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
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
Here she seems to be talking to herself about
the shape of a life:
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.
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.)