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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Anne Dewey

Gender Difference and the Construction of Social Space in Levertov’s Writing after the Duncan-Levertov Debate


Levertov’s “To R.D., March 4th 1988” tells of a dream of reconciliation with Robert Duncan after their bitter dispute over the esthetics of political poetry that ended their deep friendship in 1971. The poem recounts Levertov’s view of their misunderstanding as originating in her need to see Duncan as a mentor, her growing independence of him, and his resentment of this independence. She portrays the moment of recovered friendship as the overcoming of misperception represented by Duncan’s crossed eyes and their ability to see each other without such distortion. “[O]ur eyes met/ ...your unfocussed eyes/ focusing in that smile to renew/ all the reality our foolish pride extinguished.” The scene takes place “in a church, near the Lady Chapel” and ends with the two poets sitting side by side like brother and sister. “We heard strong harmonies rise and begin to fill the arching stone,/ sounds that had risen here through centuries” (Levertov, Door 4).

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The space in which Levertov locates this reconciliation reflects the poets’ shared vocation in dedicating their art to construction of the great edifice of culture that grows cathedral-like over time. The proximity of the “Lady Chapel” also invokes Duncan’s “Lady”/“Queen” as muse from “Often I am permitted to return to a Meadow,” who presides over “a place of first permission” to poetry.[1] Although Levertov leaves the position of the “Lady Chapel” undefined, she places it in the central line of the poem. Architecture and gender are clearly significant in structuring the poets’ physical and psychological relationship to each other and to the “harmonies” of tradition.


While affirming the strength of shared poetic vocation, Levertov’s poem alters the terms in which Duncan’s earlier “The Torn Cloth”[2] figures the lost friendship and gestures at reconciliation. “The Torn Cloth” portrays the two poets’ identities as so enmeshed that their friendship is one being, the “re-weav[ing]” of a “wedding-cloth,” “the torn heart of our/ Friendship.” In this merging of identities, shared vision may result from intimacy’s one-sided projection. Duncan questions whether the friendship was strained by his “want[ing] her [Levertov]/ to be   entirely   unutterably/ that raging Woman of every “uprising”‘ (Ground Work 141—42), a view reinforced by his letters to Levertov from the early 1970s, which associate her with a feminine principle of social upheaval in Kali as goddess of creation through destruction that “consumes us in an age of conflicts,” the “rebellion” of women against men in the Women’s Liberation movement, and Duncan’s personal struggle with his anima (Letters 667, 657—64, 687—90, 699—700, 711).


The blurring of identities implicit in erotic entanglement deepens when Duncan describes the threads as emerging from his body, “like the blisterd/ all but severd   root-nerves/ of my sciatic   trunk-line,” (Ground Work 141), anchoring emotional turmoil in the body. Finally, confusion of identity extends beyond the personal to the public for, while the fiction of the cloth is spun from Duncan’s damaged body, this body is moved by the larger body politic in Duncan’s closing reference to the wartime nation: “another body my body is/ commands” (Ground Work 143).


In contrast to Duncan’s rendering, Levertov not only rejects the image of the cloth (“put you away like a folded cloth” [Door 4]) but emphasizes separation in the stark opposition of “I” and “you” in a strictly linear summary of the argument as action and reaction. When she resolves this opposition in a “we” witnessing “harmonies” of tradition, this relation is not marriage but that of brother and sister and the “harmonies” emerge from an unspecified but disembodied source. Where Duncan renders Levertov a figure of his own imagination, Levertov’s Duncan rejects a position behind her that would place her muse-like between him and the altar. Their position side by side, shared gaze and “warm” touch resist unidirectional objectification, establishing a relation of mutual recognition.


Levertov’s cathedral also differs from Duncan’s “The Museum” as a space of inspiration.[3] In Duncan’s poem, the Muses’ feminine gaze “commands” the “grand architecture” and the poet. Its space is both Medusan, a “stony everlasting gaze [that] looses itself in my coming into its plan,” and animal, “the Bestial Muse” threatening to devour the poet in the “chambers” of the Museum’s heart (Ground Work 63). Whereas “To R.D.” portrays human friendship communicated through bodies whose wholeness is restored in a sacred space where gender is present but peripheral to the music pervading this space, Duncan’s “Museum,” like “The Torn Cloth,” conflates body and art in a public architecture where presiding femininity threatens the poet’s sensitivity and even life.


