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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