)

Levertov's poems, however, do not always depict sensory perception as an easy way to deal with reality, especially if the senses are numb or unaware. In this context it is helpful to read a set of six poems in which Levertov thoroughly examines blindness. These poems display the evolution of her understanding of blindness from a dark and evil condition to a hall-divine form of life. The poet shows a keen interest in this pathology, reflected in poems from her poetic origins ("Fear of the Blind") until a few years before her death ("Uncertain Oneiromancy"). Although the blind subjects are involved in a darkness that attracts gazes, and this has overwhelming effects in those considering the image ("A Solitude"), what is fascinating for the poet are those other methods--or should we say those other ways of life?--they use to find their way through our reality, so much owned by our constantly possessing sight ("For the Blind"). Approaching the condition philosophically, Levertov comes to terms with her feelings as she describes the quests undertaken by blind people. This poetic inquiry about the nature of blindness throws a distinct light on Levertov's overall poetic quest. When sight becomes an ineffective means to relate to reality, other senses are promoted in her poetry. Her lines then become highly onomatopoeic and full of synesthesias. In this way, Levertov attempts to demonstrate that reality has to be apprehended with whatever instruments the poet finds at hand. Vision represents one of the most important elements in this search, but such a search must go further and use other senses if sight is no longer available. For a poet who has chosen sensory perception as one of the cornerstones of life and artistic creation, the meaning of such poetic investigation will gauge its special and significant position in her poetics.

LEVERTOV wrote the first poem in this vein in Paris in 1947. This piece, entitled "Fear of the Blind" (8) and included in Collected Earlier" Poems, depicts a fundamental separation between people affected by blindness and the poet. Such separation, as the poet refers to the discontinuity between her Self and the Other, recalls the characteristic anguish expressed by Existentialist philosophers. The presence of such a basic separation between human beings awakens an irrational fear in the poet:
   The blind tap their way from stone to stone
   feel from shadow to shadow, suncaressed
   between the plane-trees.
   I listen with closed eyes to the dry
   autumnal sound of their searching.
   Whom the tree grows in, whom clouds compel,
   green enters, red, blue of a bell
   of a ringing sky; whom wings delight
   or waving weed on frayed sleeves of the sea,
   I fear the blind: they cannot share my world
   but stop its spinning with their heavy shadows)

The poem describes all blind people as belonging to a similar human group, under the generalization that all these individuals orient themselves in a striking manner when walking in the streets. (4) According to the poem's first line, sightless people strike the stones along the border of the roads they walk, and the first line vividly imitates the sound of the regular tapping by means of the dull and voiceless sounds of "tap" and "stone." A contrast is then introduced with respect to the previous line, as now the sounds in the line become approximant and fricative, such as /f/, /[??]/, and /w/. This line refers to their tactile perception when walking in the sun beams and shadows under the plane-trees: the sense of softness derived from such perception is acutely suggested by such fricatives. So far, the depiction of these strange beings, which is dealt with in an almost mythic manner, has been recreated by means of the senses of hearing and touch. Richard Jackson, in "A Common Time: The Poetry of Denise Levertov," remarks:
   for Levertov a simple mythic poetry is inadequate.... For her, the
   mythological must be a process that occurs within the poem, not as
   a result of it, or referred to by it.... The truly mythic, then, is
   itself a temporalized structure which reminds us that learning its
   terms, its language, its dramatic relationships is a gradual,
   never-ending process of revaluation of ourselves. (27-28)

Jose Rodriguez Herrera also explores Levertov's characteristic use of the mythical contents in her poetry in his discussion of the poem "Song for Ishtar": "[It] is not simply a poem on a Babylonian myth but a recreation and rewriting of the myth through the apprehension of its true sources" (120). Shockingly enough, sight is the great absent sense. Although the poem is inaugurated with the description of the presence of blind people, the attention soon moves toward the poetic perceiver in "I listen." Again, the lack of vision is highlighted as the hearing and tactile senses are emphasized. The poet reenacts the sounds of searching that the blind confront while feeling the dryness and the coldness of the multisensory, dull, and autumnal landscape.

