Bringing together nearly fifty years of original work, this long-awaited volume is the definitive record of Levertov’s contributions to American poetry in the twentieth century. Contained here are Levertov’s trademark antiwar poems, written in protest of the Vietnam War, in which “delicate Man…whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs…still turns, with mere regret / to the scheduled breaking open of breasts.” Poems from early books, like The Double Image, published in 1946, allow readers to see Levertov honing her bravery in the face of loss, as when she tells death to “enter with riches.” The poems in To Stay Alive, published in 1971, offer some of Levertov’s first and most probing insights into war’s effects upon the psyche in which, she writes, one is left to hear “the cocks crow all night / far and near.” In later poems, Levertov contends with spiritual desire, uncertainty, and a divine beauty that charges the world. In “Annunciation” and “A Nativity” Levertov writes with plainspoken awe about the religious figure Mary, “a child who played, ate, slept / like any other child—but unlike others, / wept only for pity, laughed / in joy not triumph.” These qualities—charity and selflessness—became a defining subject for Levertov in her later work, who describes “the village woman / who sometimes came from down the street / and gently, with the softest / of soft old flannel, / soaped and rinsed and dried / her grubby face,” which refers to Levertov’s grandmother’s face as a child. It’s this precise “memory, / grateful and longing” that Levertov tells readers she intended to carry with her toward her own death.
This review was originally published in American Poet, Fall-Winter 2013, Volume 45.