How does imagination taste? Read More Levertov

garden 23 may.jpg
Front garden at evening, 22 May

Yesterday I started reading the poem O Taste and See by Denise Levertov. You can find it here.

I’d only read a few lines, and stopped at the point where Levertov is thinking about the meaning of the subway Bible poster:

meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

I had to stop at ‘imagination’s tongue’. This is rather like what, in his neuro-experiments, my husband Phil Davis (CRILS at University of Liverpool)  refers to as ‘functional shift’. The writer shifts bits of grammar into different places, for example  a noun becomes a verb or a verb a noun (‘he godded him) and the result is a great deal more electrical activity in the brain. We are being asked to think harder, and in surprising ways. When Levertov asks me to think of the ‘imagination’s tongue’ a number of possibilities flit through my mind.  I’m waking up!

Firstly, oddly, because there is nothing in the poem to suggest it, I think of tongues of flame. Perhaps I’m  thinking of that moment in the Bible where the disciples are visited by the Holy Ghost. I don’t know the Bible very well, and mostly my knowing anything is based on memories from childhood. I remember the strangeness of this moment – the fire above each head.  Now I look it up and see it is not even clearly fire, just cloven, like fire: ‘And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.’

So, that flits across my mind. Then almost at the same time I am thinking of imagination  – yesterday I mentioned Wordsworth, because Levertov does – and I think now of the power of imagination in Wordsworth’s writing. For him it is the creative power.

So that too flits across my mind. Imagination’s tongue is the work of poetry, the divine, words of fire. ‘The Lord’ she is reading is now God and God is in her, making poetry. What does this transforming act make its speech from? I read on, in stanzas three and four.

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

I am moved and surprised that the first word should be ‘grief’, of all things. Who would have thought to start there? But perhaps grief is the greatest act of translation we humans have to make. The verb she is building on is a powerful one: ‘all that lives to the imagination’s tongue’. Certainly ‘grief’ lives and if there is something creative we can do with it, if there is some translation, then its wall like stopping power is  somewhat undone.

I am equally surprised by the second word in this list of things that live: ‘mercy’.

‘Mercy’ is a thing I struggle to feel. For the person in my life who has done the most damage to me and to mine, I do not want to have mercy. I want to have anger, I want to imagine I might hurt back, though I have never done so. This animal all too human response to attack seems right to me. It is one of the reasons I cannot become a Christian, much as some part of me would be glad of the rigor of an external discipline and shape.I know that it is also wrong.

I’m trying to think if I practice ‘mercy’ in less enormous situations.  I feel as if I don’t know what the word means. I look it up in the OED: ‘compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm’ . I look it up in the etymological dictionary and am surprised to see the first thought there is of God being merciful to me, not me to my enemy.

Because I do not believe in this kind of  God I find it impossible to imagine being forgiven. Perhaps that sentence should go the other way round? Because I  find it impossible to imagine being forgiven, I do not believe in that kind of God. I’m not sure ewither of these sentences is true. I wonder if I only think that, and that what I think can be dead, old , stale, not living to imagination’s tongue.

Either way, finding that word, ‘mercy’, here as a key piece of  the act of living to imagination’s tongue, I am thrown into serious thinking.

If one could find mercy, receive it, practice it…

I feel as if these two words are going to live in me all day or at least in those parts of the day when mindless thoughts sink down into me (which is one reason why I am trying to digitally disconnect: I do not want to keep filling those useful blank spaces with the static of checking the phone).

The next word is less surprising: ‘language’. Of course, for a poet, language would be one of the three key things. It is here a kind of key – the mention of it switches mode – the next line brings in direct, lived experience of external stuff ‘ tangerine, weather’.

So Levertov has begun with two big primal inner movers, ‘grief, mercy,’ but then finds ‘language’ and is able to move to the outside world, to  ‘tangerine, weather’. There are two worlds here and the hinge holding them together is her language. The sense of things being translated, transmuted, moving from one world to another, is connected to imagination’s tongue. Language is the outcome, imagination’s tongue makes the outcome.

The original verb was ‘lives’; now Levertov moves on to a more detailed thought about how that lives comes about:

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh

I suppose ‘to breathe’ arises out of the thought of weather. I imagine stepping up out the subway, to find – how surprising! – weather – perhaps it is raining, perhaps the street is steamy with hot summer New York train. You breathe it in. But there is also ‘tangerine’. ‘bite, savor, chew, swallow’. This is happening.  We are taking the world into us, through air and food and water, and it is becoming part of us. Those things, air, food, and we, our bodies, become transformed, as food becomes flesh, as oxygen becomes carbon dioxide.

This suddenly seems a miracle, but it is what we simply are: I am seeing differently.

Time’s up for today.

I will finish reading this short deep poem tomorrow.  Then back to Silas! I’m missing him.

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