The poet composes a series of subordinate, introductory relative clauses, where the repetition of the word "whom" syntactically unifies the structure. The antecedent of "whom" does not appear until the penultimate line of the poem in a continued hyperbaton: "I." The justification for such fear, which the poet confesses almost at the end of the poem in "I fear the blind," contains an enumeration of elements which refer to various objects perceived through vision. The clause "whom the tree grows in" expresses the great capacity of the poet to observe the plane-tree with such intensity that she is able to incorporate it into her own body. This clause offers one of the most relevant poetic keys for Levertov: the intense observation of reality is a valid form of incorporating that which is contemplated within one's existence, i.e., of gaining knowledge. On the contrary, as is understood from the poem, blind people can only walk under the tree, feel its shadow, touch its leaves or trunk, but can never relate to it in the way the poet does. The clause "whom clouds compel" insists upon the same process and refers to the different shapes taken by clouds, as figures attracting and exciting the poet to her very core. The next described element is the sky, associated in the poem with a multicolor bell. Green, red, and blue characterize that celestial bell ringing out for the poet's inspiration and active presence in the world. The last element of the list moves from the sky towards the ocean, acknowledged as a mirror reflecting these colors, which belong to the marine plants that ceaselessly sway, rocked by the waves. The sonorous dimension of the poem in such lines is impressive. The sound of the bell is evoked by the repetition of "whom." The movement of the waves in the sea is suggested by the semi-consonant sound/w/ in "wings," "waving," and "weed," and vocalic diphthong sounds, such as /aI/in "delight" and "blind," or as /eI/ in "frayed." These two mirroring elements of nature endlessly point towards each other as the poet intentionally is not precise about which of them is the reflection of the other. These connections emerge in the poem as the knowledge that the poet distills from her close, highly perceptive observation of reality. However, the most relevant process in the piece is that all these elements are incorporated as a modus vivendi which characterizes her very nature as a sighted human being and poet.

The poet has displayed all these natural elements by observation using her keen visual awareness. For Levertov, the interaction between the examined landscape and the poet is understood as the only possible lifestyle. Sightless people cannot have access to this existence and, given the prospect, the poet appears frightened and lost, since she is not able to find another vital possibility for them. In the end, according to what the poet implies, blindness can only find its own path through the constant, stark, and rhythmic beating of the cane over ground. This sound, Levertov acknowledges, is not in tune with the multicolored and polyphonal bell in the sky. As a result, such voiceless tapping does not allow any kind of interaction, identification, or analogy to take place between blind human beings and the surrounding reality.

The last two lines in the poem explain the irrationality of her fear of blind people: "They cannot share my world / but stop its spinning with their heavy shadows." At this point a great tour de force takes place in the poem. The problem is not that blind people are unable to carry out vital actions similar to the ones carried out by the poet, but the fact that the world surrenders its natural movement to the blind presence. The world's expected ongoing movement is stopped by the presence of these mythic figures, and the poet then is not able to continue with her poetic task. The expression "their heavy shadows" suggests the incursion of these people's sightlessness into the outer world. Thus, Levertov, by scrutinizing the figure of the blind, acknowledges their sightlessness within her perceptive world. This darkness troubles the poet, whose arguments reveal incongruence and potential chaos due to the irrational panic, as can be appreciated in the ongoing hyperbaton. Yet, the cause for such fright stems from the fact that once these shadows are accessible in the world, the role of the poet is to explore them by means of bodily perception. Thus, for Levertov, these shadows can only be poetically examined by incorporating them, or "by growing them in" her Self, as she writes in "whom the tree grows in" (line 6, "Fear of the Blind"). Levertov suffers from the contradiction of incorporating this unusual negative element into her poetic exploration.

Rudolph L. Nelson stressed as early as 1969 in "Edge of the Transcendent: The Poetry of Levertov and Duncan" that "[r]espect for the transcendent within the here and now involves not only the realization of the full dimensions of one's own humanity, a major theme in her poetry, but respect for the humanity of others" (201). Anne Dewey also expresses a similar idea, when she affirms in "'The Art of the Octopus': The Maturation of Denise Levertov's Political Vision" that "for Levertov, empathy is essential to cultural richness as well as to physical survival, since sensitivity to each being's particular relation to environment deepens one's own appreciation of it" (70). Both scholars point out an essential feature in Levertov's poetics that is not present in "Fear of the Blind." However, it is necessary for the poet to continue such exploration until she is finally able to understand the existence of the blind and comprehend the meaning and the unique ways in which they carry out their sightless inquiries. This is the bridge established between the poet and those who are blind--Levertov's attempt to find common ground.

J'AMES Wright wrote a review of The Jacob's Ladder in 1962 in which he paid special attention to the poem "A Solitude" (70-72). In this poem, Levertov takes a fresh approach to blindness. Here the poetic subject brazenly observes a blind man. Wright had the following words for this poem: "'A Solitude' will outlive misreaders, and categorizers, and her, and me, and perhaps that isn't enough" (19). The first two stanzas read:
   A blind man. I can stare at him
   ashamed, shameless. Or does he know it':
   No, he is in a great solitude.

   O, strange joy,
   to gaze my fill at a stranger's face.
   No, my thirst is greater than before.

The regularity of the first two stanzas permits both the development of a narrative episode and reflection upon it. The poem introduces the object of attention directly: "a blind man." She wonders if the blind man is aware of being observed but finally decides that he is not. Moreover, the lyric voice guesses that the blind man is isolated from the outer world. The poetic subject recognizes her own weakness in observing the blind man with such attention. This speaker stares at the sightless man "ashamed, shameless," succumbing to this strange pleasure which provides her with contradictory feelings. The poet expresses her need to observe him in terms which continually refer to taste perception: it is a thirst which increases as she examines the blind person.

