Witness

Poem for a Tuesday — “Witness” by Denise Levertov

“Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.”

in A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. 72.


When British-American poet Denise Levertov was five years old, she declared she would be a writer. At the age of 12, she sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. Her father Paul Levertov was a Russian Hasidic Jew who taught at the University of Leipzig. During the First World War, he was held under house arrest as an enemy alien by virtue of his ethnicity. After emigrating to the UK, he converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest. Denise said, “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells.” She was described by the New York Times as, “the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, the most modest, the most moving.” She wrote and published twenty-four books of poetry.


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The Task

Poem for a Thursday — “The Task” by Denise Levertov

As if God were an old man
always upstairs, sitting about
in sleeveless undershirt, asleep,
arms folded, stomach rumbling,
his breath from open mouth
strident, presaging death . . .

No, God’s in the wilderness next door
— that huge tundra room, no walls and a sky roof —
busy at the loom. Among the berry bushes,
rain or shine, that loud clacking and whirring.
irregular but continuous;
God is absorbed in work, and hears
the spacious hum of bees, not the din,
and hears far-off
our screams. Perhaps
listens for prayers in that wild solitude.
And hurries on with the weaving:
till it’s done, the great garment woven,
our voices, clear under the familiar
blocked-out clamor of the task,
can’t stop their
terrible beseeching. God
imagines it sifting through, at last, to music
in the astounded quietness, the loom idle,
the weaver at rest.

in Oblique Prayers. New Castle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1984.

Denise Levertov was born in England in 1923. Her father Paul Levertov was a Russian Hassidic Safardic Jew who became an Anglican priest. When she was twelve, Levertov sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. She published her first book of poems in 1940 at age seventeen. She served as a nurse during the Blitz in London. Politics, war, and religion all became major themes in her life’s work. Levertov published more than twenty books before her death in 1994. She received the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a Catherine Luck Memorial Grant, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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