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The Stream and the Sapphire:
Selected Poems on Religious Themes
A poetry book review by Lesley Ayers

The Stream and the Sapphire
by Denise Levertov
A New Directions Paperbook  844 (1997)
$14.99 CAN
$9.95 USA
ISBN 0-8112-1354-4

As well as the avalanching mountain of books beside the bed, it is good to have something suitable for those of us who “though they read a wide variety of poems, like to have a focused single volume at times, to stuff in a pocket or place at their bedside.” This was the aim of Denise Levertov, in selecting a collection of poems from two decades of her work. In a slim—but richly varied—volume the reader is invited into her wonderings, her questionings and her sense of awe.  In her own words, “It does, to some extent, trace my slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith.”

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) had over 20 volumes of poetry published. Her work can be found in anthologies of both British poets, and of American poets. She was born in Ilford, Essex, England in 1923, and emigrated to America in 1948, after marrying Mitchell Goodman. She died of lymphoma, at the age of 74, in 1997 in Seattle, Washington.

The names of her mentors give an idea of the high caliber of her work They include T. S. Eliot, who encouraged the young Denise in England, and William Carlos Williams who had a strong effect on her in the USA.  She is, however, more than solely a British or American poet. Her poetry reflects the richness of her family background, and her unusual, very literary upbringing in England.

Her father, Paul Levertov, was a Russian Jewish scholar with pious Hassidic ancestry. He converted to Christianity and became an Anglican Priest. On her mother’s side she was descended from a Welsh tailor, who was also a teacher, preacher and mystic.

Her childhood was both English and European. Her parents were very involved in helping Jewish refugees. They had many and diverse visitors from all over Europe coming to their home. Throughout her unorthodox education Levertov never attended school, but was taught at home by her mother, in a house filled with books.

In The Stream and the Sapphire there is great diversity. A unifying aspect in this is Levertov’s constant sense of awe at the involvement of a God who sustains the universe, yet also cares for the individual. Some poems are short, exquisite in imagery and easily accessible. Others are complex, “story-telling” poems, which possibly reflect the ballads of her English literature background. In her imaginative method entering into passages of scripture, Levertov’s writing is reminiscent of the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Susan J. Zeuenbergen comments that Levertov “sees the poet's role as a priestly one; the poet is the mediator between ordinary people and the divine mysteries.” (The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States “ New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Levertov’s use of free verse combines with a seemingly effortless flowing rhythm.  She spent her early years studying ballet, and her love of dance and innate sense of timing and balance show in her work. For example, in “Annunciation” Mary is seen

 To bear in her womb
 Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
 in hidden, finite inwardness,
 Nine months of Eternity

Her imagery frequently uses metaphor and simile taken from the nature she loved deeply.

 It’s we who breathe, in, out, in, the sacred,
 leaves astir, our wings 
 rising, ruffled—but only the saints
 take flight.  We cower
 in cliff-crevice or edge out gingerly
 on branches close to the nest.

          (in “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being”)

and

 I elude your presence.
 I stop
 to think about you, and my mind
 at once
 like a minnow darts away,

          (in “Flickering Mind” )

The book is divided into four sections.

Part One, “The Tide,” looks at her exploration of faith. These poems are intensely personal, often having the resonance of the psalms. They reflect her own sense of the brevity of a human life, in the light of eternity. 

 Are you holding
 the universe?  You hold
 onto my smallness,  How do you grasp it,
 how does it not slip away?

          (in “the Beginning of Wisdom”)

The theme of God’s holding her in spite of her fears and doubts is often repeated

 I had grasped
 God’s garment in the void
 but my hand slipped
 on the rich silk of it

 yet
 I have not plummeted

          (in “Suspended”)

Part Two, “Believers,” is a group of poems about Christians through the ages .

One is contemporary:

 Dom Helder, octogenarian wisp
 of human substance arrived from Brazil,
 raises his arms and gazes toward
 a sky pallid with heat, to implore
 "Peace!"

          (in “Dom Helder Camara at the Nuclear Test Site”)

Others are biblical, or historical. The latter can be somewhat frustrating to read without background knowledge of, for example, the life of Lady Julian of Norwich in the 14th century.

In Part Three, “Conjectures,” we hear some of Levertov’s rather different “takes” on familiar passages. For example in “What the Figtree said”:

 Literal minds!
 …
 They thought Him
 petulant to curse me!
 …
 But I, I knew that
 helplessly barren though I was,
 my day had come.  I served
 Christ the Poet,
 who spoke in images:…

In the fourth, and final part of the book,  “Fish and a Honeycomb,” Levertov meditates on the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. These poems are thoughtful, deeply reflective and, in the case of ”St Thomas Didymus”, particularly poignant.

Levertov identifies with the biblical person of Thomas, incorporating her own questions and doubts, as she struggles with cancer.  In her encounter with Jesus she finds, not answers, but peace.

 Light, light streaming
 Into me, over me, filling the room
 …
 my question,
 not answered but given
 its part
 in a vast unfolding design lit
 by a risen sun.

In her selection of poems Denise Levertov has succeeded in providing a varied, thoughtful small volume. It is frequently the book I slip into my bag when traveling!