04 July 2011

Denise Levertov

[from Denise Levertov's Selected Poems, New Directions, 2002]

Relearning the Alphabet

(June, 1968 – April, 1969)

For G. who could not help it, I. who saw me, R who read me, and M. for everything.

"The treasure . . . lies buried. There is no need to seek it in a distant counter . . . It is behind the stove, the center of the life and warmth that rule our existence, if only we knew how to unearth it. And yet – there is this strange and persistent fact, that it is only after . . . a journey in a distant region, in a new land, that . . . the inner voice . . . can make itself understood by us. And to this strange and persistent face is added another: that he who reveals to us the meaning of our . . . inward pilgrimage must be himself a stranger"
                    – Heinrich Zimmer


Joy – a beginning.          anguish, ardor.
To relearn the ah! of knowing in unthinking
joy: the belovéd stranger lives.
Sweep up anguish as with a wing-tip,
brushing the ashes back to the fire’s core.


To be. To love an other only for being.


Clear, cool? Not those evasions. The seeing
that burns through, comes through to
the fire’s core.


In the beginning was delight. A depth
stirred as one stirs fire unthinking.
Dark    dark    dark    . And the blaze illumines


returning, endless
revolution of dream to ember, ember to anguish,
anguish to flame, flame to delight,
delight to dark and dream, dream to ember


that the mind’s fire may not fail.
The vowels of affliction, of unhealed
not to feel it, uttered,
transformed in utterance
to song.
              Not farewell, not farewell, but faring


forth into the grace of transformed
continuance, the green meadows
of Grief-Dale where joy grew, flowering
close to the ground, old tales recount,


and may be had yet for the harvesting.

I, J

Into the world of continuance, to find
I-who-I-am again, who wanted
to enter a life not mine,
                       to leap a wide, deep, swift river.

At the edge, I stand yet. No, I am moving away,
walking away from the unbridged rush of waters towards
‘Imagination’s holy forest,’ meaning to thread its ways,
                                                  that are dark,
and come to my own clearing, where ‘dreamy, gloomy,
friendly trees’ grow, one by one – but
                         I’m not looking where I’m going,
                         my head’s turned back, to see
                                 whom I called ‘jester’: someone dreamed
                         on the far bank: not dreamed, seen
in epiphany, as Picasso’s bronze Head of a Jester
was seen.
                 I go stumbling
                                           (head turned)
                                                                    back to my origins:
(if that’s where I’m going)
                                              to joy, my Jerusalem.
Weeping, gesturing,
I’m a small figure in mind’s eye,
diminishing in the sweep of rain or gray tears
that cloud the far shore as jealous rage
clouds love and changes it, changes vision.


Caritas is what I must travel to.
Through to the fire’s core,
an alchemy:
                      caritas, claritas.
But find my face clenched
when I wake at night
                                      in limbo.


Back there forgetting, among the
letters        folded and put away.
Not uttered.
                      ‘The feel of
not to feel it
was never said . . .’ Keats said.
‘Desolation . . . Absence an absolute
                calling forth . . .’ the jester said
from the far shore (‘gravely, ringing his bells,
a tune of sorrow.’ I dance to it?)
‘You are offhand. The trouble
is concealed? Isak said,
calling me forth.
I am called forth
from time to time.

I was in the time
of desolation.
What light is it
waking me?
                      Absence has not become
a presence.
                    Lost in the alphabet
                    I was looking for
                    the word I can’t now say
           and am called forth
           unto the twelfth letter
           by the love in a question.


Honest man, I wanted
                        the moon and went
                        out to sea to touch
                        the moon and

                        down a lane of bright
                        broken vanishing
                        curled pyramids of
                        towards the moon
                and touched
                the   luminous dissolving
                half moon

I am
come back,
humbled, to warm myself,
honest man,

our bed is
                  upon the earth
your soul is
                     in your body
your mouth
                     has found
my mouth once more
– I’m home.


Something in me that wants to cling
to never,
              wants to have been
              wounded deeper
              burned by the cold moon to cinder,

shrinks as the disk
dwindles to vision
                                 numb not to continuance
                                 but to that source
                                 of mind’s fire

                                 waning now,
                                 no doubt to wax again –

                                 yet I perhaps not be there
                                 in its light.


Hostile.             Ordinary.             Home.
Order.              Alone.            Other.

Hostile longing.            Ordinary rose, omnivorous.
                            Home, solitude.

Somnolence grotto.
Caught. Lost. Orient almost,
Own.        Only.

Pain recedes, rising from heart to head
and out.

                       Apple thunder, rolling over the
attic floor.
                               Yet I would swear
                               there had been savage light
                               moments before.

P, Q

In childhood dream-play I was always
the knight or squire, not
the lady:
quester, petitioner, win or lose, not
she who was sought.
The initial of quest or question
branded itself long since on the flank
of my Pegasus.
Yet he flies always
home to the present.


Released through bars of sorrow
as if not a gate had opened but I
grown intangible had passed through, shadowy,
from dark of yearning into
a soft day, western March;
a thrust of birdsong
parts the gold flowers thickbranching
that roof the path over.

Arms enfold me
tenderly. I am trusted, I trust
the real that transforms me.
                                                 And relinquish
                                                 in grief
the seeing that burns through, comes through
to fire’s core:   transformation, continuance,
                        as acts of magic I would perform, are no longer
                        articles of faith.


Or no: it
slowly becomes known to me:
articles of faith are indeed
rules of will – graceless,
The door I flung my weight against
was constructed to open       out
                                                  towards me.
In seeing
to candleflame’s
blue ice-cavern, measureless,

may not be forced by sharp
            The Prince
            turns in the wood:    ‘Retrace
                                                thy steps, seek out
            the hut you passed, impatient,
            the day you lost your quarry.

            There dwells
            a secret. Restore to it
            its life.
            You will not recognize
            your desire until
            thou hast it fast, it goeth
            aside, it hath
            the cunning of quicksilver.’

I turn in the forest.
About me the tree-multitudes
twist their roots in earth
to rip it, draw

hidden rivers up into
Their crowns in the light sway
green beyond vision.
                                     All utterance
takes me step by hesitant step towards


– yes, to continuance: into
                                              that life beyond the dead-end where
(in a desert time of
dry strange heat, of dust
that tinged mountain clouds with copper,
turn of the year impending unnoticed,
the cactus shadows brittle thornstars,
time of
desolation)                                                      I was lost.

The forest is holy.
The sacred paths are of stone.
A clearing.
The altars are shifting deposits of pineneeedles,
                         hidden water,
                         streets of choirwood,
not what the will
thinks to construct for its testimonies.


Relearn the alphabet,
relearn the world, the world
understood anew only in doing, under-
stood only as
looked-up-into out of earth,
the heart an eye looking,
the heart a root
planted in earth.
Transmutation is not
under the will’s rule.


Vision sets out
journeying somewhere,
walking the dreamwaters:
not on the far shore but upriver,
a place not evoked, discovered.


Heart breaks but mends
like good bone.
It’s the vain will
wants to have been wounded deeper,
burned by the cold moon to cinder.

Wisdom’s a stone
dwells in forgotten pockets –
lost, refound, exiled –
revealed again
in the palm of
mind’s hand, moonstone
of wax & want, stone pulse.


Vision will not be used.
Yearning will not be used.
Wisdom will not be used.
Only the vain will
strives to use and be used,
comes not to fire’s core
but cinder.


Sweep up
anguish as with a wing-tip:

the blaze addresses
a different darkness:
absence has not become
the transformed presence the will
looked for,
but other: the present,

that which was poised already in the ah! of praise.

Denise Levertov

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