While subtle, Levertov’s inclusion of gender in “To R.D.” illuminates a rethinking of gender, particularly of heterosexual difference, pervasive in her work of the 1980s. She returns to her dispute with Duncan through engagement of his poetic imagery in several writings, among them “To R.D.” and other poems in Breathing the Water and A Door in the Hive and the 1984 essay “Horses with Wings.” The essay develops her interpretation of Medusa, a significant figure in Duncan’s work from Bending the Bow through Ground Work. I will argue that Levertov rewrites Duncan’s imagery of grotesque and injured bodies to emphasize harmony and insulate individual integrity and agency from the predatory claims of public space that Duncan dramatizes but that also trouble her own writing. In revising Duncan’s wartime gender politics, she struggles to resolve both her own “split self,”[4] a double consciousness of herself as the paradox of the “Lady Poet” othered by her male contemporaries, and her consciousness of a failure of liberal ideals of equality and inclusion to which both she and Duncan respond powerfully in the late 1960s.[5]


Her return to these questions in the context of the identity politics of the 1980s helps to explain her dissociation from “a certain kind of feminist self-pity” (Gish 176) and her argument in the 1982 essay “Genre and Gender v. Serving an Art” that poetic “structure” (as distinct from “subject matter”) is not grounded in gender (Essays 103). It also illuminates the role of heterosexual difference in her poetry of the 1980s as integral to creating a public space structured by healthier images of difference.


Duncan and Levertov’s discussion of her “Olga Poems” in the early 1970s reveals their consciousness of gender politics in the context of “revolutionary” activism. It is no accident that Duncan turns to Levertov’s “Olga Poems” to document what he perceives as a gender struggle underlying Levertov’s revolutionary politics, in his words, the “rebellion” of “woman as a victim in war with the Man,” an anger repressed by her “etiquette of revolution” in which women, “altho they are filled with rage, ... will be good helpmates in the politics of the revolution” (Letters 667). Although Levertov’s reply insists that Olga was ‘a “worker for human rights,”’ (Letters 675), the “Olga Poems,” written as Levertov mourned the death of her sister and became involved in a political struggle for justice like that which consumed her sister’s life, gender feminine certain dangers of political involvement.[6] Olga’s beauty and torment are manifest through her body, in her “raking/ her nails over olive sides, the red/ waistband ring,” “skin around the nails/ nibbled sore,” and her disease, which the poem conflates with “all history/ burned out, down to the sick bone” (Levertov, Poems 111, 115).


This torment is associated with nightmarish femininity as well as disease as forces that distort the human body, “Black one, incubus — / she appeared/ riding anguish as Tartars ride mares.” While Olga’s body united centaurlike to her “anguish” exposes monstrous self-division, this incongruity is heightened by the feminine paraphernalia of cosmetics that clash inharmoniously with her body. She appears “haggard and rouged,” “her black hair dyed blonde” (Levertov, Poems 112), cosmetics accentuating the contrast between health and illness and the black and white Levertov associates with rage and kindness throughout the poem. Olga’s hair represents a more complicated conflict of identity, as it would impose a false, socially available version of whiteness on an identity that combines what Levertov represents as her genuine “black” rage and “white” candle of kindness. Olga’s femininity thus coincides with disease to embody the grotesqueness of a political agent fragmented and rendered alien by divisive gender difference.


Olga’s inaccessible gaze fails to communicate her purpose to others and thus represents a loss of solidarity and agency that Levertov links closely to Olga’s politicized body. While Levertov captures the beauty of Olga’s eyes in the image of “the brown gold of pebbles under water,” the association of her eyes with stone suggests a Medusan power of petrifaction. The poem’s closing mourns the loss of Olga’s vision while nearly conflating that vision with her body, Olga’s eyes with her “olive” skin: “your eyes,/ ...the lids/ arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision/ of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or shining,/ unknowable gaze” (Levertov, Poems 118).[7]


If the object of Olga’s gaze that would define her desire is “unknowable,” traces of her fragmented being and failed efforts haunt the current landscape as images of failed political agency. Whereas her vision has died uncommunicated, Olga’s body defines the landscape through her decomposing corporeality. Although only “two months” dead, her body is “bones and tatters of flesh in earth” (Levertov, Poems 111). Levertov recalls her eyes in every river stone, Olga’s “Everything flows” and Levertov’s image of the “river” of history shaping a landscape both physical and psychological. Rather than history serving as a scene within which Olga acts as autonomous agent, Olga finds expression only through partial, inadequate, and uncanny identifications with loci of vision dispersed throughout the social landscape, mere traces of imperfect agency and communication.


