By hearting Primary Wonder by Denise Levertov

Days pass where I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; caps and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that
hour by hour it continues
to be sustained.

THE MYSTERY

Days pass where I forget the mystery.

When I started learning this poem, I would play around around with the word days, sometimes substituting “hours”, “minutes”, even “seconds” for Levertov’s unit of time. For example, the span required (about a minute) for me to type this sentence is already a time of forgetting. Even whilst commenting on a poem that functions as a momento mysterium or sacramentum, my focus on getting these words out in the right order and with sufficient clarity and coherence, means I lose sight of the very thing that the poet implicitly cautions us through herself not to forget. 

Forgetting what? Well, this! Forgetting as a dimming or blurring of fully conscious living. “Among the worst and most crippling of human losses is the loss of the capacity to be alive to one’s own experience—in which case one has lost a part of one’s humanness,” writes the psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden. Ogden likens the alternative remembering, now everywhere dubbed, somewhat unpoetically as “mindfulness” to a particular kind of “knowing”, more akin to that of dreaming oneself  fully into being he suggests. Sometimes we are able to do this for ourselves, and sometimes we need to do it alongside another such as a friend, a lover, or a therapist. Or maybe in this case: a poem.

Mark Epstein sees this ontological forgetting as a kind of narcissism “exposing the gap within: the emptiness, inauthenticity, or alienation that results from estrangement from our true selves and our confusion or ignorance about our own true natures.”

Here we have two clues to forgetting, but what of the mystery? And what would remembering as opposed to forgetting even entail?

Here’s one possibility.

Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, then bring your attention to your inner world, and as you breathe out ask yourself the question “What is this?” I’m now going to bring in Stephen and Martine Batchelor from whom I learnt this practice:

You are not repeating the question like a mantra; you are cultivating a sensation of perplexity [mystery!], asking unconditionally, What is this? This is not an intellectual inquiry. You are not trying to solve this question with speculation or logic. Do not keep the question in your head. Try to ask it from your belly. With the whole of your being, you are asking, What is this? What is this? You are asking What is this? because you do not know. If you become distracted, come back to the question again and again. The question What is this? is an antidote to distracted thoughts. It is as sharp as a sword. Nothing can remain on the tip of its sharp blade. By asking this question deeply you are opening yourself to the whole of your experience, with a deep sense of wonderment and awe.

Did that help you to “remember” the mystery if only for a moment? It helps me. As does learning and reciting poetry by heart, which I think is why I chose this poem alongside Pat Schneider’s “The Patience of Ordinary Things” and David Whyte’s “Everything Is Waiting For You” as daily “blades” to poke me into a keener remembrance of the “this” and “what” and especially “is”.

PROBLEMS INSOLUBLE

Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; caps and bells.

I’ve been trying to classify my problems over the week while learning this poem into these two categories:

1. Problems Insoluble

2. Problems Offering Their Own Ignored Solutions

Problems Insoluble are presumably all the BIG existential conundrums such as Aging, Sickness, Separation & Isolation, Meaninglessness, and Death. The Four Sights that set Siddhartha on his path to understanding, and possibly even coming to some kind of reckoning with (?) two and a half thousand years ago. These are the anxiety-provoking insights of into our mortality and suffering that Sid encountered as soon as he stepped outside the cushy confines of his father’s compound.

Problems Offering Their Own Ignored Solutions on the other hand might include: The Cheesy Bacon Flatbread you just ordered from McDonalds not living up to display ad. Or the guy/girl you’ve just met for a drink through Tinder not living up their display ad. Or a new wireless router requiring you to change the setting for every device in the house. Or maybe the strain of trying to keep a hard-cover book propped open on the table whilst eating breakfast cereal.

But they’re also likely to include, and maybe even more than the somewhat tongue-in-cheek examples above (all sourced from #firstworldproblems on Twittter) elements of the Problems Insoluble list, even if packaged in more worry-friendly chunks or domains. These might include: Relationship worries, Self-Esteem issues, Aimless Future worries, Work, Finances, as well as the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of just about everything else.

What I love most about the way Levertov frames these problem is how she slips in that word “ignored”. In some respects all or our problems have some kind of solution which we more often than not don’t really want to consider, and probably hearing this will sound a bit like an admonishment, it does for me. Perhaps we don’t like the solution because it might be as much about learning to tolerate the unsatisfactoriness or insolubleness of the problem itself, or maybe it asks us to sacrifice something in the short term to benefit us in the long. As human beings we’re very good at ignoring and distracting ourselves away from these options. Often because the Ignored-Solutions seem somewhat humdrum and require a sort of quiet, persevering faith in a greater-than-ourselves mystery which doesn’t really have the repletion or glamour of those cultural courtiers (Netflix, Facebook, Instagram) or the charismatic power of a solution-proffering guru (Tony Robbins, Martha Beck, whoever).

