Essex Girl meets Punk Reader: starting to read a new-to-me poem by Denise Levertov

old english garden.JPG
Old English Garden at Calderstones getting into Autumn, 18 September

This morning I’m starting to read a poem new to me, which I’ve found in the very lovely (New Directions) Collected Poems of Denise Levertov.

I begin with a nervous feeling, it looks a big poem, and as if it might be important. That nervous feeling makes me afraid and angry, old feelings left from early days at University. Does everything we’ve ever felt lie in us waiting to be re-ignited?

All those lifetime-old  worries – poetry is something clever experts know about – come back like weird auto-response twitches, and I tell myself: you’ve been a good reader for years, decades, a life time, shut up you and your silly worried voices. My young punk self aggressive in her assertion brought to life by feeling of dustiness of ‘experts’: I can do it without your *%^&*”* notes!

If a poem needs a critical apparatus it’s no poem. A poem stands alone, is a product of a human soul and mind. A reader meets it. They  begin to read each other. Don’t be afraid, I soothe my young angry uneducated self,  believe in that lively interchange.

I read the poem through a couple of times:

A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

Hhhhmm. A long read, and a lovely read though largely still incomprehensible to me this morning. I see the map she is reading. I do not know Essex and need a map of my own to compare hers against, but this is also genetics, isn’t it,and the history of a family moving around the world?

These are the thoughts that are roughly in my  mind as I open the poem and begin to look.

When I start again, I am uncertain because I don’t know what the ‘something’ is:

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:

Had she forgotten Essex, that she was Essex-born?  Had that memory  faded in the more cosmopolitan light of Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon and the United States?  have those places  her ‘fathers and mothers’ came from become more significant in her life story than the actualities of her  real life story??

I’m over my nerves already!

Reading a new poem – and particularly perhaps a poem with some kind of reputation or aura (and for me, with this poem that was just to do with its density on the page plus my immediate inability to get into it) – you have to put your insecurity aside and face it as an equal. You have to say:  I don’t understand. O.k., you have to say to yourself,  ask a question then.  There may be many questions and few answers. But asking gets you talking.  And the next thing neither you nor the poem is standing there like a monolith.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a map of Essex and longer time for writing.

”A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” By Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965,1966 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

One thought on “Essex Girl meets Punk Reader: starting to read a new-to-me poem by Denise Levertov

  1. Heather September 19, 2017 / 7:49 am

    A great start to the day. Home, roots, security, ‘red doubledecker buses’ and, ‘Simeon-quiet evensong’. To be ‘ten burning with desire for the world’s great splendors’ gives a feeling of excitement….the world is my oyster! This also got me thinking of those who have to leave home to escape war or natural disaster.
    The Welsh word ‘hiraeth’ comes to me. A sense of longing …..home being a feeling rather than a place.
    The Collected Poems is at the top of my Birthday list …November..can’t wait!

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