That Levertov experiences Olga’s haunting on a bridge in a passage that dilates into a strange reflection on time reveals its significance to her present landscape. The bridge becomes a temporally discontinuous moment suspended over time/history that links it to the problem of incorporating difference in revolutionary change. “I never crossed the bridge over the Roding, dividing/ the open field of the present from the mysteries,/ the wraiths and shifts of time-sense Wanstead Park held suspended,/ without remembering your eyes” (Levertov, Poems 117). The “shifts of time-sense” remember not only lost lives but also the violent redefinitions of identity in revolutionary time. Such shifts reflect not only crises in Levertov’s persona in the present but also the shift in the “Olga Poems” between the child Denise’s uncomprehending pre-sexual “camera” eye (Poems 112) and Olga’s mature political identity and womanhood.


Christopher MacGowan traces the significance of the river Roding in Levertov’s work to the threshold between childhood and adolescence as the psychological boundary between two parks, Valentines and Wanstead, that Levertov associated respectively with childhood and (initially off limits and later experienced) adolescence and maturity (MacGowan 3—5).[8] That Levertov’s memory of Olga occurs at this boundary between childhood and adolescence links Olga’s haunting to Levertov’s emergence into womanhood and the recognition of alienating sexual difference to political maturity.


Rather than viewing Olga simply as Levertov’s dark double, I would argue that the child Denise and the woman Olga are two poles of narrative focus whose mutual incomprehension reveals a missing center. In superimposing the sisters’ polarized experience, the “Olga Poems” express ambivalence about political subjectivity poised between but unable to resolve a childlike, innocent but limited universality and the divisive difference of the mature, gendered subject.[9] That Levertov sets this ambivalence in a landscape haunted by Olga’s decomposing body reveals the loss and damage done the body by the failure of expression this division involves.


The danger of a politics of difference in the “Olga Poems” is not limited to gender difference. While Levertov voices awareness of such divisions throughout her career, her return to the debate with Duncan coincides with the emergence of a language of victimhood in the construction of minority identity in identity politics, the images she engages associating grotesque or monstrous hybridity with a sexual difference that could stand for other forms of difference or alienation.


In addition to differing in their interpretation of the “Olga Poems,” Levertov and Duncan clash over Duncan’s interpretation of other images as the symptoms of what he believes to be Levertov’s unacknowledged motives of sexual struggle, whose emergence in her work he compares to the gargoyles integral to the beautiful design of the Gothic cathedral. He points to the sexualized violence of her “Life at War” and the predatory (sometimes sexual) function of the poem’s image of the spider web as delicately beautiful design (Letters 694—95). Most significant, however, is the image of Medusa, who becomes a figure of the body politic in Bending the Bow and, as we have seen, reemerges in “The Museum” as well as other poems in Ground Work. In Bending the Bow, Duncan’s Medusa is the decapitated war victim, whose “eye of bloody meat” (128) has the power to freeze the viewer, giving birth to a poetry (Pegasus) in which the poet’s body is indistinguishable from the mutilated body politic. Levertov’s reworkings seek to write her way out of this public space structured by power relations whose inequality mutilates its victims.


