LUMINOUS THINGS Denise Levertov “Living”


From “A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Milosz p. 24

It is not easy at all to talk about this porosity of being, or of the primal porosity that marks our being. For how to get a fix on a porosity? There is no direct way, since porosity draws attention to the relative absence of determination rather than any fixed determinacy. Porosity is what allows passage. Porosity is permeability. Porosity is an opening. Porosity seems like a field of emptiness. So, at first glance, it seems. If this is so, how pin it down at all? How to refer intelligibly to it at all, except perhaps by subtraction from what determinably is already there?

William Desmond, “The Untimate Universal,” p. 209.

Why should thinking people care about poetry? Denise Levertov, a young British poet with roots in Hasidic Russia, discovered a new American style practiced by William Carlos Williams, and the rest is history. She became a foremost experimental poet in America and a indefatigable source of eloquesnt political and cultural protest. She eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest. Her presence in Luminous Things attests not only to her local charisma in Milosz’s life but to her relevance to the question, why should thinking people care about poetry?

Religion was always an issue for Levertov as it was for Milosz. Her religious journey brought her to Catholicism. But as a radical thinker she resisted identifying with the Church. She drew on many traditions, mystical included. “Living” illustrates her mature thought.

Most people would not call it thought. Depending on her finesse as an imagist, “Living” fulfills the lyric narrative in ways some might consider solipsistic. It opens by pointing to phenomena—-the fire in leaf and grass—-that is inseparable from metaphor. But she quickly reconfigures the commonplace metaphoric complex light/fire as a matter of appearances. It “seems.” This note of reserve is essential to her style.

It gives way to the lyric narrative as she explores the equivocal nature of her topic. It refocuses on time itself. This basic image of life as light involves the contemplative poet in the sense of time’s constitution as not only duration but the limits of being itself. Things last in time and communicate their lastingness in terms of the last, the end of duration.

Her sense of deep verbal play expands the scene in the second stanza. The camera pulls back and refocuses on very big things: wind blowing, leaves shivering. A touch of anthropomorphism prepares us for the refrain: “each day the last day.” Ecclesiastes weighs in. More specifically the echo of Renaissance plague-time lament, preserved in several plainstyle English lyrics, broadens and deepens the perception of the poem’s voice, emerging from those first more personal images. Levertov’s dialectical skill makes it look easy.

The poem leaps from the general to the particular in the third stanza. Exotic but quotidian, the image of the salamander, which reappears in lyric poetry as an image of ounceness or the instancy of being, is perceived as happening now to the poet. Enjambment opens into the final stage of the poem. For the first time the imagery breaches the reserve of the style: description and first person narrative—-I hold / my hand open—-communicate the community of the flesh in the moment: the eschatology of lastness becomes personal as well as universal. Desmond’s “Intimate Universal” comes to mind.

As does, on reflection, the “porosity,” which as an image of what comes first is a “problem” for thinkers. Yet in this poem the narrative makes it perfectly clear. The “Let” of scriptural tradition foregrounds the immediacy of creation. It is an act. It is personal. Levertov fuses the image of lastness and firstness in the release of the salamander.

Now THAT is epiphany!

The scope of the little poem suddenly expands: the final, the last, subject is the primal porosity. In the quote above Desmond suggests that one of the few ways to conceive of the porosity (that fluidity between something and nothing) is through negation, subtraction. This subtle double focus startles the reader as she feels both the quicksilver flesh of the salamander AND its escape. It literally passes from our conscious concrete awareness. Porosity is like an afterimage, more real now than the absence of the salamander.

The “greatness” of this small poem makes it signify as a good way to educate yourself out of the narrow conception of poetry that SEEMS to limit its role in our community. Don’t be fooled. The lyric is not just entertainment, it helps us think. The lyric fulfills the promise of communication. It cleanses us of various poisons that choke off the porosity from our sense of humanity. The deplorable state of human relations revealed by Covid-19 should make the modern self, structured by mindless and deadly prejudices, deeply aware of its parochial nature. Denise Levertov made way for a better humanity.


Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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