are, were, will be...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Denise Levertov

In California During the Gulf War

Among the blight-killed eucalypts, among
trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frosts,
the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,

certain airy white blossoms punctually
reappeared, and dense clusters of pale pink, dark pink--
a delicate abundance. They seemed

like guests arriving joyfully on the accustomed
festival day, unaware of the year’s events, not perceiving
the sackcloth others were wearing.

To some of us, the dejected landscape consorted well
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
daily sunshine, disgusted us like smile-buttons.

Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches
more lightly than birds alert for flight,
lifted the sunken heart

even against its will.
                       But not
as symbols of hope: they were flimsy
as our resistance to the crimes committed

--again, again--in our name; and yes, they return,
year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy
over against the dark glare

of evil days. They are, and their presence
is quietness ineffable--and the bombings are, were,
no doubt will be; that quiet, that huge cacophony

simultaneous. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms
were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed
the war had ended, it had not ended.


Denise Levertov, a poet of conscience, uses the madness of the world as a backdrop for her voice of reason. She is a writer that forces me to consider my relationship to the world, to art, to others, to self. It’s a quality that I find compelling and enduring in her work.

“In California During the Gulf War,” a poem that is both of its time and universal, begins ... On a ruined landscape, blossoms appear like “guests arriving joyfully”. Not giving any lasting change to the scene, the blooms are overwhelmed by the desolation. Levertov’s descriptives throughout the poem are striking: blight-killed, rusted, exhausted, dejected, disgusted, sunken. A sign for hope, the blossoms “return, / year after year,” but their quiet is destroyed by war. The bombings are relentless. If there is a hush, a respite, it will be short-lived. They will come back. A dread permeates this poem – the blossoms have beauty, but they’re fragile. The poet’s word choice of flimsy injects a falseness to the beauty.

Sadly, the voice of compassion and reason is disregarded: “No promise was being accorded, the blossoms / were not doves”. One likes to hope, but “the dark glare / of evil days” refuses to leave. Many things are done – laws, exploits, force – “in our name,” and these actions are repeated. Levertov writes, “there was no rainbow”.

This is how it goes – The world’s political machinery says war is over. And this is sometimes echoed by the voice of descent, the rage against conflict, the voice that is happy when a silence, however attained, settles over everything. But – it does not end. A question remains … Do we trust that machine?


Anonymous said...

Well done, Sam, though in political fairness I think Levertov had better applied this poem to the war in Iraq than the Gulf War, which was a multilateral engagement with a limited aim.

Why are the politics of poets almost always liberal? I can think of only one who was not, excluding Longfellow and Whittier and such: Archibald Macleish--the only American poet to hold high (appointed) office. Do you know he actually engaged Bob Dylan to work on a musical with him? It didn't work, but the songs for that resulted in Dylan's album, "New Morning," which is much underrated, I think.

I lean more towards Libertarianism, and like the voice of Robinson Jeffers partly for that reason. But in truth, I'm a Christian Anarchist. ;-}

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

I agree with you about New Morning CE. Great work on that one.

Levertov wrote some strong poems in reaction to the Viet Nam war. When I read this one, I can't help but apply to now. I think if she had been alive during the present war, there would be poems.

Collin said...

I love this poem and how it can be applied beyond its origin. Thanks for posting these, Sam.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

I agree with you Collin. Thanks for the good words.

Plus Ultra said...

I like Denise too, great American poet, I enjoyed your blog, I will come by again