NEW HOPE INTERNATIONAL REVIEW

An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
DENISE LEVERTOV: NEW SELECTED POEMS
Bloodaxe Books
Highgreen
Tarset
Northumberland
NE48 1RP
UK
ISBN 1 85224 653 7
9.95

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This page last updated: 11th December 2007.
DENISE LEVERTOV: NEW SELECTED POEMS

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) was a tireless writer of poetry and prose over six decades and had two dozen anthologies published. She was considered an important voice in the American avant-garde of her time. NEW SELECTED POEMS highlights all her major work except her last two anthologies, THE LIFE AROUND US and THE STREAM AND THE SAPPHIRE.

Inclusions here offer a fine example of 157 poems in chronological order. Kenneth Rexroth wrote that she

more than anyone, led the redirection of American poetry. . . to the mainstream of world literature.
Her wide-ranging topics fall into various categories: Avant garde and Experimental, Modernist, Nature and Environment, Philosophical, Political and Social, Religious and Spiritual.

A word about the cover, it is awful. The unflattering photograph of the poet was taken when she was probably in her twenties or thirties. It makes her look pale and washed out. She is wearing red with severe black, neither of which suit her. While researching links for this review I've seen pictures of her as an older, more mature woman, any of which would have made a far better picture for the cover.

There are three distinct sections here, all of which are technically superb. Early work is mostly very tightly written where emphasis appears at the start of the line in the American style, slightly curious given that Denise Levertov was born in Ilford near London and didn't move to America until she was twenty-four.

Middle work is more confident, exploring feelings about her family, particularly guilt concerning her older sister Olga. This middle section is at times deeply religious, which probably sowed the seeds for her conversion to Catholicism later in her life.

Late work shows a master at work, eager to explore every topic imaginable. It's a lot looser in structure than the rest and is often more a flow of consciousness. There is a slight emphasis here on political and social matters, for which Levertov worked tirelessly until the end of her life.

One of my favourite poems from this excellent collection is A TREE TELLING OF ORPHEUS (1970). It's one of her longest, most confident poems and spans 161 lines. It's set out in a really unusual line structure which makes for interesting viewing and hazardous reading by the unwary. Nonetheless, it's breathtaking. This extract tells of the lyre Orpheus played:

				He carried a burden made of
	some cut branch bent while it was green,
	strands of a vine tight-stretched across it, From this,
	when he touched it, and from his voice
	which unlike the wind's voice had no need of our
	leaves and branches to complete its sound,
						 came the ripple.
Here is a snippet from another favourite, A SOUL-CAKE (1978), which explores tears beautifully:
	There's too much grief. Mother,
	what shall I do with it?
	Salt grinding and grinding from the magic box.
and this about THE DRAGONFLY-MOTHER (1982):
	Who is the Dragonfly-Mother?
	What does she do?

	She is the one who hovers
	on stairways of air,
			   sometimes almost
	grazing your cheekbone,
A later poem, written with emphasis at the start of the line, is a sensual, beautifully observed re-telling of THE LADY OF SHALOTT called SHE AND THE MUSE (1982):
			...sweeps from the hearth
	ashes of last night's fire, and climbs the stairs
	to strip tumbled sheets from her wide bed.

				Now the long-desired
	visit is over. The heroine
	is a scribe. Returned to solitude,
Finally, THE SPIRITS APPEASED (1987), a cleverly crafted poem about a wanderer who has found a peaceful forest hut where, once rested, his urge is to write. In fact the poem beautifully highlights the exact way most writers receive inspiration from their Muse:
	I find I have heard you. When I need it,
	a book or a slip of paper
	appears in my hand, inscribed by yours: messages
	waiting on cellar shelves, in forgotten boxes
	until I would listen.
There's plenty more here to listen to and it comes highly recommended. For more information about her background and influences just type Denise Levertov into your favourite search engine.

reviewer: Steve Anderson.