Cover image for This great unknowing : last poems
This great unknowing : last poems
Levertov, Denise, 1923-1997.
Publication Information:
New York : New Directions Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
68 pages ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
1330 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3562.E8876 T47 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



When Denise Levertov died in 1997, she left behind 40 finished poems that shine with the artistry of a writer at the height of her powers, now collected here in "This Great Unknowing".

Author Notes

Born in Essex, England, Denise Levertov became a U.S. citizen after her marriage to Mitchell Goodman, the writer who was indicted, with Benjamin Spock and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, for his antiwar activities. She came to New York to live in 1948.

Levertov acknowledges that her writing was influenced by William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan. After her first book, The Double Image (1946), was published in England in 1946, she did not produce another volume until 1957, when City Lights brought out Here and Now. In 1961 she was poetry editor for the Nation, and in 1965 she received the grant in literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Her essays collected in The Poet in the World (1973) and Light Up the Cave are written with a penetrating intelligence. Winner of numerous awards and prizes, she is a poet of reverence and fierce moral drive.

Denise Levertov died December 20, 1997. (Bowker Author Biography)



Chapter One     FROM BELOW I move among the ankles of forest Elders, tread their moist rugs of moss, duff of their soft brown carpets. Far above, their arms are held open wide to each other, or waving-- what they know, what perplexities and wisdoms they exchange, unknown to me as were the thoughts of grownups when in infancy I wandered into a roofed clearing amidst human feet and legs and the massive carved legs of the table, the minds of people, the minds of trees equally remote, my attention then filled with sensations, my attention now caught by leaf and bark at eye level and by thoughts of my own, but sometimes drawn to upgazing--up and up: to wonder about what rises so far above me into the light.     FOR THE ASKING `You would not seek Me if you did nor already possess Me.'                                                        --Pascal Augustine said his soul was a house so cramped God could barely squeeze in. Knock down the mean partitions, he prayed, so You may enter! Raise the oppressive ceilings!                                Augustine's soul didn't become a mansion large enough to welcome, along with God, the women he'd loved, except for his mother (though one, perhaps, his son's mother, did remain to inhabit a small dark room). God, therefore, would never have felt fully at home as his guest.                                Nevertheless, it's clear desire fulfilled itself in the asking, revealing prayer's dynamic action, that scoops out channels like water on stone, or builds like layers of grainy sediment steadily forming sandstone. The walls, with each thought, each feeling, each word he set down, expanded, unnoticed; the roof rose, and a skylight opened.     CELEBRATION Brilliant, this day--a young virtuoso of a day. Morning shadows cut by sharpest scissors, deft hands. And every prodigy of green- whether it's ferns or lichen or needles or impatient points of bud on spindly bushes-- greener than ever before.                           And the way the conifers hold new cones to the light for blessing, a festive rite, and sing the oceanic chant the wind transcribes for them! A day that shines in the cold like a first-prize brass band swinging along the street of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds with the claims of reasonable gloom.     PATIENCE What patience a landscape has, like an old horse, head down in its field.                         Grey days, air and fine rain cling, become one, hovering till at last, languidly, rain relinquishes that embrace, consents to fall. What patience a hill, a plain, a band of woodland holding still, have, and the slow falling of grey rain ... Is it blind faith? Is it merely a way to deeply rest? Is the horse only resigned, or has it some desireable knowledge, an enclosed meadow quite other than its sodden field, which patience is the key to? Has it already, within itself, entered that sunwarmed shelter?     ANCIENT STAIRWAY Footsteps like water hollow the broad curves of stone ascending, descending century by century. Who can say if the last to climb these stairs will be journeying downward or upward?     FIRST LOVE     It was a flower. There had been, before I could even speak, another infant, girl or boy unknown, who drew me--I had an obscure desire to become connected in some way to this other, even to be what I faltered after, falling to hands and knees, crawling a foot or two, clambering up to follow further until arms swooped down to bear me away. But that one left no face, had exchanged no gaze with me. This flower:                  suddenly there was Before I saw it , the vague past, and Now . Forever. Nearby was the sandy sweep of the Roman Road, and where we sat the grass was thin. From a bare patch of that poor soil, solitary, sprang the flower, face upturned, looking completely, openly into my eyes.                  