Denise Levertov and Essex : Getting Stuck and Not Minding

domus maria
View from my room at Domus Maria, Vilnius, Lithuania, 27 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 this week. Search ‘Denise Levertov’ previous posts.

I’d got as far as the lines ‘the place of law/ where my birth and marriage are recorded/ and the death of my father’. Rereading the whole poem to get the run of it now. don’t forget, when reading aloud, to aim for the punctuation marks rather than line endings, the line endings are smaller than pauses – slight inflections of the rhythm:

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.

Writing last time  I looked some things up in Wikipedia but I don’t think I’ll do that today. I’ll pretend its the olden days when there was no knowing facts or possible facts in an instant, only reading the poem and letting it do its work.

Picking up at

                                               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?).

I don’t know what Woodford Wells is or was, but given what we’ve read so far, it doesn’t matter. We only need to know that looking at a map of Essex, Levertov sees these names and they are the names of places she has  known as a child or young woman. The white statue, after whom the house is named, ‘forlorn in its garden’ seems a sign for the  sisters, who meet and part. At first I’m uncertain as to who these sisters may be – like Philippa, perhaps, real historical figures the poet is imagining. But later when I read ‘ where peace befell us’ I think the sisters are Denise and her sibling, a real incident and the parting was not good, perhaps, because peace was required later…’not once but many times’. I ask myself about the brackets here;

(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).

what or whom was /is forgotten? possibly forgotten, because the question mark seems to ask is it forgotten? Now we are in a hard to see area where questions keep arising – does this mean memory is failing, can’t locate precise events?

I feel uncertain and my reading is faltering. So I look again, read again, going back to the poem:

                    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?).

This time I notice something about the syntactical pattern, the action of the verb being less strong than in previous formulations, where the verbs seemed to make Denise – called , heard , held, drowned, knew etc. But this time the verb is ‘saw’, as if the place merely witnessed.

What was forgotten? The meeting and parting? Woodford Wells?

I look closely at the lines containing the bracketed thought. I think the bracket says – not part of the Woodford Wells thought.  Some sub-category, some place more private?

(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).

‘The hill before Thaxted?’ Is she  questioning her sister, the pronoun us seems to point to that – is this a shared thought, shared memory? Did they fall out a lot, did they  make up sometimes for some reason on that hill?

I am stuck, but I don’t mind. I’m trying to enter the mind and memory and experience of Denise Levertov. I’ve got a long way in and  happy to leave this bit a  bit blurry. It feels, because it involves a relationship with someone else, more private than some of the other memories.

I leave it  there for today and  close down to walk down the hill from this convent/hotel to the Conference venue.

“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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