The poem goes on:
   In his world he is speaking
   almost aloud. His lips move.
   Anxiety plays about them. And now joy

   of some sort trembles into a smile.
   A breeze I can't feel
   crosses that face as if it crossed water.

These stanzas present a narrative of observed facts: the sightless person seems to be anxious, but he suddenly feels some kind of pleasure, coming from his thoughts. The image of the blind man's joy is outstanding: "a breeze I can't feel / crosses that lace as if it crossed water." This image evokes tactile and haptic senses: Whether that breeze crossing the water resembles a marine landscape reflecting the sky above is something that readers can judge for themselves, but the fact is that Levertov is using the same images as in "Fear of the Blind," without referring to shadows or implying any of the previous negative connotations. Moreover, Levertov employs light in referring to blindness for the first time, very much in contrast with the first poem considered.

Next, the poem widens the focus from the blind man's face to the whole moving train.
   The train moves uptown, pulls in and
   pulls out of the local stops. Within its loud
   jarring movement a quiet,

   the quiet of people not speaking,
   some of them eyeing the blind man,
   only a moment though, not thirsty like me,

   and within that quiet his
   different quiet, not quiet at all, a tumult
   of images, but what are his images,

   he is blind? He doesn't care
   that he looks strange, showing
   his thoughts on his lace like designs of light

   flickering on water, for he doesn't know
   what look is.
   I see he has never seen.

These stanzas carefully describe the situation surrounding the poet's original perception. The strident sound and violent movement of the coach are in stark contrast to the silence inside it. Different from every passenger, the blind man's quietness is of another kind: "within that quiet his / different quiet, not quiet at all." Levertov at first interprets the blind man's quietness as a passivity followed by a rapid succession of images in his head, but then she realizes that he cannot have any images in his head since he is blind. The poet recognizes his weird appearance, shown in the fact that his face continually displays different flickers of light/emotion stemming from his presumably pleasant thoughts. The blind man's face is the changing mirror of his blind thoughts, and yet this time they are not associated with shadows but quite the opposite. This fascinates the poet, who attempts a first successful exploratory approach to this exceptional being. From this moment onwards, the poet actively involves herself in the existence of the blind man and interacts with him in order to learn from his very nature:
   And now he rises, he stands at the door ready,
   knowing his station is next. Was he counting?
   No, that was not his need.

   When he gets out I get out.
   'Can I help you towards the exit?'
   'Oh, alright.' An indifference.

   But instantly, even as he speaks,
   even as I hear indifference, his hand
   goes out, waiting for me to take it,

   and now we hold hands like children.
   His hand is warm and not sweaty,
   the grip firm, it feels good.

   And when we have passed through the turnstile
   he going first, his hand at once
   waits for mine again.

   'Here are the steps. And here we turn
   to the right. More stairs now.' We go
   up into sunlight. He feels that,

   the soft air. 'A nice day,
   isn't it?' says the blind man. Solitude
   walks with me, walks

   beside me, he is not with me, he continues
   his thoughts alone. But his hand and mine
   know one another,

   it's as if my hand were gone forth
   on its own journey. I see him
   across the street, the blind man,

   and now he says he can find his way. He knows
   where he is going, it is nowhere, it is filled
   with presences. He says, I am.

This second part of the poem develops the denouement of the scene, in which the poet offers her help to the blind man. Levertov perceives a contradiction between his acceptance--with an air of indifference--and his body language, showing that he wants help. There are sensory perceptions based on the tactile and haptic senses: "warm," "not sweaty," and holding tight are pleasant feelings for the poetic subject. Finally, the blind man says goodbye. This attitude reaffirms the blind man's own being and existence as an independent entity, able to live his life by other means unexplored by the poet. In the poet's opinion, she is accompanied by "solitude," since the blind man is in constant dialogue with himself and does not need any kind of dialogical interaction with his guide. The final "I am" identifies him with solitude, and solitude is in turn identified with blindness. (6) Yet, solitude and blindness are no longer regarded with fear, but admiration. In this poem, neither shadows nor darkness appear associated with the idea of sightlessness. Conversely, thoughts take the shape of sunbeams over the water. James E. B. Breslin pointed out in 1984 that Levertov had become a visionary, "now thinking of the imagination as light, a form of spiritual illumination. 'A Solitude' describes a blind man whose mind is still active, 'filled / with presences'" (74). In fact, in "H. D.: An Appreciation," Levertov explained the revealing poetics of this early twentieth-century poet. It was, she said, "not to flood darkness with light so that darkness is destroyed, but to enter into darkness, mystery, so that it is experienced" (Poet 246). The existential angst present in "Fear of the Blind" has disappeared in "A Solitude." Moreover, the presence of the blind man acquires now an almost mythic quality, and solitude is characterized in "A Solitude" by certain limitations, not only physical but attitudinal, yet here they are positively regarded. The first limitation is not being able to visually perceive the outer reality. The second consists of not being able to establish a dialogue with other people. The blind man cannot move beyond polite commentaries, blocked by his intense attention to his inner self. The last is being completely absorbed in his own inner thoughts, absolutely distracted from happenings surrounding him. Harry Marten (1984) offers his own view of this poem in "Exploring the Human Community: The Poetry of Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser":
   The brief narrative of "A Solitude" describing the poet's encounter
   with a blind man on the subway is neither about absence of vision
   nor "solitude." Rather it concerns that aspect of human
   relationship which Rilke once explained as "the mutual bordering
   and guarding of ... solitudes." ...

