Saturday, October 17, 2020

"Some line still taut between me and them": Denise Levertov's "Illustrious Ancestors"

The two "ancestors" in Denise Levertov's "Illustrious Ancestors" are "the Rav / of Northern White Russia", who learns "the language of birds" even though he never tried to, and a tailor, "Angel Jones of Mold, whose meditations / were sewn into coats and britches." Between herself and these two figures, Levertov draws an ancestral "line" that becomes a line of poetry and finally a line as thread. Through the birds, she sees poetry as natural speech or thing; through the tailor, as a made thing like carpentry or clothing; through the Rav, the poem as a mystery that can also "pause" like the tailor, in his work, for a moment. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 17 October)


Illustrious Ancestors

Denise Levertov


The Rav

of Northern White Russia declined,

in his youth, to learn the

language of birds, because

the extraneous did not interest him; nevertheless

when he grew old it was found

he understood them anyway, having

listened well, and as it is said, 'prayed

                        with the bench and the floor.' He used

what was at hand – as did

Angel Jones of Mold, whose meditations

were sewn into coats and britches.

                        Well, I would like to make,

thinking some line still taut between me and them,

poems direct as what the birds said,

hard as a floor, sound as a bench,

mysterious as the silence when the tailor

would pause with his needle in the air.


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