In contrast to Duncan’s focus on Medusa, Levertov privileges Medusa’s offspring Pegasus as a figure of harmony and harmonization who breaks with “malign” femininity. Downplaying Medusa’s rape and Duncan’s dissolution of the individual into generational cycles of violence,[10] she characterizes Medusa as a symbol of the “Nightmare” and “monstrous mother” whose body is grotesquely hybrid and whose physical deformity represents her “refusal of harmony.” Medusa’s physical disharmony coincides with her unintelligible speech, the association of “Gorgon” with “gargle, gurgle, and gargoyle” that renders her ‘“a shriek personified”’ (Essays 110). Whereas Duncan associates Perseus’ heroism with a denial of the real “mêlée” of violence (Bending 13), Levertov sees it as violent separation necessary to deliver poetic beauty. Pegasus must be ‘born — or wrested out of her by a slash of the sickle — a new “fusion of opposites”’ (Essays 112).


Levertov also discusses Pegasus’ instrumentality in destroying monstrous figures of multiplicity in “the devastating Chimaera, whose three heads ... embody licentiousness, insidious venom, and ruthless dominance” (Essays 113) and the “gorgonic features” of “the quaking magma of emotion which, in poems of autobiographical confession or furious opinion, smothers response and turns to stone the minds over which it flows,” isolating the speaker outside the communicative common ground of the ‘representative Human Being, “Man (or Woman) the Analogist”’ (Essays 118). These monsters represent extremes of invasive intersubjectivity and isolation born of such focus on individual difference. For Levertov, poetry may originate in the alien body, but it must transcend such petrifying and thus isolating difference through the production of harmony as a “communicative common ground.”


Levertov’s meditation on femininity as heterosexual difference in the Medusa figure reworks a consciousness of monstrous hybrid identity developed throughout her poetic career. As Deborah Pope has shown, Levertov expresses a division between woman and artist in recurring images of the wholesome, nurturing “earthwoman” and the tawdry, irresponsible but imaginative dragonfly-like “water-woman.” Pope finds a progressive integration of these figures in a single woman (86—87). Sandra Gilbert argues that Levertov transposes this division onto the split between her activist and her poetic selves in “The Dragonfly-Mother” (216). I would like to identify another crucial shift in the life of this image.


“The Dragonfly-Mother” abandons the predominantly gender-neutral voice of Levertov’s major poems of political activism (e.g., “Staying Alive”) to associate the activist self with the subservient femininity that drains her poetic energy, thus extending destructive gender hierarchy beyond the private realm and rendering it integral to the political arena and the public citizen. While Levertov now sees the public citizen as constructed through such destructive duality, the imaginative dragonfly and nourishing mother (who eclipses the wife in Levertov’s later poetry) are fused as her work of the 1980s embarks on a reimagination of the feminine as a positive figure of heterosexual difference.


Levertov’s imagery integrates “To R.D.” and other poems on heterosexual difference into a Rilkean project that frames A Door in the Hive (1989) and participates in a larger engagement of Rilke’s Book of Hours that extends from the end of Breathing the Water (1987) through A Door in the Hive. “To R.D.” follows the opening poem in Door, “To Rilke,” which places Rilke in the position of Levertov’s mentor (against the relationship of fellow poets that “To R.D.” establishes with Duncan). Rilke as spiritual guide on “the needful journey, the veiled distance” reveals artists’ common goal through a “dragonfly blue” “gaze.” His eyes both embody and indicate the “shimmering destination” (Door 3), rendering the body a medium that expresses this goal in the dragonfly imagery that Levertov has long associated with art’s beauty.


In addition to the image of the gaze, Levertov’s Rilke poems’ imagery of stones and churches also link “To R.D.” with art’s project, particularly toward the end of the volume. Here, one of several poems on stone churches wonders at the very different images individuals have produced while asserting their contribution to the edifice of culture as “fragile tesserae/ toward the vast mosaic — temple, eidolon,” a unity of differences in the whole. The book’s final image revises Duncan’s torn cloth into a larger “fabric,/ as if, once, it was from that we were broken off” (Door 107), which when extended beyond the individual resembles the temple’s all-encompassing unity.


Within this Rilkean approach to the divine, Levertov reconfigures heterosexual difference as life-giving and integrating rather than monstrous and divisive, images of responsiveness replacing the petrifying Medusan gaze. While it may be overreading to link the Julian of “The Showings” to the Lady of the “Lady Chapel,” the Julian sequence toward the end of Breathing the Water is consistently concerned with maintaining a vision of the whole in the face of intense bodily injury, for Levertov history’s violence symbolized in the crucifixion. Her representation of the relationship between body and vision echoes the connection but crucial salutary gap that she advocates in the Pegasus essay. Levertov repeatedly connects Julian’s desire to experience Christ’s stigmata with her vision of unifying love through God’s bodily identification with human beings in the incarnation.