   A poem of process as well as pattern from the first, "A Solitude"
   continues to present and explore perceptual possibilities.
   Following an irregular path to meaning by moving forward and
   backward from ambiguous and dislocating key words and linebreaks,
   Levertov reveals a situation filled with surprising correspondences
   and contraries. (221-222)

As Marten sharply highlights, the feelings and perceptions of the poetic subject are constantly expressed in a perceptual key. The use of direct speech helps to depict the scene with greater fidelity and, in fact, the poem reproduces the thoughts of the poet as if using the narrative technique of stream of consciousness. Her thoughts are often expressed through enjambments and unexpected linebreaks, which bring about several different meanings to her words. (7)

There is a striking contrast between the man's incapacity to see and the highly perceptive codes which unify the poem. The poet employs many different expressions about visual observation: "'I can stare," "to gaze my fill," "he looks strange," "I see he has never seen," "I see him / across the street." Each of these expressions refers to a different way of looking. "I can stare" expresses the capacity of the subject to look closely at the other person, who is not aware of being examined. The line "to gaze my fill" mixes words belonging to distinct perceptual senses. Such synesthesia reinforces the idea of looking intensely with the physical feeling of being full. On the other hand, the phrase "he looks strange" displays two different meanings. The first offers a global perspective on the image of the blind man, as the verb "look" is used with the meaning of "seem." The second plays with the possibility that the blind man really "looks" in an unfamiliar way, so the blind man adopts an active role. The expression "I see he has never seen" offers the same verb with two different meanings. The first use is similar to "I understand," while the second use is the denotative meaning of "see."

Concerning taste perception, the most surprising phrases are those referring to the irrepressible desire to observe the blind man, associated always with the physical feeling of thirst. Lines like "my thirst is greater than before" and "not thirsty like me" use the basic physiological need to drink as a metaphor for the forbidden pleasure of observing a stranger's lace. Undoubtedly, the latter description of his/ace as a slight waving in the water satiates such desire.

The auditory re-creation of the poem starts with the loud voice of the blind man. Next, that perception is enriched with the unpleasant sound of the train, in contrast to the silence kept by all the passengers inside the coach. From such background, the poem moves toward the dialogue between the speaker and the sightless man. The poet at first construes indifference from his words. This pseudo-dialogue is frustrating for the subject since the meaning of the words and the body language contradict each other: "even as he speaks, / as I hear indifference, his hand / goes out, waiting for me to take it."

The tactile and haptic feelings also receive attention, both those the poetic speaker can perceive and those she is not able to feel. She speaks about the smile of the blind man as trembling, and of a breeze that "I can't feel." The rough movement of the train shakes all the silent passengers. When they leave the train and the two hold hands "like children," she records a gentle and pleasant tactile feeling. Their exit from the train station brings the warm feeling of the sunbeams and the breeze, only now verbally expressed by the blind man: "a nice day, isn't it?" The poet does not refer to her own feelings but expresses her strange companion's: "he feels that, / the soft air." However, the feeling of walking together takes on a mythic quality since, at this point, the blind man is referred to as "solitude": "solitude / walks with me, walks / beside me." Despite being with her, the sightless man "is not with me." Thus, a revealing contradiction takes place between their physical closeness and his absence, manifested by an intense involvement in his own inner world.

THESE poems often reflect on the nature of blind people's knowledge, which enables them to orient themselves in the physical world and--apparently--seem confident in their life choices. In a world mainly governed by the visual sense as the cornerstone for the journey of human beings, sightless people perpetually surprise Levertov because they always seem to know where they are and where they are going. The poem entitled "Consulting the Oracle" (110), included in The Freeing of the Dust, reuses many of the poetic motives previously employed, but in a refreshing way:
   I asked a blind man the way east,
   because I'd not seen him,
   not looked before asking.
   He smiled, and walked on,
   sure of his felt way,

The poem recalls epic narratives, in which heroes inquire about their destiny and consult oracles for advice about an uncertain future. The paradox lies in the fact that these heroes, despite social recognition and almost super-human gifts, need the help of those stigmatized by blindness. The rare powers of the blind oracles finally benefit these heroes. The common image is that, from the darkness of poor dwellings, these unhappy beings aid the hero to continue in his quest and achieve success. When the poetic subject carelessly asks for directions, a strong contrast is established between the confidence of the blind person heading without doubt to his place and the disorientation felt by the poetic I. In previous poems, the existence of such blind individuals implies that they belong to a different order from that of sighted people, yet blind people find their own direction more adequately than those who can see? This fact astonishes Levertov time and again, as she is unable to discover from whence such self-confidence emanates.

