In "Translucence," a poem in Denise Levertov's collection This Great Unknowing: Last Poems (New Directions, $19.95), the poet uses the very phrase that Louise Gluck employs for the title of her own volume, Vita Nova (Ecco, $22). Neither contemporary poet, in mockery or imitation, follows Dante's expressions of ideal love in his own "La vita nuova," although there is, not surprisingly, a strong political emphasis of the kind found in Dante's work and a recognition of a kind of heavenly light. This is especially true of Levertov:
Once I understood (till I forget, at least)
the immediacy of new life, Vita Nuova,
redemption not stuck in linear delays,
I perceived also (for now) the source
of unconscious light in faces
I believe are holy . . .
Levertov died in 1997. She did not entirely organize her book, but she must certainly have been aware, being so ill, that the poems she was writing would be among her "last." The book's title, taken from the poem quoted above, was certainly a felicitous choice. Throughout the book there is a sense of endings, as well as a faith that such endings lead only to other beginnings.
Born in England, Levertov came to the United States in 1948. Her father, Paul Philip Levertoff, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and moved to England, was an Anglican priest. The poet remembers him fondly in "Enduring Love," recalling "the thick soft cloth of his black/ clerical overcoat." Levertov has always been moral, humane, philosophical and spiritual. But more than in her earlier volumes (of which from New Directions alone there are 20 collections in her more than 50 years of publishing), one notes a sense of religious affirmation. In "That Day," in which the poet is watching the light across a lake in Switzerland with her mother, she exclaims:
I knew this! I'd seen it! Not the sensation
of deja vu: it was Blake's inkwash vision,
"The Spirit of God Moving Upon the Face of the Waters"!
This Great Unknowing contains nothing unfamiliar to readers accustomed to Levertov's work. There is the characteristic freshness of tone (and the occasional unconquered sentimentality) and Levertov's characteristic celebration of nature, with "every prodigy of green" "wholly at odds/ with the claims of reasonable gloom." There may be a "great unknowing" but there is also a certainty in the attractiveness of Levertov's poetry.
Eleanor Ross Taylor is, like Levertov, involved in "last" things. In Late Leisure (Louisiana State Univ., $19.95; paperback, $12.95) she does not foresee a finale -- "no need plan that yet." What she welcomes is leisure that has finally come. Without children or husband (she is the widow of the writer Peter Taylor), here she is "myself capriciously ongoing." And that capriciousness is particularly Southern. She doesn't expect special happiness in her final leisure; she is too modern, too cynical, for that. What she expects is despair. Living itself is "at your own risk." Therefore, even those who are "the accepting" "shall be buried under a mausoleum of woe." So it is that Taylor's "late leisure" has a kind of natural Southern eccentricity, a whimsy of someone who finds life itself attractive, even with all its bitterness. Somehow, this acceptance -- with its very personal expressions -- seems easy, colloquial and assured, making even a Northern reader wonderfully comfortable. Consider "Diary Entry, March 24," which begins: "Today/ walked home tho cold/ No coffee no Crackerjack no/ books $200 cash 3.50 taxi/ saved 5.69 coffee not spent / Wind blowing/ hard Scarf tossing in my face . . ." All that spacing the poet manages in the poem is real: It is her openness, her reality, her acceptance. This is an instance where content indeed forces form.
Louise Gluck, in her ninth collection, is still the poet of ego-gluttony. Only occasionally in Vita Nova does she allow myth to control her vision as in earlier volumes. Closer to the tone of her recent book, Meadowlands, she expresses her misery directly because of the loss of a husband's love. She says simply, "Why did you move away?" The poet faces her "vita nova" first with sadness and then, after moving to Cambridge, truly experiences a vita nova with a new love. No longer does she say, "I thought my love was over and my heart was broken." Gluck is no Sharon Olds, no hysterical Sylvia Plath. She is, after all, a '90s poet who has withstood the freedoms of the '60s and leaped over the stability -- and the self-indulgences -- of the '80s. She is not so weepy. Her confessions are mixed with self-satisfaction, even with an equanimity. She is even ironic, an ability she laments as she describes it in the second of two poems she titles "Vita Nova." Here Gluck is bitterly ironic as she addresses a dog named Blizzard. "Blizzard," the poet cries: "Daddy needs you/ . . . the kind of love he wants Mommy/ doesn't have. Mommy's/ too ironic -- Mommy wouldn't do/ the rhumba in the driveway." Yes, this is bitterly funny. This is language pruned, even pure. Like a child, Gluck is open and direct, with an easy flow of language that is conversational, personal and unabrasively honest.
Harriet Zinnes is the author of seven books of poetry and a collection of stories, "The Radiant Absurdity of Desire."