Analogy and superimposition also reinforce Julian’s power to experience injury and wholeness simultaneously, in “tears and sweat/ [that] rolled down your face like the blood” (Breathing 82) and the recurring image of the world as a whole superimposed on the wounded body, “a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, held safe/ in God’s pierced palm” (Breathing 75). Such superimposition maps wholeness onto the injured body, enabling them to coexist in the same frame of reference. Julian’s recovery from near-fatal illness depends on her ability to separate herself from bodily suffering, to laugh at the devil’s grotesque yet powerless “mar-plot malevolence” (Breathing 79), although this separation is mediated through the experience of injury and difference in her physical identification with Christ. Other poems in both books explore this simultaneity of limited experience in the body and vision of the whole and the leap beyond the physical. “The Life of Art,” for example, focuses on this transformation as the mysterious “borderland” between the physical artistic medium and the scene it represents: “swathes and windrows/ of carnal paint — / ... and fictive truth” (Door 85).


As in the “Olga Poems,” Levertov places Julian’s actions in carefully constructed social spaces that channel agency. She imagines Julian’s holism as a foil to a fractured twentieth-century cosmology. Levertov’s twentieth century is fraught by “vast gaps we call black holes,/ unable to picture what’s both dense and vacant;/ and there’s the dizzying multiplication of all/ language can name or fail to name, unutterable/ swarming of molecules” (Breathing 75). While the presence of unfathomable places characterized by a paradox of matter and absence is not identical with the problem of bridging gender difference, it shares some characteristics in the problem of imagining a physical entity perceived as fundamentally different and thus opaque. In associating this problem with language’s ability to multiply being in disorienting ways, Levertov attributes discontinuity to the arbitrariness of language carving identity from a physical world essentially without form.


In contrast, Levertov imagines the social space of Julian’s childhood as the foundation of her vision of the whole, its fluidly communicating spaces enabling her to inhabit various kinds of difference. Julian experiences the vivid sensuality of the dairy’s cream “ghost-white in shade” and the “hot light” of “midsummer gold” outside. Both mediated “ghostly” shade (perhaps associated with the feminine interior of the dairy) and the direct, life-giving sun reveal divinity in different ways.


Levertov pays particular attention to the thresholds linking these spaces, the “slab of stone” of the dairy’s door and the unexpected “swinging gate!” These openings allow Julian to move with equal interest through “[h]er father’s hall, her mother’s bower” and the cuckoo’s “changing ... tune,” gender and seasonal difference. The church further structures her experience of difference from inside and out. Divinity appears as radically other, undifferentiated infinite in “the blue” “split” by the steeple and in more familiar human terms of light filtered through the stained glass in the church’s interior. While the vivid contrast between these spaces enriches Julian’s world, her ability to move between them renders them aspects of a continuous whole.


Julian’s ease of movement across difference is made possible by the poem’s representation of individuals not as solid bodies opaque to each other but as hollow space to be entered and thus inhabitable for others. This conception of the body may be rooted in but is not limited to the feminine body’s experience of heterosexual difference. In Levertov’s images of conception and pregnancy in Breathing and Door, this feminine specificity exemplifies how a body marked by difference may become a metaphor for life-giving incorporation of the other.


In addition to the Medusa essay, several poems develop this theme. In “The Showings,” the warm egg Julian sees with her mother and the nest shared with her brother both connect her to other family members and provide the affective basis for her vision and love of each form of life embodying wholeness. “The Annunciation” internalizes the differentiated social space of Julian’s childhood in Mary’s body as the site of embrace of an otherness both divine and masculine.[11] That Jesus’ birth is also the incarnation of the Word suggests that language experienced in the body can also be a medium for experience of difference. Levertov’s placement of “The Annunciation” after “The Life of Art” reinforces her focus on the transformative moment in which the physical becomes the vehicle of a radically different vision.


