Too fidgety the mind’s compass
(R.S. Thomas, “Adam Tempted”)
I pile books on books and
thought on thought. I pile
obligation onto guilt, and duty
onto resignation. This
is panic in my breath and limbs
tingling with the pace of things.
There is no end, the wise teacher said,
to all flesh-weariness of thought.
I must find instead a small
pocket of my father’s grace;
I must breathe and breathe and breathe
in pinpoints where His kindness rests.
Not absent, Lord – You have never been
on holiday; You, O God, don’t sleep.
Yet in Your weekly scheme is space;
all Your bookshelves mouth Your peace.
Not absent, Lord. It is I who have been
too busy with my piles and piles
of nothing. You are everything.
Well, on this final day of November it’s time to say goodbye to Denise Levertov, the lovely Anglo-American poet that we have been exploring this month. In lieu of an essay on her work, here is a link to the last interview she gave which I think gives a better insight into her work than anything I could write in a hurry.
And, with December frighteningly around the corner, it’s time to unveil the next poet: Luci Shaw, a wonderful poet who now work as Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver. I’m looking forward to looking at her work, particularly because contemporary Evangelical Christian poets are few and far between. I trust that her work will be a nice way to see in this Advent season ahead of us.
With November nearly over, it’s time for my final tribute to the poetry of Denise Levertov. This one is inspired by her simple but stark masterpiece, “Adam’s Complaint“, one of Levertov’s many creative entries into the inner workings of Biblical narratives. My poem looks at the same story from a slightly different angle.
Guilt (After “Adam’s Complaint”)
The vilest ruse
lay in the lie that knowledge
always leads to wisdom:
as though all it took
was to eat and know and then
be somehow as gods.
Instead, we found
our naked selves
hiding in broad daylight,
no clothing but wisdom which,
always vowing, always taking,
ate us as we ate,
learning through the futile past
that fruit, though pleasing to the eye,
is not always food.
When I first read Denise Levertov’s “Suspended”, it amazed me with the perfect way it blended the starkness of life with the delicate beauty of grace. You can read her poem here, in a wonderful post from CPX of their favourite religious poems, and here is my own response to Levertov.
Even So, Even So (After “Suspended”)
No sense can receive the sense
Of what it is that catches me;
You sing of joy, joy, in your heart
And I, sometimes, can know that joy, and yet
It is not clapping which sustains.
Hands that have no atoms hold me;
Even so, even so, in their infinite, silent substance they
Keep my frail floating self from
All these chasms that it seeks.
Well, November is running away from us and so far I’ve only managed one poem for my 12 Poets Project this month. So it’s time for another one, this one inspired by Denise Levertov’s wondering “Flickering Mind”, one of the best poetic expressions I have read of the human mind’s struggle with religious devotion. You can read Levertov’s poem here. Levertov’s poetic form is quite fluid, so I have gone with a looser interpretation of it here than I usually do. Happy reading!
Being (After “Flickering Mind”)
In this multiplicity,
this many-stranded, fragmentary
fold of life, I run
and flee from You, my God,
the constant in the changing whole.
I am absent, You are
the still point in this constant blur,
the first thought and the final Word.
and yet I seldom sit. Martha-movement
takes my sight
and I evade Your searching eyes.
to rest, to be before You,
this is costly; nonetheless
I live not if not
"Who told you that you were naked?"
Cuts through the trees and fig-leaves.
Naked, you stand, glory shattered,
Illusion broken, image disconnected,
Heart unsure now how to beat.
"Did you eat the fruit from the tree?"
Asks yet does not need to be told:
Your lips stink to heaven and the stain
Of falsely bought wisdom's on your teeth,
Image disconnected from the lies you breathe.
What now? No sense in deceit.
Knows the depths and the heights,
The stars, the chasms of your heart.
Naked, you stand, wisdom disconnected;
Swallow your pride and breathe truth.
Well, the calendar year is coming to an end, and my year of writing about Christian poets is also well under way. We’re up to our eighth poet now, and this month we are going to be looking at American poet Denise Levertov, a Catholic poet and activist whose meditations on faith have been a big influence for me recently. Few poets inhabit a Biblical story or character quite like Levertov does. I hope you enjoy looking at her work as much as I will.