Denise Levertov: ‘Seems Like We Must Be Somewhere Else’

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Hydragea, rose-blue, front garden, 29 August

Yesterday I visited the Liverpool Studio of Hugh Miller, an artist in wood. It’s a great experience to meet someone who loves what they do, whatever the subject matter is, but it is extraordinary when the thing done is highly skilled,  requiring a considered and experienced response to a series of  complex problems.  Making in wood poses such problems – grain, density, movement, water content, the control of the cutting implement.

Everything Hugh makes is made by hand and by thinking.

It’s an extraordinary process. I’m no artist in any dimension but as Hugh spoke about the demands of his work, I remembered things I had made – pretty rough and ready, and botched quite often, but nonetheless sometimes demanding that sort of series of decisions, even when my hand was not good enough to execute the action called for my by what my eye.

I’ve made twenty or more patchwork quilts in the past twenty-five years,  and I’ve made my garden (and lost it to  neglect and made bits of it again) and I’ve cooked sometimes complex meals. These things are made by hand and eye and by what you learn from masters – from books, mostly, in my case. They are ordinary ways in which a non-artist, non-craftswoman, may come near what may be the experience of  art-making.  It is like play, serious play, for grown-ups. And the grown-up element is the experience, the gathering of past learning into a feel, an instinct for the thing. That needs to go like this.

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The last quilt I made, Frances and Drummond’s Wedding Quilt, during construction.

Some of Hugh’s work had a beautiful  weave-like feel, like rough hessian, other parts of the same wood, (he works in English Elm, mostly) were finished like silk. I imagined the delight of concentrating on achieving those finishes of knowing how to do it mentally but also having taught your hand to achieve the necessary changes to reality.

Coffee-Scoop-1.The-Coffee-Ceremony-by-Hugh-Miller.--312x240

The line of  one of the smallest items he had to show us, a coffee scoop, its combination of metal wire and wood, the delightful angle of the thing as it sat, waiting ceremonially to scoop, was a thing of beauty.

The visit to Hugh’s studio came unexpectedly into my mind this morning as I sat down to read Denise Levertov. Her poems are made, I feel, almost wrestled, wrangled, into shape.  Are all poems  made like that? In my experience yes, but it’s hard to imagine Milton wrestling Paradise Lost into being.  The Thomas Hardy I was reading yesterday? It may be so, but there’s what Hopkins calls in a hawk,  the achieve of, the mastery of the thing that sometimes prevents you appreciating what in wood  would be the chisel marks.  Thinking of Hugh’s work – some parts of the wood were so finished that you could not easily tell they had been ‘finished’ by a human hand. The silk of table top seemed a god-given. But if you saw Hugh working – you’d see a man in mask against the dust, sanding  the hell out of it. In the carved work  you can see the  effect of the blade – you know  someone has done it.

Language is a tough medium for making – so ordinary, so every day, and yet poets do the most extraordinary things with it. This poem arrested me – partly because it’s title, a recognisable flow in Denise Levertov’s grain – points me both at and away from everyday.

I read this poem in ignorance – I do not know what made her write it, or what raw materials she found to make it from. I only know what is here.  It’s like walking into Hugh’s studio and seeing one of those extraordinary chairs when he is not present to tell you about it. I walk around the chair, I let my fingers understand it.

Seems Like We Must Be Somewhere Else

Sweet procession, rose-blue,
and all them bells.

Bandstand red, the eyes
at treetop level seeing it. ‘Are we
what we think we are or are we
what befalls us?’

The people from an open window
the eyes
seeing it!     Daytime!      Or twilight!

Sweet procession, rose-blue.
If we’re here let’s be here now.

And the train whistle? who
invented that? Lonesome man, wanted the trains
to speak for him.

I don’t know what it is a sweet procession of –  clouds, perhaps, or people down below or flowers.  ‘Sweet’ seems to make it smaller – not a grand procession, just something ordinarily  lovely. Rose-blue is a good colour, like  end of summer hydrangeas. Because of the bells in the second line, I think I’m looking out, through Denise’s words, at air, at clouds. ‘And all them bells’  is like someone speaking in amazement. Are we looking at them – like looking over rooftop Florence? Or are we hearing them? What an amazing Sunday morning clatter! Are we actually ‘somewhere else’?

My eyes look over the scene and I see ‘Bandstand red’.  Is it a colour, like pillarbox red, my eye floating over green attracted to that power of colour? Am I looking over something like Central Park? ‘The eyes/at treetop level seeing it’. Is it a bandstand or only a patch of red? and while I’m making it all out, the question:

 ‘Are we
what we think we are or are we
what befalls us?’

I do not know whose question this is, only that Levertov has carved it into the poem and now I can only read it and  wonder. Feels like a conversation going on in a room while I  look out over the park. I wonder if that looking out, at treetop level, makes you have that kind of thought? Things might look different from up here, but would you know that if you were on the ground? Do we, are Nietszche said, ‘become what we are’? Are we fixed, or are we made?

‘Befalls’ is a big word, perhaps frightening. Does stuff just drop on us, as if from a height? Denise puts the word into my mind and all I can do is let it reverberate.

The people from an open window
the eyes
seeing it!      Daytime!      Or twilight!

I am suddenly thinking:  are these people are looking out from the open window or am I seeing them?  ‘The eyes’ – whose eyes, mine, opening now?  Those people up there? Those people down there? But it is the looking that counts, ‘seeing it!  Three exclamation marks in one line!!!

Alsoi I notice those lovely gaps in the line before ‘Daytime!’,  before ‘Or twilight!’

I read it all again, from the beginning,  and feel I am looking at people now from a new angle, from up here, at treetop level and  seeing the world fresh  whatever time it is,  ‘Daytime!     Or twilight!’ From those exclamations and pauses, those gaps, a further realisation of what it is comes, look again:

Sweet procession, rose-blue.
If we’re here let’s be here now.

Now it seems as if the poem takes place in a  moment, a looking from a window and it is made from a rush of feeling about what everything is: ‘sweet procession’  – is it the whole of life, sky, cloud and us watching: ‘ if we’re here let’s be here now.’  Funny to start that thought with an ‘if’, as we might not be here at all?  But I look back at the title,  ‘Seems Like We Might Be Somewhere Else’.

Those words give me an odd dislocating feeling, as does the not being able to know what the sweet procession is, what is rose-blue (apart from the colour, rose-blue) as do ‘all them bells’. But if we are here, let’s be here now. Feels like a positive embrace of this and all moments, a realisation of how to live.

Then comes that sad wail of the train whistle. It’s in the poem because it came to Denise, either in reality or in mind, and suddenly, are we here now? Have we gone somewhere else? Where does that thought, emotion, raised by the sound of the train whistle, come from?  Comes from ‘Lonesome man, wanted the trains/to speak for him.’

The poem is almost ecstatic, and yet studded with three big thoughts which I need to continue to think over – are we what befalls us, be here now and wanting the trains to speak – but I’m way over time, unfortunately.

”Seems Like We Must Be Somewhere Else” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961,1979 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

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