Levertov continues her study into the nature of blindness in the poem entitled "For the Blind" (94), included in Life in the Forest. This poem offers that wise piece of advice of the oracle which remained unanswered in "Consulting the Oracle." The poem is especially relevant because it contains a blind person's description of the colors white, black, and green. That is, the poetic speaker is a blind person. As Dewey points out, Levertov is already experiencing empathy in her poetry, since she has moved from tear, through the attempt to understand and interact, to the final understanding by impersonating a blind person. The explanation of these colors is strongly based on the senses of hearing and touch. Synesthesias and unexpected associations inform the lyrical landscape:
   Listen: the wind in new leaves
   whispers, smoother than fingertips,
   than floss silk smoothing through fingertips ...

   When the sighted
   talk about white they may mean
   silence of sullen cold, that winter--
   no matter how warm your rooms
   --waits with at the door.
   (Though there's another whiteness,
   more like the weightlessness of a flake of snow,
   of a petal, a pine-needle ...)

The poem opens with the description of a spring landscape with new sprouts. An imperative governs the beginning: "listen," which makes the stanza highly onomatopoeic as it appeals to the auditory sense: the wind whispering among the leaves can be heard in the word choice of the first three lines. This landscape can be perceived solely through the sounds described. Next, the sightless person attempts to reveal the meaning that the word white has for blind people: the acoustic image of "white" has an unusual emphasis, since only this can offer clues to the blind speaker about the reality it refers to. The re-creation of these sounds presents a multisensory situation, where tactile and auditory perceptions dominate. Both in the description of white and black, the poet offers two different possibilities. In the first case, a silent, persistent, and cold winter is associated with white: "silence with sullen cold." The second explanation opens a new possibility, which the poetic subject self-confidently expresses: "though there's another whiteness." This one is related to the physical perception of a small and weightless object over his/be? body. The poem continues:
   When they say black they may mean the persistence
   of cold wind hopelessly, angrily,
   tearing and tearing through leafless boughs.
   (Though there's another blackness,
   round and full as the notes of cello and drum ...)

The third stanza describes the color black in sensory terms as well. Despite the logical opposition between white and black to sighted people (the first is the addition of all the colors of sunlight and the second is the absence of those colors), the blind speaker does not acknowledge that fact. In both colors, the sounds that imitate the creak of the words black and white are linked to the feeling of coldness. The description of black is also based on the sonorous dimension of the word/blaek/, as was done with color white. The alternative offered to the description of black refers to the musical sounds from a cello or a drum, whereas in white it pointed out weightlessness. Moreover, the word choices in the descriptions of white and black constantly emphasize the unvoiced plosive sounds of these words.'[degrees] The use of these elements suggests an understanding of the world as ordered and full of correspondences, yet not revealed to sighted beings. The poem concludes:
   But this:
   this lively, delicate shiver
   that whispers itself caressingly
   over our flesh
   when leaves are moist and small
   and winds are gentle,
   is green. Light green. Not weightless,

The beauty of the previous lines leads to the poetic climax in this last stanza. The final stanza refers back to the beginning of the poem, thus creating a perfect circular structure. A new vocative, "but this," develops the function, signaling the presence of a phenomenon immediate and close to the speaker. The color green is placed much closer to the reader than white or black, thanks to the vocative interjection. The last lines recur in the previous descriptions. According to the sightless subject, green is identified with the soft blowing of winds on new leaves. The second "this" suggests immediacy, presence, an existential phenomenon anchored in tactile and auditory perceptions. Levertov creates the whisper of the wind in the boughs in the poem by the alliteration of fricative sounds: "delicate shiver / that whispers itself caressingly / over our flesh."

Levertov attempts this poetic exercise with the aim of exploring the special ways that blind people use in looking into outer reality, and the particular organization of this information in their inner selves. The poet is now filled with admiration and curiosity when regarding the presence, always oriented, of blind people in the world. (11)

