Denise Levertov, Poet of the Divine


I have already written about Carolyn Forché. Some time ago, I came across another outstanding female poet: Denise Levertov (1923-97). She was British, but moved to the United States after her marriage with American writer Mitchell Goodman in 1947. Her father was a Russian Hassidic Jew who became an Anglican priest. Denise was an agnostic for most of her life. Finally, she converted to Christianity in 1984 and five years later she became a catholic. Given this path, it is no surprise then that her poetry became the site where she expressed and liberated an ardent, subtle, evocative, and concrete vision of God (a powerful catholic vision, in short). Here is “Annunciation”, an apt poem one week after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, presented in its original graphic form:

Hail, space for the uncontained God
— from the 6th Cent. Greek “Agathistos Hymn”

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
                     Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
                     The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
                                            God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
                    Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
            More often
those moments
     when roads of light and storm
     open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                  God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
                          only asked
a simple, “How can this be?”
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power —
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                   Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love —

but who was God.