This Great Unknowing: Last Poems

This Great Unknowing: Last Poems

by Denise Levertov

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When Denise Levertov died on December 20, 1997, she left behind forty finished poems, which now form her last collection, This Great Unknowing.
Few poets have possessed so great a gift or so great a body of work—when she died at 74, she had been a published poet for more than half a century. The poems themselves shine with the artistry of a writer at the


When Denise Levertov died on December 20, 1997, she left behind forty finished poems, which now form her last collection, This Great Unknowing.
Few poets have possessed so great a gift or so great a body of work—when she died at 74, she had been a published poet for more than half a century. The poems themselves shine with the artistry of a writer at the height of her powers.

Editorial Reviews

Sam Hamill
There are no ornamental flourishes, no dead words, no faked emotion, no public posture. Book by book, I have read her poems for their subtle music, for their deep compassionate intelligence, for their imagination, for their author's dignity and integrity and grace; and most of all, for the indomitable and humble spirit that hungers there. I have savored them all, like honey. -The American Poetry Review
Denise Levertove (1923-1997) was born in London and educated at home. She came to American in 1948 and was introduced to the reading public in "New British Poets", going on to publish more than thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations, as well as enjoying a career as a distinguished university professor. This Great Unknowing is a fitting memorial to her talent as poet and observer of the human condition. 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, transition linking/rivers of event, imaged, not imagined, 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.

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New Directions Publishing Corporation
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


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.


`You would not seek Me if you did nor already possess Me.'

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 oppressiveceilings!
                               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.
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.


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.


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?


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?


    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:
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.


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.


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 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.


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,
            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.


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?

Meet the Author

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) was a British born American poet. She wrote and published 20 books of poetry, criticism, translations. She also edited several anthologies. Among her many awards and honors, she received the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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