Continuing to read Levertov’s Essex in Vilnius

Vlinius uni
University of Vilnius

I’m here  in Vilnius to be part of this conference – yesterday  I attended talks on  the C18 information overload and how people coped with mass printing (skim read!),  the use of Twitter as a way of  getting people to talk about and share reading experiences in Italy, and the examination of  the reading of Shakespeare Sonnets in terms of  both perceived individual meaning and recorded eye-tracking ( yes, the two things overlap). Also about developing a psychological model for what happens when we ‘are lost in a book’. How can such a state be understood? It felt good to stand back from the day-to-day work and see people thinking about what we do!

And in the queue for lunch I talked with a librarian from Guelph (Canada), whose work centres on artificial intelligence, about AI and empathy. This man had once been a letterpress printer. All that in one lifetime! And he had a lovely real little bound, openable, real paper-paged book as a badge. The picture does not do it justice.

bookbadge
The book badge of Michael Ridley

Vlinius is a beautiful city. I’ve never seen so much baroque architecture in one place. I’m staying in a hotel that was once a monastery, and yesterday I heard the most ethereal singing from across the courtyard and couldn’t tell if it was real or ghostly.

After a day of  research presentations it was a treat to be part of the conference dinner in the amazing National Library.

nat lib

nat lib2

 

But I need to get on  with my Daily Reading Practice. I’ve been reading this poem by Denise Levertov, and plan to finish it today.

I begin my practice by reading it through. Now after – how many? four five six? –  days spent with this poem, I am beginning to feel I know it’s rhythms and meanings.

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 come to what may be the last movement of the poem, which seems curiously live here in Vilnius, a city decimated, physically, culturally and spiritually by the KGB during the Soviet period, and in which 55,000 Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation in the second world war.  This last section  looks at the movement of people from  old Europe to the New World, from places like Vilnius to New York, and somehow casts strong light on early geo-rooted experience.

Yesterday my  husband Phil Davis’  presentation looked at using digital text manipulation to show  different parts of a Shakespeare sonnet taking on colour, expanding, contracting moving, linking with other words.  I think  of that today as I read. The line from near the beginning of the poem,  ‘ I am Essex-born’ looms large in today’s reading, particularly once I reread the end of the poem.

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 notice this last movement is a whole sentence.  Yesterday one of the things Phil spoke about was the relation of line ending to sentence – prose keeps going, but poetry breaks the line and that break is a piece of poetic equipment.

All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,

Here I am in Domus Maria in the walled city of Vilnius.  This place and  thousands like it will have sent thousands, millions, to the new world. All the Ivans, all the Marias. Those people, like Levertov herself, were then severed from their geophysical roots but also took them with them. How strangely moving I have found it to see potato pancakes, potato dumplings here for sale in Lithuanian restaurants. I think of  the knishes I’ve eaten in New York and Austin, Texas. They came from somewhere like this.

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,

How once we separated from that early map of where we come from, all new bits seem odd, always ‘fragments’, both of language and of culture, of experience we don’t quite now to assimilate. Denise Levertov, living her experience of childhood in Essex did not have to know ‘how to put them together nor how to join/image with image’: things simply, naturally, experientatially were. You don’t need a map of a country you know inside out, have lived in, have  made significant with your own experience. You only need a map of unknown or forgotten places. Levertov had forgotten  the intimate details of her being in Essex.

Suddenly – or is it slowly! it has taken the whole poem, after all – Levertov realises the psychological  breakage of the immigrant:

… 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.

She remembers that which drove her, ‘burning with desire/for the world’s great splendours’, perhaps a characteristic of all those who emigrate. And the experience of  looking at this ‘old map/made long before I was born’ reminds her not only of her leaving but also of what made her – those active creating verbs of the early section of the poem. And now ‘in a far country’ she seems  to get back to  her beginning, or the beginning of consciousness;

….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.

It’s like the beginning of the world, or the beginning of human culture, like the Garden of Eden or the very beginning of creation, isn’t it , with its  ‘first river/walls of the garden, the first light.’ A gentle, a golden, peace descends at the end of the moment with that final word, ‘light’. Back to before everything.

I reread the entire poem, knowing the place, as T.S Eliot said, for the first time.

Lovely.

“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.