Denise Levertov and Lincoln: some fragmented thoughts.

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The world is

not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

– “O Taste And See” by Denise Levertov (1964)

I read this poem for my first year poetry course at Erindale College. It’s in the Norton’s Poetry Anthology I bought for that class, which I still own. I forget my professor’s name and all I do remember of him was his long silver hair in a ponytail and he wore socks with sandals. I disliked him immediately for his demeanor, but realized that in a stereotypical way, that maybe it was because he was an academic, and at that, a pretentious poet in his right. I could chill with that.

Anyways, I read and wrote my first university paper on “O Taste And See.” We had to compare it to Wordsworth‘s sonnet “The World Is Too Much With Us.” I used everything I learned in OAC English to write that paper. When our papers were handed back, my professor set it on my desk and said, “Do better or quit this class.”

I looked down to see red all over my essay and a giant D on the top. The professor went on to complain about how the education system was failing him for sending in these fresh first year students without any training whatsoever. He told us most of us wouldn’t be there by the end of the year.

I cried on my two hour bus trip home (my commute from my family home in North York to Erindale was long enough for me to read and do most of my homework sometimes). Throughout high school I was an A student (with the only exception being mathematics, despite my love for it). A D in poetry? How was I going to continue with university if my first paper was a failure?

I really had no choice because I loved Literature so much. I went to class the next day and the day after that and finished the course with a B+. I still hated my professor immensely, but looking back he set me on a course to evolution within an academic world. My favorite courses (ie. Hello Professor Charles Lock – he taught me everything I know about experimental writing and world literatures), ended up being with the most challenging professors and those are the ones I remember.

****

For some reason, after watching Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the poem above came to mind. Levertov takes a moment in time, riding the subway, and posits it into the reader’s brain. We observe and take in her thoughts:

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

Experience the world and savor it, digest it, feel it going down on you, breathe it, until death. As the poet rides the subway she is reminded that she is woman, like Eve, only in 1964, where her world is opening up to feminist thought and ideology. She’s plucking at the fruit of the orchard because she’s hungry for experience.

In Lincoln, there’s a scene set in the cabinet debates where someone yells something like, “What next? Votes for women?”

The whole room goes into mad and violent outrage.

In another scene:

William Slade: I was born a free man. Nobody beat me except I beat them right back.

[Mrs. Keckley enters]

William Slade: Mrs. Keckley was a slave. Ask her if she was beaten.

Elizabeth Keckley: I was beaten with a fire shovel when I was younger than you.

I think back to those scenes and still think it outrageous that women weren’t given the vote (at least in the U.S.), until the late nineteenth century. After participating in Slutwalk and the Feminist Art Conference, I am struck by the idea that we as women are still fighting this fight. Well, as a mixed race woman, in certain parts of the world, I would still be fighting for the right to simply exist

The world is

not with us enough
O taste and see

The world is not with us enough these days that we are numbed to the posters, the magazines, the cat calls, the mild harassment, the every day rape counts, and the constant explanations of Feminism 101. Why are we as a global community still debating our freedoms as people, the ownership of our bodies, the safety of our every day lives? Why is it not an automatic?

the subway Bible poster said,

meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

We have foundations, and many have expressed it far more eloquently than I can elucidate in text here, but isn’t it time that we accept the fact that beyond the meaning of Lord and Savior, that our free will, our “imagination’s tongue” needs to be freed? If we think of liberty for all, can’t we just break our preconceived notions (whether it be literature, art, film, simple human rights), and explode without a harness?

I almost feel like it would do the world a great service for all of us to take all that we have advanced with here, and just do a brain restart.

In the context of all my writing and viewing at present: Levertov (a writing of her present), Lincoln (a movie of about the past), Arthur C. Clarke (a writer predicting a future), Stanley Kubrick (a film maker poetically imaging a reading experience), and James Joyce (writing of his past), it’s hard not to imagine all of these revolutionary writers, filmmakers, and politicians being taken aback by the lack of progress in humanity in a world full of scientific advances.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking way more about things than I possibly should. I am idealist in my activism, (some find fault with that, but my love for basic human rights really shouldn’t be ideal, they should be a reality). I guess it was to expected when I decided to retype Portrait Of The Artist. I was hungry, so I plucked at the existing fruit.

P.S. Reading this back I’ve been noticing a few habits I’ve picked up from the beginning of the retype of Portrait. As Star Trek’s Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

To me, anyway.

P.S.S. Hahaha. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2013/04/03/ns-women-wall.html

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2 thoughts on “Denise Levertov and Lincoln: some fragmented thoughts.

  1. Pingback: David Reads “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov | The Dad Poet

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