QUIET

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me

All we know of the mystery at this point is that it is “quiet”. Which comes from the Middle English word denoting peace rather than war. And the Latin word for repose.

But also, usefully: without much activity, disturbance, or excitement; without being disturbed or interrupted; carried out discreetly, secretly, or with moderation; mild and reserved by nature; expressed in a restrained or understated way; unobtrusive; not bright or showy.

All of these descriptions point to the essence of the quiet Levertov is leading us towards in this poem: those moments when we connect deeply with ourselves and the world around us. As I sit here on my second day of writing this post (Sunday morning) I am relatively quiet according to most of the definitions provided above, as are my surroundings. Doggie Max is snoozing on the bed, grey Sunday morning rain and sleet cocooning a quiet space around us.

My daily reciting of poetry learnt by heart, even though my mouth is filling the air with sound, also corresponds in some way to this type of quiet. The quiet (even for seconds on end) of a breathing meditation or What Is This too. A quiet which is also a kind of flowing aliveness as is walking in nature. The witnessing presence of a tree, or a mountain, or the sky. The settling and balance one feels viscerally at these times. The mystery of this quiet is that it is so hard to capture in words. Again and again Levertov, as do so many other poets, attempts this in her writing. As in another poem “In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being” which ends on this quiet note: “we inhale, exhale, inhale / encompassed, encompassed.”

In some sense, it is almost easier to feel the quiet when it isn’t there, when we notice its cessation or a feeling of disquiet, either as a visceral or mental disturbance. Read any page from Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet and you’ll immediately feel this scratchy dread that haunts and relentlessly pursues him, offering him no respite other than temporarily through writing or alcohol.

Pessoa understands, as does Levertov, that mystery can also be disturbing and unsettling, as in “the metamorphic apparitions” of “The Centipede”, which as Denise Lynch notes is presented to us as “frightening, fascinating, unfathomable, but ultimately inviting the heart’s embrace”.

There are clues to the mystery in some of the other poems I’m dipping into this weekend from her Levertov’s Selected Poems: the “provisional happiness” she refers to in “Of Being”, as well as “this need to dance, this need to kneel”; the “awe so quiet I don’t know when it began” from “That Passeth All Understanding”; the “Transparency seen for itself— as if its quality were not, after all, to enable perception not of itself?” such as in “that sheer clarity” of water, air, and light (“Sands of the Well”). 

In another poem, “The Antiphon”, she prefaces her verse with these from an anonymous French author: “L’Esprit souffle dans le silence là où les mots ñ’ont plus de voix.”. (Mind/spirit breathes in silence, where words no longer suffice.”)

Commenting on this poem, Sue Yore notes: “Silence – the place of no words – is where moments of revelation and spiritual rejuvenation occur.”

VOID

the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that
hour by hour it continues
to be sustained.

As with Quiet and Disquiet, Levertov frames some of the anythings and everythings she gives us with a void. Darkness. Rightly so: beyond the jostling problems of this planet and the creatures on it, we are surrounded by a whole lot of empty inky space. Writing an appreciation of the poet H.D, Levertov notes that the older poet “shows [us] a way to penetrate mystery” not by “flooding darkness with light so that darkness is destroyed but entering into darkness, mystery, so that it is experienced.” Here we perhaps begin to see the relationship of the void with that of “quiet mystery”.

This also factors into the relationship of the poet’s voice to the void, reminding Levertov, Rilke-aficionado that she is, of Rainer Maria’s conception of the artist described in “Concerning the Poet” where he envisions a sailing vessel travelling upstream, and a singer sitting at the front right-hand side of the boat.

Whilst those about him were always occupied with most immediate actuality and the overcoming of it, his voice maintained contact with the farthest distance, linking us with it until we felt its power of attraction.

I do not know how it happened, but suddenly, in this phenomenon, I understood the position of the poet, his place and effect within time, and that one might well dispute his right to every other position but this. This one, though, must be allowed to him.

Rilke implies that the creative power of human beings lies in their receptivity to the divine spirit and to matters enigmatic and equivocal. Matters of the void, of what is this, of the blank page or universe. In her poem “After Mindwalk” Levertov finds in the void set before us by the world of quantum physics “a new twist of Pascal’s dread”. It is always a delicate business when it comes to approaching the void: how to stay on the right side of awe and wonder rather than fear and dread.

YOU

I’ve taken liberties with the last few lines of this poem. Forgive me Denise. At the end of the poem Levertov addresses and admires a deity “0 Lord, / Creator, Hallowed One, / You still, / hour by hour sustain it.”

