Monday, October 1, 2012

Denise Levertov, "The Flight"

In its entirety:
          'The will is given us that
               we may know the
delights of surrender.' Blake with
tense mouth, crouched small (great forehead,
somber eye) amid a crowd's tallness in a narrow room.
                                            The same night
a bird caught in my room, battered
from wall to wall, missing the window over & over
                                                      (till it gave up and
                                     huddled half-dead on a shelf, and I
                                     put up the sash against the cold)

and waking at dawn I again
pushed the window violently down, open
                        and the bird gathered itself and flew
                        straight out
                        quick and calm (over the radiant chimneys—

(Levertov appends a note: "The quoted words were spoken by Blake in my dream. This was London, 1945.—D.L.")

This is, I suppose, a fairly straightforward poem--in the sense that it is not "difficult," that its basic concerns are fairly on the surface. The connection between the words William Blake speaks to Levertov in her dream* and the action with the bird is very direct. This is not a complaint; indeed, "The Flight" is, at this early stage of my acquaintance with her, probably my favorite of Levertov's poems. A poem need not be difficult to be powerful, nor to be complex.

*And she does tell us, at least in the note, that it is her dream, not that of an anonymous speaker. Interestingly, the note also places the action in a specific place and time, one that carries a plethora of potentially banal associations with the subject of the poem--which banality the poem escapes by leaving them as associations only.

What puzzles me here is the impact the last line--particularly, the punctuation in the last line--has on me. For the impact is extreme: what is it about that open parenthesis and that em-dash that is so powerful?

One normally thinks of parenthetical statements as ones that are not quite essential, that could be removed without substantially altering the information conveyed by what remains. This is the case with the first and last of the three parentheses in the poem, where what is set off by them--"great forehead,/somber eye" and "over the radiant chimneys"--is essential to the system of imagery and feeling Levertov sets up but not to the literal "action" she is relating: without them we still have Blake, we still have the bird flying away. The middle parenthetical statement, though, is absolutely essential to this action: without it none of the rest can be understood even on a literal what-happened level. The presentation of this important information--that the bird gave up--set off not only by its enclosure in parentheses but also by its being gathered up off to the far right side of the text column, casts doubt on our understanding of the previous and following parentheses and assists in the creation of the paradoxical effect of making these parenthetical statements seem more important than they would were they not so set off. For me the symbols ( and ) here take on almost the significance of line breaks, or even stanza breaks, no matter where they appear in the lines or stanzas as given.

And so that last parenthesis already has the effect of sort of propelling us into the final words of the poem, as we begin to fly over the radiant chimneys* along with the bird...but then we stop short at the em-dash, which seems to indicate that there is more to follow, more action. We find that rather than being propelled into a conclusion to the poem, we have been propelled out of the poem entirely.

*The image of the bird over the chimneys, too, mirrors in strange-beyond-reversed form the image of Blake "crouched small...amid a crowd's tallness," reinforcing the odd, suddenly peaceful (after Levertov's self-ascribed violence) but still victorious feel of the final three lines--the bird really does fly where somber Blake, stuck to the ground, can only, and no doubt does, long to**--as well as accentuating the bird's symmetrical treatment of Blake's asymmetrical words: will, surrender, then will again.
**Pardon the inelegance of a note within a note, but I can think of nowhere else to place this observation: that as we are, I think, encouraged to attribute desires to Blake, we are simultaneously forced to remember that he is a fiction: not only a poetic representation of Blake rather than the poet himself, but a poetic representation of a
dream of Blake. And it is an ironic and rather daring move to attempt to capture a dream-vision of a poet so noted for capturing his own dream-visions.

The absence of words after the dash, the absence of poem (emphasized by the ungrammatical absence of a closing parenthesis), reminds us that we are not the bird, that the poem has not given us the bird, nor has it limited the bird: it is off soaring, not just over but now beyond the radiant chimneys, out of Levertov's sight and therefore out of ours--and yet it still lives, it continues, with its own life and its own perspective that is not ours, to which we will never be privy: somewhere in London, sometime in 1945, there is in fact, as Jorge Luis Borges said of a different animal, "The other [bird], that which is not in verse." And so we are left feeling pain for ourselves, crouched small on the ground, but joy for the bird, who is free, who has escaped Levertov's two attempts to restrain it: the first attempt perhaps more out of tiredness than volition, which the bird simply waits out; the second out of an urge to create, using the bird not as bird but as raw material: an act with which we as readers are complicit, a will which we with Levertov must surrender, and by doing so replace our pain with delight.


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