Levertov’s transformative moment may be (and has been) seen as naïve in its truncation of the structural conditions that distort our perceptions of the body and entrap us in divisive forms of difference. Criticism has addressed not only her dissociation from some of feminism’s structural critiques (also, of course, her poetic uses of gender and the feminine) but also her appropriations of other artwork. Howard Fussiner and David Eberly, for example, question Levertov’s interpretation of Emmanuel de Witte’s painting “The Composition” as an ideal of domestic harmony, seeing such a view as “idealizing and sentimentalizing” bourgeois civility built on working class labor and colonial exploitation (Hollenberg 532—33). Such critics certainly reveal the luxury of distance (at least imaginative) implicit in the liberating power of such truncation.


One must, however, also attend to Levertov’s contextualization of these moments. The poem’s construction of space often presents the harmony achieved as in dialogue with or superimposed on landscapes marred by injury (as in the “Olga Poems”) or emerging in landscapes that present alternatives to such painful divisions (e.g., the world of Julian’s childhood). Further, Levertov’s late poems and books place these moments as conscious interventions in an interconnected community whose multi-faceted quality she develops with increasing richness. Her poetic visions of embracing difference coexist with poems inspired by other kinds of relationships. Some poems expose destructive relationships perpetuated by divisively polarized difference, as in her many poems on masculine military violence against a feminine mother earth. Others develop visions of inspiration through similarity rather than difference.


Linda Kinnahan has traced the recurrent theme of an inheritance of poetic vision passed from mother to daughter (125—82), and José Rodríguez Herrera shows how Levertov breaks with the conventional imaginations of male poet and female muse to imagine the woman poet’s non-hierarchical, mutually responsive relation to a female muse (“Reappropriating” 39—44; “Identidad” 104—06). Still other poems open new locations for voice by speaking from unexpected places or objects not embedded in identities prestructured by our socially constructed space. Throughout Levertov’s oeuvre, gender politics are integral to her poetics and its construction of social space. In her poetics of transformation within the poem and the composition of her books, her late poetry interweaves these dramatically different relationships as interconnected parts of one world to expand our recognition of social or socializable spaces beyond divisive difference.

Works Cited

Duncan, Robert. Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968.

——— .  Ground Work: Before the War. In the Dark. New York: New Directions, 2006.

——— .  The Opening of the Field. New York: New Directions, 1968.

——— .  and Denise Levertov. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Eds., Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004.

Gilbert, Sandra. “Revolutionary Love: Denise Levertov and the Poetics of Politics.” Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ed. Albert Gelpi. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1993. 201—17.

Gish, Nancy K. “Feminism, Poetry, and the Church.” Conversations with Denise Levertov. Ed. Jewel Spears Brooker. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1998. 171—81.

Hatlen, Burton. ‘“Feminine Technologies”: George Oppen talks at Denise Levertov.’ American Poetry Review 22.3 (May/June 1993): 9—14.

Hollenberg, Donna Krolik. ‘“History as I desired it”: Ekphrasis as Postmodern Witness in Denise Levertov’s Late Poetry.” Modernism/Modernity 10 (2003): 519—37.

Kinnahan, Linda. Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 125—82.

Levertov, Denise. A Door in the Hive. New York: New Directions, 1989.

——— .  Breathing the Water. New York: New Directions, 1987.

——— .  Life in the Forest. New York: New Directions, 1978.

——— .  New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992.

——— .  Poems 1968—1972. New York: New Directions, 1987.

MacGowan, Christopher. ‘Valentines Park: “a Place of Origin.”’ Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. Ed. Anne Colclough Little and Susie Paul. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 2000. 3—15.

Piccione, Anthony. “A Conversation with Denise Levertov.” Ironwood 4 (1973): 20—34.

Pope, Deborah. “Homespun and Crazy Feathers: The Split-Self in the Poems of Denise Levertov.” Critical Essays on Denise Levertov. Ed. Linda Wagner-Martin. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1991. 73—97.

Rifkin, Libbie. “‘Radical Means Rather Than Radical Thinking’: Oppen, Levertov, and the Gender of Judgment.” Paper given at the New England Poetry Conference. The University of Massachusetts, Lowell, February 2008.

Rodríguez Herrera, José. “Reappropriating Mirror Appropriations: Female Sexuality and the Body in Denise Levertov.” Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. Ed. Anne Colclough Little and Susie Paul. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 2000. 37—50.

