Continuing with Denise Levertov in Essex: to look up or not to look up?

office view this misty morn
View from my office at Calderstones this misty morning, 25 September

Last week I had started  reading Denise Levertov’s poem, ‘A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England’ and am coming back to it now. Search ‘Denise Levertov’ previous posts.

I’d got as far as the line ‘Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry’  but am going to start by rereading the whole thing to get myself into it again.

 

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.

I’d been thinking, when I stopped writing on Thursday last week, about the way Denise Levertov has set up the sentence structures to make places bring her into being (‘Cranbrook Wash called me…’). And now I look at the next big clause:

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.

Unlike the actions of the other places, ‘Wanstead’ seems to do something truly developmental. It ‘drew me over and over into its basic poetry’. I want to know what Wanstead is! But before I look it up I’m going to see what I can make of this line, alone, by myself, just me and it.

I think it is a house and formal garden, the basic poetry being the repetitions of box and lavender you get in those french or italiante big houses gardens, gardens built on pattern, in repetition, in ‘over and over’. Even the lake is patterned, is ‘serpentine’. You go back many times to such a place, which in itself becomes a pattern, ‘over and over’, and you experience the rhythms of the poetry of place. She sees also the past or feels past music there, ghosts of rhythms past, ‘in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves’.  Bass viols provide the  bass line – continuo – of music by Purcell, Handel ( I don’t know about this – I’m guessing! I know what continuo sounds like because I love listening to cello music and it often features). Bass viols are old, not modern instruments. Is the house itself a ruin, or is the view through the trees simply mist and obscure?

I check wikipedia – yes, house demolished. Public park.

What this looking up adds isn’t much, only the  strengthening of my sense that what Levertov is looking at here is suburban outer London – much like me  seeing vikings in the River Dee from the top of Thurstaston Hill.

There are  acres of terraces and semis, grand houses and bungalows below in Caldy and West Kirby but the past sometimes outblazes them when I look down from the hill.  It’s always good to  do your own  imagining work first, before looking up or looking at footnotes.  You often get it right, which helps build up the sense that you can understand this stuff ithout experts, which is the sense we most want to develop in Shared Reading. With  or without Wikipedia I’d have got that feeling of  the ancient presence of  history under the ordinary now from the mention of Ilford, a place I slightly know. And what I know is acres of semis:

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.

Denise is  remembering or perhaps tracing with her finger on the map and reciting these places names, letting each arrive in consciousness with the accumulated personal memories of  childhood, which are ancient in their own way and rich and call up rich language, which transforms the suburban landscape into something almost mythic. ‘The multitudes’  is a word I think I remember from Old Testament  lessons at my Catholic Primary School. The multitudes here seem signified by the ‘light of flaring sundown’ , what would in ordinary suburban language be a crowd is a multitude. A lot of Jews live (or lived) in Ilford: is Levertov Jewish, would the word ‘multitude’ be part of her childhood religious study, as it was, in a different childhood religion, of my mine?

I’m not going to look that up – it doesn’t matter. It matters that the thought has been ignited in my mind as I read and  I keep reading now: Kings! What could be more Old Testament! Are those Seven Kings in their ‘sombre starry robes’ a pub sign? But there also a place, Seven Kings, a ‘place of law’ (again, that seems an ancient human function, not simply a Registry Office) ‘where my birth and marriage are recorded/and the death of my father.’

Time’s up, more tomorrow. I hope. Travelling to Lithuania, will be posting from the airport.

”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. 

 

 

 

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