Life at War
If there’s such thing as a truly legitimate call for the use of art as a practical means to change the world, then it will probably never find a more sure voice than Denise Levertov’s. In the final throes of preparing for my final comprehensive exam, I found this poem, which was included in her 1966 collection, The Sorrow Dance. I couldn’t imagine a better blog for today.
“Life at War” by Denise Levertov, 1966
The disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough
weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.
Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart. . .
Could I say of it, it overflows
with bitterness . . . but no, as though
its contents were simply balled into
formless lumps, thus
do I carry it about.’
The same war
We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it:
the knowledge that humankind,
delicate Man, whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,
whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understanding manifests designs
fairer than the spider’s most intricate web,
still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.
We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness; we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—
who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Viet Nam as I write.
Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love;
our nerve filaments twitch with its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has the not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.