Poem for Ash Wednesday: Denise Levertov

As is my custom on these Christian holidays of significance to me (and others), I try to find a poem to share and reflect on that will resonate in some particular way with folks who share at least some of my beliefs, but that will also speak to people of other faiths, or no faith.  I don’t know if I always succeed, but I always find the trying worth the effort for me, at least.  I hope it works for you, as well.  Today is Ash Wednesday, a day for reflecting on a lot of things: the frailty of being human, and its weakness.  Human resolve, that somehow will push back against these things in search of some more significant destiny.  Our need, both collective and individual, for mercy, for kindness, for forgiveness and grace, if these terms are not too loaded with theology to speak to us all in our simple humanity.  One of the poets who speaks to all these things most successfully for me is Denise Levertov, who I found this morning I had not gone to in almost three years for the blog—today I’ll rectify that, observing Ash Wednesday (or “Wednesday”, for those of you who don’t care a fig for all this Lent business) with a poem called “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velasquez)”, from her collection The Stream & the Sapphire.  Since it is based, as the title suggests, on a work of art, I’ll share that image next to it here so that you can consider it as you consider the poem:

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
was his—the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face—?

The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the winejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.

I won’t delve into the history of the painting, which you can read about on Wikipedia and other places, too, I’m sure.  Levertov clearly isn’t concerned with Velasquez, great as he is, but instead with what the painting allows us to glimpse.  The image and story come from the Gospel of Luke’s 24th chapter, although the story may also appear (without a lot of identifying detail) in the Gospel of Mark.  The basics are quite simple—after the death of Jesus and the discovery that his tomb was empty, two of his disciples (one gets a name, but it never appears again in the New Testament; the other remains anonymous to us) are walking down the road to a small town called Emmaus talking about all that’s happened.  They meet a stranger on the road who apparently doesn’t know about any of these events, and they fill him in.  He then suggests that all of this is in accord with prophecies from the Tanakh (or Old Testament), and amazes them with his deep knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures.  They talk a long time on the road, and then they invite him to dinner once Emmaus is reached: at some point during the meal (maybe the beginning, maybe not; scholars disagree on how to interpret certain phrases) they suddenly recognize the stranger as a resurrected Jesus, whereupon he vanishes.

It’s a pretty good story, truth be told, even if for you that’s all it is—some fiction about people who either never lived, or who, if they did, didn’t have this literal experience.  The two travelers, sorrowful but also perplexed.  One of them has a name that we don’t recognize; the other is nameless.  A third person joins them and, despite seeming to be unfamiliar with the details of their lived experiences, amazes them by putting together ideas and events they already knew about in a way that fascinates and intrigues them.  They react with gratitude, and are rewarded with a sudden (and shockingly brief) glimpse of a friend they thought was lost forever.  And then he was gone, again.  Into this little tale Levertov (by way of Velasquez) inserts the figure of this young black girl, who gets the drop on our two travelers—before they quite recognize the man in front of them (since, once they do, he will disappear), she sees out of the corner of her eye something that immediately clarifies all of this for her.

What’s here for all of us, I think, including people of any faith tradition (or none), is the recognition of that kind of Emmaus moment in our own lives.  We know the breathless moment when suddenly something we hadn’t looked for appears to us.  We feel in our bones what it’s like to have your lived experiences—for this girl, something in the voice or hands that calls to mind almost-forgotten memories—call you to focus on something others will overlook, and to have our rapt attention pay off with a sudden glimpse of something true and important.  I love those last three lines, the suddenness of her turn (which Velasquez only anticipates, rather than depicting) and the light falling into her eyes, and with it, knowledge.  Especially powerful, then, is Velasquez’s choice (which Levertov reinforces) of an ethnic minority, a young person, and a woman, to be the one who sees before these older men (we can’t say “white” since no native of Palestine then really fits that admittedly weird and arbitrary racial category from modern America, but of a different race than the girl, and theirs is the majority race in that part of the world).  Maybe it can serve as a reminder to all of us that Emmaus moments are not just ours to receive individually—that, to learn all we should, we need to be attentive to how other people’s experiences, especially those different from ours, especially those marginalized by our society, may open up truths for them that we need also.  Truths that we, once we possess them, will carry in our hearts forever, even from just that one brief glimpse.  I think the poem and the painting, together, hit that message home for me, and it’s one I’m grateful for no matter what Wednesday it is.

But to add just briefly for others who may share some of my faith experiences, and for whom Ash Wednesday is a special day of reflection, I’ll say that the Emmaus tale is a powerful one for Lent, I think.  I love the namelessness of the second disciple because I think that disciple is each of us, all of us—whoever he (or she) may have been on the road that day.  I love the metaphor for Lent as a road—one we walk for a long ways while pondering the stories written in the New Testament, sharing with each other insights we may have—and one that may end in a startling and meaningful glimpse of the divine during the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.  And so, for that reason, all I said in the last paragraph is magnified—the important of recognizing how people not like me, especially the marginalized and the ignored in my community, may have much more to draw on when they look for the form of the one who was despised and mistreated, rejected by almost all who knew him, in the end, and put to ignominious death as a hated criminal.  They may know much more than I do about his hands and voice, may see them much more alive and at work in the community around me, and may feel the warmth of light in places that are still dark to me.  Lent is a season for listening, then, at least for me—to Levertov today, and hopefully to the voices of many other people in the 40 days (plus Sundays) between now and the ringing of the Easter bells.  Perhaps it will be for you, as well.

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