THE poem entitled "Blind Man's House at the Edge of the Cliff" (Door 22) evidences a revealing progression in the understanding and personal apprehension of blindness and of its consequences in the lives of both sighted and sightless human beings. Donald Revell pointed out in 1991 that this poem, as with many in the volume A Door in the Hive, originates "at a brink," and skillfully explains that "attention obviates both ignorance and despair, two forms of blindness and repression. Here, brinkmanship is not a game with annihilation, but a constant readiness to witness and inhabit something where nothing was before. Precedents end at the cliff's edge, and elsewhere begins" (49). (12) The poem is organized in three stanzas of dissimilar length. The poet places herself as an omniscient narrator who has access to all the thoughts of this subject of lyrical attention. The first stanza reads as follows:
   At the jutting rim of the land he lives,
   but not from ignorance,
   not from despair.
   He knows one extra step from his seaward
   wide-open door would be
   a step into salt air,
   and he has no longing to shatter himself
   far below, where the breakers
   grind granite to sand.
   No, he has chosen a life
   pitched at the brink, a nest on the swaying
   tip of a branch, for good reason:

This stanza explains the reasons why a blind man wants to live in such an unexpected place. The poet voluntarily approaches the blind man who lives by a cliff in a state of admiration and celebration ("he has chosen a life"), in line with the previously discussed poem, "For the Blind." A hyperbaton inaugurates the poem: "at the jutting rim of the land he lives." The altered presentation of this situation suggests that this is not a common situation for two main reasons: the presentation of an abrupt and dangerous geographical space, suggested by that opening line, and the strange fact that someone who is blind would live in such a place. The blind man is aware of the dangers of living on this beautiful and dangerous cliff: "one extra step from his seaward / wide-open door would be / a step into salt air." This precipice is characterized as an open door towards the sea, the farthest point where it is possible to perceive the natural interaction between the solidity of the cliff, the liquid of the marine water, and the salty air. The poem continues:
   dazzling within his darkness
   is the elusive deep horizon. Here
   nothing intrudes, palpable shade,
   between his eager
   inward gaze
   and the vast enigma.
   If he could fly he would drift forever
   into that veil, soft and receding.

Another hyperbaton starts the second stanza by changing the logical placement of subject and attribute: "dazzling within his darkness / is the elusive deep horizon." Two different elements combine in this line: light and darkness, present to the inner self of the blind man, are complemented by the remoteness of the horizon line and the profundity of the abyss opening at the blind man's feet. In consequence, the limits between the interior and the exterior of the existence of this sightless person become blurred. "Here" clearly refers to an overlapping area between the individual and the reality surrounding him. This adverb directs the poetic attention toward the part of this menacing world where the eager gaze of the blind man's inner self joins with the outer "vast enigma" visionlessly perceived by the blind man from the cliff. The sightless man's will to know places him on a higher level, above the blind looks of other individuals with numb minds who are yet able to see. This weird meeting of contraries is expressed by means of the paradox: "palpable shade." The gathering of these irreconcilable elements brings about an impossible situation, a darkness which acquires such solidity that it can be perceived by touch. The veil is a newly employed image which symbolizes the reconciliation as it permits the blind man's physical body to drift on air over the abyss created by the cliff. The veil then simultaneously attains the resistance typical of the recently attained solidity and elusiveness. The poem concludes:
   He knows that if he could see
   he would be no wiser.
   High on the windy cliff he breathes
   face to face with desire.

The closing stanza displays the next stage in the evolution of Levertov's poetic searching: "he knows that if he could see / he would be no wiser." For the poet, human beings' knowledge does not lie in their capacity to see, but in their eagerness to perceive the macrocosmic entity fused together with the micro-universe that the individual life of a human represents, i.e., the will to perceive relationships between the universe and the inner self. The last sentence closes this poem at a magnificent height, emulating the cliff's. From this literal and figurative altitude, the blind man "breathes / face to face with desire.'' (13) In the end, this man faces his own desires and connects to the universe in order to take from it everything that he needs to incorporate it in his own existence.

The disposition of the lines on the page constantly leads the reader to a poetic cliff. The longest lines overhang the shorter ones, so that readers, as they read the lines, fall again and again into the precipice of the poem. In contrast to the pristine fear dominating the lines of "Fear of the Blind," in this poem Levertov has finally achieved the comprehension of the role played by blind people, gifted with perceptive capacities different from the customary. In addition, the stark contrasts found as irreconcilable between the darkness and the light in the first poem are in this poem incorporated as necessary informing parts of a whole. Audrey T. Rodgers explained in 1993, after having briefly analyzed the meaning of the poem, that "[p]art of her is the poet committed to a world that cries out in protest; part of her is the poet of the 'inward gaze' where the 'vast enigma' draws her inexorably toward the 'elusive deep horizon'" (200). Certainly the inward gaze must have for the poet an elusive deep horizon whose limit is the poetic exploration and discovery of hidden patterns of both correspondences and contraries in which all living beings carry out their existence.

