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.

Poetry Friday: Good Friday Edition

It is an annual tradition here at Following Pulitzer to dive into an honestly Christian-themed poem for Good Friday, although I always strive to offer something I think can meaningfully reach as wide an audience as possible.  From a personal standpoint, this is a very powerful day—probably the most significant Friday of the year, most years, and one in which it is hard to give voice to all the thoughts I’m thinking.  Some of them thoughts I may not even be ready to give voice to.  I know that for some of you it is equally powerful, and for some it is a day of minor significance (perhaps something to note briefly and then turn away from), and for some it really means nothing at all beyond being a Friday much like any other.  So offering a poem that can speak to all of us is a challenge—something sincere enough in confronting the Christian story that it can touch the experiences Christians around the world are having today, but also broad and human enough to reach people for whom another faith tradition (or no faith tradition at all) establishes the rhythms of your days and months.  I’m going to do my best in discussing it to speak to all of you, whoever and wherever you might be, and I hope what I say resonates on some level.

This year’s poem is by a very talented modern poet, Denise Levertov, which I first read in a collection of hers called The Stream and the Sapphire, a very eclectic collection of the spiritual poems she wrote over a long series of years in which she moved from open agnosticism to a Christian faith that, if not entirely orthodox, isn’t quite what I think most expect from a late 20th Century mainstream poet.  The poem itself, entitled “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell”, illuminates one of the most powerful moments in the Jesus stories of the New Testament, and one that has always captured my artistic imagination—it is the long dark day in which Jesus, having died, descends to the dead to call them up to Heaven, before returning to his tomb for the resurrection.  The New Testament offers almost no ideas about exactly when or how or why this might have been, but the tiny fragments it half-suggests make up the texts for the beautifully solemn and meditative liturgy of the Holy Saturday service in the Episcopal Church (my chosen denomination)—the shortest service in the Book of Common Prayer, and one most Episcopalians who aren’t on their parish’s altar guild have never attended.  Without further ado, Levertov’s take on the image:

Down through the tomb’s inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud: to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food—fish and a honeycomb.

Levertov is working with powerful, elemental images here—the ideas of death and life, of spirit and flesh—and she does so at first in phrases that could hardly be more understated.  She wants the intimacy of the event to touch us, and not its grandeur.  Where I think the poem perhaps reaches most openly across faith lines to all people is the moment where she uses the word “here” to describe the place where the “merciful dead” and the rest are waiting.  Here.  Because who among us has not known that kind of dark night—more than a night, for most of us, sometimes whole months and years swallowed up in the feeling of being among the unnumbered, the nameless, the forgotten and lost?  And the sheer joy of human connection, then, that pulls us out of that shadow, like these dead, dazzled and unwilling into the light—even if Good Friday means nothing to you on the level of theology, I hope it is a day to acknowledge the real grace that has touched your life in this way.  The people who have, with little self-regard or self-restraint, reached into your life to raise up what is dying in you, to restore what has fallen, for the sheer sake of loving you.  For me, as a Christian, it is a day to marvel at how that kind of action is at the heart of how I see the universe—that human existence and time and the structure of the universe are all caught up in that motion, an action whereby someone who loves me does something inexplicable and mysterious (in the true sense of the word) that I could not have done for myself.  Levertov captures that understanding in the way I think it, throughout the first half of the poem, by seeing these rising dead as real people and describing them as such.

The second half of the poem becomes harder to grasp, I think because the Christian understanding of these events makes them hard to put in human terms—what would it be like to give up freedom for the prison of a body again, to give up joy freely to re-inhabit a broken and wounded body?  All the analogies I have ready access to from my own life fall short.  I think there are human beings whose extraordinary lives give them an understanding of this kind of action—who have willingly cast aside all their privileges and liberties because they have a job to do, and they are willing to do it.  I think of the heroes of civil rights movements everywhere—not just in the United States (though of course here) but also South Africa, and the Soviet Union, and Burma, and countless other countries and times.  I wonder how they would read this poem: it’s beyond me to guess at it.

What I do connect with is the final few lines, because Good Friday is a hungry day for me—perhaps my hungriest.  I speak those words as an unbelievably comfortable citizen of a nation overflowing with food (although we too often forget that millions of Americans go to bed hungry every night).  While fasting on Good Friday, my mind goes to the many who feel this hungry every day—who wake with hunger and work in hunger.  My tiny fast helps me see them more clearly, and gives me more of a desire to touch their lives somehow.  And I think that’s what Levertov is trying to pin down at the end—the notion that the Incarnation may not be, after all, as much about some kind of complicated theological transaction as it is a faith acknowledging that, for God to truly reach human lives, God needed to be broken like us, hungry and troubled and anxious.  And, at the same time, to give others the opportunity to act—something I know I can be bad at, and that many of us are bad at.  We hide our pain from others, whether out of pride or fear or shame, and in doing so we not only endure the pain longer but shut out of our friends’ lives the joy of helping us.  Something as simple as the acceptance of a piece of fish and a honeycomb can be an act of grace—it can be as blessed to receive as to give, under the right circumstances.

This is the first time in years that I am without my faith community on Good Friday—Betsy and I will be together, but the many familiar faces next to whom we have sung and kneeled and prayed are thousands of miles away.  I think it makes me more somber in choosing a poem this year, but I hope it has also made me a little more open than usual about my feelings about this day.  And I hope it has touched your life, in whatever sense it can.

Poetry Friday: Denise Levertov

I was reminded of Denise Levertov this week when talking with a friend about poets who express faith in their work—Levertov is particularly skilled, I think, because her grasp of faith is so inclusive and humanity-affirming, and she stays so genuine as she works her way into the nameless and calls it what it is, and not what she expects to see.  And that, combined with my feelings about Libya, and Japan, and the length of a long academic quarter (which, in the light of those global events, pales so by comparison that it can hardly really be seen), made me want to reach out to Levertov and find something new—so here it is, “Making Peace”:

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

I like the challenge in this poem, the idea that there is a difference between “the absence of war” and “peace”, and that poets have some kind of obligation to bridge that chasm. I think these poems are harder and harder to write, as society asks less and less of its poets. A century ago poets were expected to make sense of the awful…someone in England, for instance, would have to write a poem for the newspapers about Japan and the tsunami, probably the laureate. We don’t do that anymore. In some ways, that’s a benefit…”occasional verse” was only occasionally any good. But in other ways it leaves us open to the blows that life deals out without an art to give us perspective. As much as I like the movies and pop music, it’s hard to see them as perfect substitutes.

Anyway, Levertov does some really great stuff with these sparing phrases—what is, after all, the “grammar of justice” or the “syntax of mutual aid”? They push on my teeth like ripe berries; the sounds seem full of something I can’t taste just yet, but I will. There’s a way in which they tie together poetry and peace (the way that grammar and syntax tie any two words together in language), and I like the shadows in the poem there, where Levertov sees something but is unwilling to paint the whole picture for me. In that way, she makes me find the poem the way she is telling me poems are found…by feeling towards it, and learning it as I say the words, resonating with some and not others and making what stays in me mine. The closing stanza is intense for me: I feel the heft of peace in my hands like a weapon that heals the things it strikes. She loses me at the very end—the image of the crystal seems overdone to me—but before that, the notion of peace “pulsing” into the world, like some enormous backbeat, through the echo chamber of poetry hits me right. Makes me think of Dr. King and Lincoln and the other poets who made peace happen, not just by talking about it, but never without words. I wonder if you feel the same connection to this poem I do, though: it’s very abstract. Drop a note in the comments and let me know.