Books & Reading
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Three Poems
by Denise Levertov


Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
August 1, 1999

When Denise Levertov died in Seattle in 1997, she left behind 40 finished poems in a loose-leaf notebook. They have been edited by Paul Lacey and printed in the order of their composition. This final book is called "The Great Unknowing: Last Poems" and is published by her publisher of 30 years, New Directions. I've been reading her all my adult life, so it is an odd thing going through these last poems, reading them slowly, a few a night, that she must partly have known, and partly not have known, were her last poems. Whatever she thought, her habits are what you notice, the dailiness of her attention. She was a meticulous craftsman, and you always feel in her poems the pulse of her method of work. These last poems are not, I think, her best, though it's hard for me to judge. I'm attached to her early work, the first few of her American books that were the ones in which I discovered her, and to two of her later books, "Evening Train" and "Sands of the Well," in which she returned to her earlier mode. These poems belong to her good work, the kind she did when she sat down to practice her craft. She knew she had cancer, and she wasn't at the end trying to hit a home run. She went about her business as she had always done.

Here are a few of them. This one seems to begin with the weather of the Northwest and then leaps back, perhaps, as it reaches for a metaphor, to a memory of her English childhood:


Brilliant, this day – a young virtuoso of a day.

Morning shadow cut by sharpest scissors,

deft hands. And every prodigy of green –

whether it's ferns or lichens or needles

or impatient points of buds on spindly bushes –

greener than ever before. And the way the conifers

hold new cones to the light for the blessing,

a festive right, and sing the oceanic chant the wind

transcribes for them!

A day that shines in the cold

like a first-prize brass band swinging along

the street

of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds

with the claims of reasonable gloom.

And this small poem gathers into a small notation one of her persistent themes: the brokenness of the world, its violence and injustice, and her longing for wholeness, the longing that sent her back to her Christian roots at the end of her life. It has no title:

Scraps of moon

bobbing discarded on broken water

but sky-moon

complete, transcending

all violation

Here she seems to be talking to herself about

the shape of a life:

Only Once

All which, because it was

flame and song and granted us

joy, we thought we'd do, be, revisit,

turns out to have been what it was

that once, only; every invitation

did not begin

a series, a build-up: the marvelous

did not happen in our lives, our stories

are not drab with its absence: but don't

expect to return for more. Whatever more

there will be will be

unique as those were unique. Try

to acknowledge the next

song in its body-halo of flames as utterly

present, as now or never.

And here is the final poem in the book. It must be the last one she wrote:


When I found the door

I found the vine leaves

speaking among themselves in abundant


My presence made them

hush their green breath,

embarrassed, the way

humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,

acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if

the conversation had ended

just before you arrived.

I liked

the glimpse I had, though,

of their obscure

gestures. I liked the sound

of such private voices. Next time

I'll move like cautious sunlight, open

the door by fractions, eavesdrop


Eavesdrop peacefully: it's what she's given us to do.

(Denise Levertov. "The Great Unknowing: Last Poems."

Copyright 1999 by the Denise Levertov Property Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar
WP Yellow Pages