I was barely old enough to ask and repeat its name. `Convolvulus,' said my mother. Pale shell-pink, a chalice no wider across than a silver sixpence. It looked at me, I looked back, delight filled me as if I, not the flower, were a flower and were brimful of rain. And there was endlesness. Perhaps through a lifetime what I've desired has always been to return to that endless giving and receiving, the wholeness of that attention, that once-in-a-lifetime secret communion.     BEYOND THE FIELD Light, flake by flake touching down on surface tension of ocean, strolling there before diving forever under. Tectonic plates inaudibly grinding, shifting-- monumental fidgets. The mind's far edges twitch, sensing kinships beyond reach. Too much unseen, unknown, unknowable, assumed missing therefore: shadings, clues, transitions linking rivers of event, imaged, not imaged, a flood that rushes towards us, through us, away beyond us before we wheel to face what seems a trace of passage, ripple already stilling itself in tall grass near the fence of the mind's field.     THE MÉTIER OF BLOSSOMING Fully occupied with growing--that's the amaryllis. Growing especially at night: it would take only a bit more patience than I've got to sit keeping watch with it till daylight; the naked eye could register every hour's increase in height. Like a child against a barn door, proudly topping each year's achievement, steadily up goes each green stem, smooth, matte, traces of reddish purple at the base, and almost imperceptible vertical ridges running the length of them: Two robust stems from each bulb, sometimes with sturdy leaves for company, elegant sweeps of blade with rounded points. Aloft, the gravid buds, shiny with fullness. One morning--and so soon!--the first flower has opened when you wake. Or you catch it poised in a single, brief moment of hesitation. Next day, another, shy at first like a foal, even a third, a fourth, carried triumphantly at the summit of those strong columns, and each a Juno, calm in brilliance, a maiden giantess in modest splendor. If humans could be that intensely whole, undistracted, unhurried, swift from sheer unswerving impetus! If we could blossom out of ourselves, giving nothing imperfect, withholding nothing!     A HUNDRED A DAY `A million species of plants and animals will be extinct by the turn of the century, an average of a hundred a day.'                             --Dr. Mustafa Tolba, Director-General                             of the U. N. Environment Program Dear 19th century! Give me refuge in your unconscious sanctuary for a while, let me lose myself behind sententious bombazine, rest in the threadbare brown merino of dowerless girls. Yes, you had your own horrors, your dirt, disease, profound injustices; yet the illusion of endless time to reform, if not themselves, then the world, gave solace even to gloomy minds. Nature, for you, was to be marvelled at, praised and conquered, a handsome heiress; any debate concerned the origin and subsequent behaviour of species, not their demise. Virtue, in your heyday (blessed century, fictive but so real!) was confident of its own powers. Laxly guarded, your Hesperides was an ordinary orchard, its fruit apples of simple hope and happiness. And though the ignorant armies , then as always, clashed by night, there was a beckoning future to look to, that bright Victorian cloud in the eastern sky. The dodo was pathetic, grotesque in its singular extinction, its own stupidity surely to blame. It stood alone on some low hillock of the mind and was not seen as shocking, nor as omen.     THAT DAY Across a lake in Switzerland, fifty years ago, light was jousting with long lances, fencing with broadswords back and forth among cloudy peaks and foothills. We watched from a small pavilion, my mother and I, enthralled.             And then, behold, a shaft, a column, a defined body, not of light but of silver rain, formed and set out from the distant shore, leaving behind the silent feints and thrusts, and advanced unswervingly, at a steady pace, toward us.             I knew this! I'd seen it! Not the sensation of déjà vu: it was Blake's inkwash vision, `The Spirit of God Moving Upon the Face of the Waters'! The column steadily came on across the lake toward us; on each side of it, there was no rain. We rose to our feet, breathless-- and then it reached us, took us into its veil of silver, wrapped us in finest weave of wet, and we laughed for joy, astonished.     ELEPHANT EARS I've given up wearing earrings. Like my mother's, my ears are large-- and mine are lopsided. Now, with age, the lobes show a crease, and seem to droop like a Buddha's. But Buddhist tradition links such big ears to wisdom-- should that console me? My big-eared mother, although not foolish, was not so much wise as ardent, responsive, eager to learn. At the age I am now, she still wore her various pairs of beautiful earrings with confidence, and they became her. Perhaps that éclat was her wisdom--for now, and maybe forever, a wisdom beyond my reach. Should I call upon Buddha, on Ganesh, upon that part of my mother which lives in me, for enlightenment? For the chutzpa to dangle jewels from long and uneven lobes? Copyright © 1999 The Denise Levertov Literary Trust, Paul A. Lacey and Valerie Trueblood Rapport, Co-Trustees. All rights reserved.