——— .  “Identidad y mito en Denise Levertov, una poeta en evolución/Identity and Myth in Denise Levertov, A Poet in Evolution.” Diss. Universidad de La Laguna, Canary Islands, Spain, 2003.

Shurin, Aaron. “The People’s P***k: A Dialectical Tale.” Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry. Eds. Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006. 71—80.


[1] Levertov’s “West aisle” may refer to Duncan’s “dream of the grass blowing/ east against the source of the sun/ in an hour before the sun’s going down” (Duncan, Field 11), as the letter in which she encloses the poem to Jess associates the West aisle with “the setting sun” (Letters 719).

[2] Duncan sent this poem to Levertov in a letter dated November 11, 1978 (Letters 836).

[3] It seems from the letters that Levertov had read “The Museum,” as Duncan assumes her knowledge of it in a letter from December 13, 1973 (Letters 711).

[4] I refer to Deborah Pope’s term and will discuss this essay later.

[5] See, for example, the 1973 interview with Anthony Piccione and William Heyen, in which Heyen begins by describing her poetry as having a “hard, austere quality about it that we don’t usually associate with poetry written by women” (Piccione 20). Levertov’s correspondence with William Carlos Williams documents both writers’ thoughts on the relationship between woman and poet. Burton Hatlen and Libbie Rifkin have shown how the pressure of the growing women’s movement transformed Levertov into a focus for Oppen’s anxieties about women’s activism and a feminization of revolution during the 1960s as the Women’s Liberation movement becomes more prominent.

[6] Adam Shurin’s essay on Levertov’s intense discomfort at a rally in which she and her message about the peace movement were upstaged by a “sexual” revolutionary costumed as a giant penis reinforce this view. While the gender politics of the situation and Levertov’s sense of sexual explicitness/propriety in public are too complex to analyze here, the moment does exemplify her resistance to revolutionaries who wear their genitalia on their sleeves.

[7] While I cannot develop it here, “veiled” and “shining” resemble Duncan’s description of the cat’s gaze that brings war into the domestic household in “At the Loom, Passages 2” (Bending 11). Levertov sent Duncan a draft of the “Olga Poems” on June 20, 1964. She seems to have received “At the Loom” in a batch of “new poems” from Duncan by July 24, 1964 but has “not properly absorbed them” at this date. She replies mentioning “At the Loom” specifically on July 29, 1964 (Letters 458—63).

[8] MacGowan’s analysis of Levertov’s pervasive imagery of the well as a source of childhood inspiration, associated with Valentines Park, provides a significant contrast to and safe space against the floodtide of history.

[9] Similar images of bodily invasion or distortion emerge in Levertov’s early descriptions of the war as it invades her perception: “lumps of raw dough” in the stomach and “a monstrous insect/ [that] looks out/ from my sockets with multiple vision” (Poems 121, 124).

[10] Levertov mentions the rape but portrays Poseidon’s power as “beautiful.” She offers an alternative to the explanation that Medusa’s deformation is Athene’s punishment for the defilement of her temple, suggesting that “since all her [Medusa’s] siblings were monsters, it seems that her malign nature existed potentially even before her appearance became hideous.” While this does not eliminate the question of generational inheritance, it emphasizes Medusa’s nature in itself rather than causal genealogy, reinforcing Levertov’s focus on Medusa’s “wilful wickedness” as an autonomous decision (Essays 110).

[11] In a 1990 interview, Levertov returns to these dualisms as well as that of time and space, calling them human experiences of “two contrasting categories” of which “[t]he human mind can certainly imagine amalgams ... [although it] is not really capable of completely transcending duality” (Gish 179). This dualism seems to exist in a counterpoint with matter’s “swarm of molecules” in “The Showings.” Such a view of dualism as inherent to human thought, Levertov’s seeming neutralization of terms embedded in power hierarchies, and her choice sometimes to identify with the privileged masculine term, deserve more attention than I can give these issues here.

Anne Dewey is Associate Professor of English at Saint Louis University’s Madrid Campus. She writes about American poetry and has published a book on Black Mountain poetry, Beyond Maximus.

Photo, top: Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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