Variation on a Theme by Rilke
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
The best thing – the very best thing – about reading poetry widely and deeply is that when you need it, it finds you. Time and again, in moments of grief or love or political upheaval, my subconscious has rifled through the files and come up with something helpful. What do we have on marriage – Auden, or Edwin Muir? What do we have on cancer? Myra Schneider, Jo Shapcott….? Recent news, both local and global, has given me a great appetite for something which might give us all a sense of purpose and positivity.
I punched that into my subconscious, and this is what arrived. ‘I can’, it said. Levertov herself certainly believed that she could: at the age of twelve she sent some poems for comment to T S Eliot, who was good enough to reply with two pages of advice. I don’t know much about Levertov or about Rainier Maria Rilke whose mystical poetry inspired this piece – you don’t have to, poetry is not some kind of ghastly intellectual test – but both were interested in matters of the spirit.
Religious imagery is stitched into the fabric of this poem. We all have registers of language – professional jargon, baby talk, pillow talk. This poem has the rhythms and language of faith. That rather archaic phrase ‘a certain day’ sounds as if it came from a parable. The ‘presence’ or ‘being’ descending from a height is distinctly angelic. If you’re from a Christian background you’re probably thinking of the Annunciation, when the mother of Christ got the news that she was expecting a god.
It’s not an angel, but the day itself, which becomes ‘a presence’. It isn’t descending from heaven, but from its own noonday zenith. Levertov constantly sets up the expectation of violence and then relieves it. This day, this presence, strikes not with a sword, but ‘as if with/ the flat of a sword’. It is a forceful presence, but a benevolent one: it confronts her, but that confrontation is immediately lessened with the impression of ‘a sky, air, light’. It strikes her shoulder, but only to grant her ‘honor and a task’. She takes a blow, but only the kind of blow a bell needs to give it voice. The poem is full of interruptions and clauses. There are colons, semicolons, dashes and full stops breaking up the sentences; the poet sounds dazed, overcome.
Levertov’s father was a polyglot Russian Jew who became an Anglican minister, and her mother was Welsh. Clearly she had many registers of sound, language and visionary tradition to draw on, as well as Rilke’s mystical poetry. She uses the grand, oracular language of religion, of which we all have a folk memory even if we weren’t raised with it. The poem that results is innocent, visionary and moving. This special day has given her purpose, but her particular epiphany may be completely secular. It’s only God if you want it to be. Whatever we believe in, let’s believe that we can.
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