"Uncertain Oneiromancy," included in Sands of the Well (4), is chronologically the last poem Levertov devoted to the exploration of blindness, and it opens a new approach to the consideration of this condition. Other territories and mysteries in this poem reveal the presence of blindness hidden inside sighted beings. From its very title, the poem addresses the impossibility of knowing the meaning of the dream:
   I spent the entire night leading a blind man
   through an immense museum
   so that (by internal bridges, or tunnels?
   somehow!) he could avoid the streets,
   the most dangerous avenues, all the swift
   chaotic traffic ...
       As he could perceive nothing,
   I too saw only the obstacles, the objects
   with sharp corners; not one painting, not one carved
   credenza or limestone martyr. We did at last
   emerge, however, into that part of the city
   he had been headed for when I took over;
   he raised his hat in farewell, and went on, uphill,
   tapping his stick. (14) I stood looking after him,
   watching as the street enfolded him, wondering
   if he would make it, and after I woke, wondering still
   what in me he was, and who
   the I was that took that long short-cut with him
   through room after room of beauty his blindness
   hid from me as if it had never been.

The poet describes a strange dream that she has had during the night. She was guiding a blind man, taking a kind of short-cut in a huge museum, so that the blind man didn't have to walk through the streets. However, such a short-cut ends up being too long and difficult since many obstacles still appear. The complex task quickly comes to an end with the blind man saying goodbye and going deep into the urban landscape. The poem finishes when the poet wakes up and reflects on the meaning of these two strange characters. She understands that both of them are parts of her inner self. Yet she wonders about the possible meaning of a guide inside her that turns a blind eye toward the art exhibited in the museum while leading the blind other part of herself through its corridors and rooms. The sighted part of herself avoids outer reality in order to protect the blind male part yet, once protected in the museum's many rooms, she is unable to appreciate its beauty. In this sense, behind the halo of mystery and inquiry of the dream, the poetic subject wonders about the existence within herself of two different parts, both of them blind, one literally and the other to the existence of art.

IDENTITY issues resound in all six of poems analyzed, since Levertov has undertaken the mission to approach the quasi-mythic figure of the blind person from a different angle each time; however, she also shows an evolution towards understanding, integration, and empathy. In this sense, Matilde Martin Gonzalez analyzes subjectivity and poetic vision in the work of Levertov and concludes that identity is not a static human dimension, but dynamic. According to her, "Levertov's poetry exhibits the transitoriness of life itself," and that is why it is not possible to "attain a unified self-consciousness but only a provisional sense of one's identity" (382). Thus, if Levertov's first poems on blindness show her afraid and distrustful about the nature of blindness, she concludes this set of poems by considering blindness as an integral part of herself, contemplated in a state of surprise and mystery. The first poem, "Fear of the Blind," significantly marks the starting point from which Levertov develops her approach to the figure of the blind person. "Consulting the Oracle" and "A Solitude" display sightless characters completely able to live their lives without getting lost, both literally and figuratively. "For the Blind" tries to give voice to blindness by attempting an extended synesthesia in a highly perceptive key. "A Blind Man's House at the Edge of the Cliff" explores the attentive and active existence of this sightless man from whom Levertov seems to learn her life lesson. Finally, in the poem "Uncertain Oneiromancy," the poet becomes fascinated by the discovery of her own inner dimension where blindness exists.

In conclusion, the body and the five senses have a crucial role as the perceptive organs most appropriate for dealing with reality. This is especially observed when Levertov, fascinated by the possibility of living an existence deprived of vision, studies in depth the nature of blindness. Her lines reveal that, despite vision being an essential sense for the poet, lack of sight can also yield a superior form of knowledge, one related to divinity. Then, the other senses acquire a central role both in the interaction with reality deprived of sight and in the articulation of her poems about blindness, since they are mainly based on synesthesias and onomatopoeias, and constantly appeal to all the senses except sight. The most authentic knowledge, according to what Levertov has shown in her poems, lies in the apprehension of reality beyond vision.

Works Cited

Breslin, James E. B. "Denise Levertov." Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ed. A. Gelpi. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 55-90.

Dewey, Anne. "'The Art of the Octopus': Maturation of Denise Levertov's Political Vision," Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 50.1-2 (1997-1998): 65-81.

Gamez Fernandez, Cristina Maria. "'Help Thou Mine Unbelief': Perception in Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry." Renascence: Essays opt Values in Literature 60.1 (2007): 53-74.

Jackson, Richard. "A Common Time: The Poetry of Denise Levertov." Sagetrieb 5.2 (1986): 5-46.

Lacey, Paul A. "The Poetry of Political Anguish." Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ed. A. Gelpi. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 151-161.

--. "'To Meditate a Saving Strategy': Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry." Renascence: Essays opt Values in Literature 50.1-2 (1997-1998): 17-32.

Levertov, Denise. The Poet in the World. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1973.

--. Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1979.

--. Poems 1960-1967. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1983.

--. The Freeing of the Dust. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1975.

--. Life in the Forest. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1978.

--. A Door in the Hive and Evening Train. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1993.

--. Sands ((the Well. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1996.

Marten, Harry. "Exploring the Human Community: The Poetry of Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser." Critical Essays on Denise Levertov. Ed. L. Wagner-Martin. Boston: Hall, 1990. 215-224.

