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. 

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. 

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. 

 

 

 

Who made what? Or what made who? Still reading Denise Levertov

trough.JPG
The large trough, Calderstones Park

I’ve been reading Denise Levertov’s poem, ‘A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England’ for the past couple of days. Picking up  at the line ‘Pergo Park knew me ther’, but just going reread the whole thing to get myself in it.

I don’t know if people running Shared Reading groups ever read long poems over a few weeks – tell me! I’ve done that in the past and it is surprisingly easily – partly, as Reader Leaders know, many group members are really surprised to find they love reading poetry. Partly, it is oddly easy to pick up concentration like picking up your crochet and just getting going again,  or like keeping an eye on the league positions without realising you are stopping and starting that activity.  So a poem can settle back into focus very quickly.

Don’t be afraid, or rather, you may be afraid, as I was on Tuesday when I decided to start reading this poem. But don’t let being afraid stop you!  It’s natural to be bothered by not knowing or not getting it.  The answer to that anxiety is to ask questions, to not be bothered if you can’t find a definitive answer, and to notice things. Soon you’ll be lost in the thick of feeling and thought response and anxieties will disappear.

So let’s read it:

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.

What most strikes me as I reread today is something to do with the personality of relationship between the nouns and verbs: these places are like people – are they?:

Cranbrook Wash called me…Valentines heard my resolves…Roding held my head…Pergo Park knew me…Stanford Rivers lost me…Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home…Wanstead drew me…

This is a rhythm, perhaps first and foremost a rhythm, built from the most simple of syntactical structures (subject/verb/object) (in this cases: the place+verb of action +me). I bbelieve – now I have noticed it – that this structure matters. But why? It does something to me as I read – but what? I want to understand that something. I reread:

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,

I think what is happening is that ‘me’ (coming in each line) is being made, created, called into consciousness by these places. You remember yourself in a place. ‘Pergo Park knew me’ – in prose-speak that would be ‘I knew Pargo Park’.  But this word order, making the place the subject of the sentence, puts the ownership of the action away from the child. The child  is the product of the place, not simply its memory-repository.

I think of a memory of Neston Park in my childhood. Purple and gold bearded iris growing somewhere near a stream. My grandfather Syd Smith loving them. A small bank, a sandstone wall, gravel, sun, the colour of purple and gold, the velvet of petal. Him, loving the iris.

That memory may have been made in very early childhood, probably before I went to school.

I (subject) remember (verb)  it (object).

I’m the owner, the maker the creator,  in that sentence. But did it make part of me?

Iris (subject) made (verb)  me (object).

Suddenly our roles and  powers are reversed.  And that’s what Denise has done her, with the whole of the Western Part of the Country of Essex in England… she has made it make her.

Going to London today. Time to go.

iris.jpg

”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. 

Slip-stiching into the past, with a shipyard & some crochet & Denise Levertov

cammell
Entrance to Cammell Laird in River Mersey mist, 19 September

Yesterday I started reading a poem new to me, which I’ll come back to later, see below.

Also visited the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead and took an hour’s early lunch to get a crochet lesson  with Alma from the Calderstones Knit and Natter group.  While learning how to crochet (‘It’s all pattern, mathematical pattern is the basis of everything. So you can say you are a mathematician now,’ explained Alma. ‘Yarn over and chain two!’) I kept remembering the shipyard, where Andy had shown me round.  In one of the Cammell Laird sheds I saw the back-end of the RSS Sir David Attenborough (the ship previously known as Boaty McBoatface)  under construction. What a project, what a piece  of work. And these great sheets of steel, like dance-floors lying around the yard, autumn leaves dropped by giants. In crochet, everything is small, the shipyard, everything is big.  But  there is precision, pattern, mathematics and the human pull, the control of  the tension, making material stuff do what you want, in both.

And to me,  both were moving, perhaps the more so because they came so close together on the same day,  the shipyard butting up against the crochet. Both were parts of my now ancient-seeming childhood.

I  was a child in Neston and Eastham and had relatives in New Ferry, Port Sunlight and Rock Ferry. My great-grandfather was a lockgate keeper on the Manchester Ship Canal, my grandfather worked at Shotton Steel. Cammell  Laird loomed large in my childhood – Dads and Uncles on our council estate worked there.

And crochet? I don’t know why, but it seemed a middle class thing – old,  posh ladies my Nan cleaned for did crochet, and  my memories of  it aren’t pretty. A lot of it was made from shiny flesh-coloured silk, as if recycled shredded wartime underwear,  and doilies of it littered dressing tables, runners stretched over mantlepieces, antimacassars bothered you on the backs of arm-chairs.

We knew women who knitted ferociously,  gorgeously in white and lemon for babies. Others in my family were ‘not good knitters’ and made scratchy school jumpers where the sleeves were too long, the collars wonky. Jumpers with collars? Oh yes, this was 1961.  But crocheters? I don’t think anyone round our way did it. The old posh ladies  lived in  big houses with gardens and  flower borders and apple trees. Some of them had parquet floors and my nan polished those floors on her hands and knees except in one house where they had an electric floor polisher, and in the summer holidays I went with  her to those houses and ate cake, or more deliciously tablet, in the kitchen and sometimes had a go of the floor polisher, which was powerful with electric energy and could  run away with you.

Now I am one of those old posh ladies,  though avoiding the flesh-coloured silk yarn. And the tablet, sadly. And crochet has changed! Alma  has made a Freda Kahlo blanket and very  dangerous and lovely-looking it is too. And Cammell Laird has been brought out of the economic doldrums and back to life.

kahlo blanket.jpg
Alma’s Freda Kahlo Blanket

These things are in my mind as I re-read Denise Levertov’s poem:

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.

Yesterday I had read as far as ‘ I am Essex born.’ I’m just going to go a little ways further, but before I go I’m going to look up  a map of Essex and look up Hainault on Wikipedia, because these are specific places and I don’t know anything about them.  What would I do in my Shared Reading group – I might have looked them up in advance, but I am not a fan of much prep, think it deadens things and prevents the free rein of  thought. So, with no prep under my belt, I’d say – ‘Anyone know Essex at all? ‘ and sometimes someone will, and sometimes they won’t.  So then I might look it up on my phone in the actual group – which I think is a good model for group members tussling with a poem. The ‘expert’ doesn’t come along knowing everything, with  everything prepared. We find out as we might do in real life, more or less accurately. what I find when I look up these place names is that many of them are ancient and Essex – of course! is an ancient  British kingdom. Which is why  the boar hunt – the Forrest of Hainault, ancient woodland, suddenly appears. I look up Phillipa and find her, a merciful wise Queen.

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.

I really like the  link between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt. How in an anciently settled place (like Wirral, like Birkenhead, Rock Ferry, New Ferry, Eastham, Neston) time can slip between now and a host of ‘thens’ , how you are slightly aware of the presence of history. Vikigs came to West Kirby. sometimes I seem to see them, sailing up the estuary.

But Time’s up for  today. More tomorrow.

”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. 

 

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. 

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

hydrangea
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.

BUZPerdCIAAA_Z3
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.