I’m not averse to there being a Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, but I’m not sure I want to address Them directly from my voice and heart every time I recite the poem.

If anything, this would actually draws me away from the mystery, part of which lies with the question of who/what/how this all came into being!? If we wrap it up, as Denise does, with a capitalised Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, then some of the fleeting, enigmatic and indeterminate aspects of this mystery are taken away for me at the end of the poem.

What I want from this poem, and what I achieve for myself by the change I’ve made to the last two lines is a suspended state of, well, mystery: mystification, wonder, mind-boggliness. In other words: this primary wonder reawakened and revivified in me over and over, every time I repeat the poem. 

To do this, I’ve tweaked the poem, putting the last line into a passive voice, which hopefully leaves space (mystery) for a deity to be present in the creation and prolongation of the “everything”, or not.

You could see it as a slightly Buddhist edit. Coming back to Siddhārtha Gautama, our 2,500 year old psychologist who was no less alive to the mystery of existence than all his wise predecessors, but differed in one profound respect regarding the religious thought into which he was born (Vedic Brahmanism/Ancient Hinduism). That is to say Sid rejected, or rather was indifferent to the idea of a Creator  per se, as well as the notion of an eternal soul.

Sid would probably not deny, and nor would I, that there is a profound mystery and wonder in our perception that “cosmos, joy, memory, everything” continues to exist, moment by moment, and (fingers crossed) will continue to do so after we’re gone. But ever the psychologically-informed pragmatist, as he demonstrates in his Parable of The Poison arrow, Sid would have it that getting too entangled in the whys and hows of our suffering, or any other mystery for that matter, doesn’t necessarily help us appreciate the mystery before us or live it to the full.

I’d like to think Levertov would allow me to shape her poem as much as I need to in order to make it work for me. Levertov herself was always an extremely porous and hybrid spiritual seeker, having as she called it “a do-it-yourself” theology. The roots of this are to be found perhaps in her father, Paul Levertoff, who had been a teacher at Leipzig University and a Russian Hassidic Jew. Her mother, Beatrice Adelaide, was a Christian from a small mining village in North Wales.

After her father emigrated to the UK after the first World War where he had been imprisoned in Germany as an enemy alien he not only converted to Christianity but became an Anglican priest. The family was housed by the church in Ilford, ironically a very Jewish neighbourhood in London, with Levertoff’s parish in Shoreditch. “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervour and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells,“ writes Levertov in an essay.

For much of her life Levertov would have classified herself as something of an agnostic, and yet in her late-60s, she became a Roman Catholic. Along the way, she was as much influenced by the Buddhist-flavoured Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, as she was by 14th century Christian mysticism to be found in The Cloud of Unknowing. In her diary, Levertov also experimented with the kind of tweaks I’ve rendered to her text, imagining how she might substitute the words poetry and poem for “God” in The Cloud, overlaying this overtly religious text with her own concerns and understanding, as I have done to “Primary Wonder”. 

I am not surprised to find that this poem is the last poem in her final book, Sands in The Well, published in 1996 (Levertov died in 1997, aged 74). I would like to think that even after a life full of learning, teaching, and publishing (24 books of poetry as well as books of criticism and translations), alongside many prizes (Lannan, Guggenheim, National Institute of Arts and Letters), this quiet mystery continued to be the most important thing to her.

In an Afterword to Levertov’s Selected Poems, Paul A. Lacey describes the challenge of “religious” also “political” poetry like this:

“Here the writer speaks out of personal experience and deep feelings, [but] the reader who shares neither may perceive only abstractions and tendentious opinions. The writer tries to speak of the flesh-and-blood experience which informs beliefs and convictions; readers who have not shared the same or similar experience may see only poeticized doctrine—unfamiliar to some, too familiar to others, a source of resentment to still others. To carry the reluctant or resistant reader along on the double journey of art and faith, this poetic faith, everything depends on how well the poet can ground the sensation and feelings, the testing of faith and doubt, belief and disbelief in the poetry and invite the reader to participate with the poet in a process of exploration and discovery.”

Levertov does this again and again in poems like Primary Wonder, and this process of exploration and discovery for me becomes most alive when a poem we love is learnt by heart (even in this somewhat bastardized form) as a kind of “oblique prayer” (to use the title of Levertov’s 1984 collection) and celebration.

Robert Creeley in an introduction to this same volume describes how much he misses her, in that along with being “an abiding poet” she was first and foremost “a wonderfully explici human being…caring for life, our lives, as people, the world forever the one in which all must finally learn to live while we can.”

All photos in this post, other than those of Levertov and McDonald’s Cheesy Bacon Flatbread, were taken by Mary Randlett who was DL’s friend as well as collaborator.

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