Martin Gonzalez, Matilde. "Be(comping a Woman: Subjectivity and Poetic Vision in Denise Levertov." Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 40 (2000): 371-388.

Nelson, Rudolph L. "Edge of the Transcendent: The Poetry of Levertov and Duncan." Southwest Review 54 (1969): 188-202.

Revell, Donald. "From 'The Memory and Future of Ourselves.'" Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ed. A. Gelpi. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 48-51.

Rodgers, Audrey T. Denise Levertov The Poetry of Engagement. London: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1993.

Rodriguez Herrera, Jose. "Musing on Nature: The Mysteries of Contemplation and the Sources of Myth in Denise Levertov's Poetry." Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 50.1-2 (1997-1998): 109-121.

Wells, H. G. "The Country of the Blind." The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories. Fairfield: First World Library. 2006. 486-515.

Wright, James. "Gravity and Incantation." Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ed. A. Gelpi. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. 1993. 17-19.


(1) I would like to thank Mary and Joanna Barroll for their invaluable help in the preparation of this manuscript.

(2) Although this is not the only work devoted to this theme, it is very interesting to read a recent work by Donna K. Hollenberg entitled "'History as I desired it': Ekphrasis as Postmodern Witness in Denise Levertov's Late Poetry," where she undertakes an explanation of the influence of some works of art and their artists on Levertov's poetry.

(3) "Fear of the Blind" is highly indebted to Baudelaire's "The Blind." Some common elements include the following: where the French poet acknowledges their "heavy heads," kevertov uses "heavy shadows": and where Baudelaire associates them with darkness and silence, Levertov employs shadows and the unpleasant repeating noise of their canes. The sky appears in both poems understood as the counterpoint of blindness. Rainer Maria Rilke's "'The Blind Man's Song" also resounds in Levertov's "Fear of the Blind," as Levertov's "from stone to stone" recalls Rilke's "stone against stone." However, this influence still needs to be addressed in depth.

(4) Such generalization nonetheless removes all individuating characteristics from blind people and certainly contributes to the understanding of this group as almost non-human. Levertov's first poetic approach calls to mind the short story written by H. G. Wells, entitled "The Country of the Blind," whose main character, Nunez, tries to become the king of the blind and does not regard them as individuals but as a group.

(5) The term haptic is understood in this paper as feelings related to the perception of one's own body through the tactile sense.

(6) Given Levertov's--albeit attenuated, at this point--Jewish background, the boldfaced "I am" can also have almost "divine" associations (not unlike what they are in Rilke's "Pont du Carousel").

(7) The poem "A Solitude" also owes an undeniable literary debt to Rilke's poem "A Woman Going Blind." Certain similar elements are present in both poems, such as the mysterious smile of these sightless beings, their deeply absorbed attitude, and the image of their happiness described as light reflected on the surface of water. However, Levertov moves further on in her investigation since, although departing from Rilke's observation of the mysterious blind person, she dares to interact.

(8) This was also the case with Nunez, the main character in The Country of the Blind, as he kept repeating to himself, "[i]n the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King!" (503-504). Yet, he ended up being considered an inferior being by blind people, who certainly had the skills to live their lives without knowing what sight was and without needing it. However, the end of this short story is completely different from Levertov's philosophical approach.

(9) The poetic subject can be considered as either male or female. As l do not want to assume that Levertov's poetic personae are female unless clearly known from the context, I include both genders.

(10) The words "cold," "winter," "matter," "waits," "flake," "petal," and "pine-needle" (for white) and "hopelessly," "tearing and tearing," "boughs," "notes," "cello," and "drum" (for black).

(11) Levertov's latest considerations of blindness are therefore very distant from the poetic models she initially adopted. Levertov's "I Fear the Blind" and "A Solitude" are the only poems in which she adopts the literary figure of the blind in the same vein of Baudelaire's "The Blind" and Rilke's "A Woman Going Blind," "The Blind Man's Song," and "Pont du Carrousel."

(12) These words immediately point towards Paul Lacey's interesting contribution "'To Meditate a Saving Strategy': Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry" (1997-1998), in which he argues that
   [i]t is in between, a place of double vision, where Levertov
   typically locates the artist, the pilgrim, the wanderer, the mystic
   and the saint, different versions of a single archetype. Seeking
   the borderland is a recurrent theme from as early as "Beyond the
   End" in Here and Now ... Her life's work has been to explore such
   borderlands ... between form and content, between doubt and belief,
   the inner and the outer life, the outward sacrament and the inward
   grace. (18-19)

(13) As is typical of Levertov, the wind is also heard in the line, in the sounds of "breathes," "face," "with," and "desire."

(14) In some translations of Oedipus the King by Sophocles, the blind prophet Teiresias predicts that Oedipus himself will leave the city, blind, tapping his way with a stick.
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Author:Gamez-Fernandez, Cristina
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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