A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Dragonfly Blue

Poetry is the silent voice that is heard everywhere inside of us. UNKNOWN

To Rilke

Once, in a dream,
                               the boat
pushed off from the shore.
You at the prow were the man -
all voice, though silent - who bound
rowers and voyagers to the needful journey,
the veiled distance, imperative mystery.

All the crouched effort,
          creak of oarlocks, odor of sweat,
          sound of waters
          running against us
was transcended: your gaze
held as we crossed. Its dragonfly blue
restored to us
                         a shimmering destination.

I had not read of your Nile journey,
the enabling voice
drawing that boat upstream in your parable.
Strange that I knew
your silence was just such a song.


To Rilke is the very first poem in Denise Levertov's 1989 collection, A Door In The Hive. Just a few thoughts that occur to me...

Rilke was a keen traveller, visiting France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain, Russia, Scandanavia and North Africa. He actually did make a trip up the Nile - in a felucca with sixteen oarsmen. During this time he immersed himself in Egypt's culture and mythology, and his fascination with the Egyptian cult of the dead became a major influence behind his great work, Duino Elegies.

In traditional Nile boats the man in the prow would 'sing' from time to time - it was a kind of unearthly, wordless vocalisation - and this 'song' was supposed to assist the boat upstream in its battle against the current. Hence the enabling voice. But Levertov, in her poem, makes a connection between the Nile 'singer' and Rilke in the prow of her dream-boat. Just like the prow-singer's voice, Rilke's voice - his poetic voice - is also enabling. This poetic voice can counter prevailing currents, can help us  see more clearly. This is the voice of the seer and the Romantic poet, the poet of Shelley's assertion that Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

However, there is one important difference. Unlike the prow-singer's voice, the Rilkean voice of Levertov's dream is silent. And Rilke's gaze seems even more eloquent than his silence: ... your gaze / held as we crossed. Its dragonfly blue / restored to us / a shimmering destination. (By the way, how wonderful that dragonfly blue: the one transforming streak of colour - and how necessary and uplifting that splash of colour - in this misty, mysterious, toiling dream-world.)

Perhaps Rilke's voice is silent because poetry is the silent voice that is heard everywhere inside of us? Perhaps his silent voice speaks of his creative, interior transformation of the world - it's his inner voice? Perhaps this is the still, silent voice of God? (Or of Orpheus having left his lyre at home that day?) Whatever our interpretation - of course, his voice is not silent. It sings.

I cannot read this poem without thinking of the mythical Charon ferrying souls across the river Styx from the Earth to the Underworld. Or of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha working with the ferryman Vasudeva and gaining enlightenment from the river.

And that mystical blue keeps flashing before my eyes... Blue, the colour of German Romanticism, symbol of love and desire, the infinite and the unreachable...


am said...

There is so much I want to say about your last two posts, and time does not allow. Denise Levertov is my favorite poet. Did not fully realize her connection to Rilke until now. Was fortunate to hear her read her poetry at University of Washington. The poem about the angels must have been written when she was living in Seattle. The mild September. Tepid. Also in the time of the building up of the first Gulf War. After her conversion to Catholicism. I am reminded of Dorothy Day's long loneliness. I carry a copy of her small book, The Stream & the Sapphire, with me everywhere.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

This is wonderful, Robert. Coming after yesterday's discussion of the other Levertov poem it kindles my anticipation that this could be a series! Alas, today I do not have much time to stay here for what I am sure will be a stimulating and englightening discussion, but I did want to register my mild amazement and gratitude for the poem and your post. I will return for more of these "imperative mysteries"!

George said...

Words evoke images from our past associations, and when I read this Levertov poem, with its references to the "sound of waters running against us," my mind shifts to the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past." In Levertov's case, however, all seems to be transcended through the silent, enabling voice of Rilke "drawing that boat upstream." A fine poem, Robert, and, as always, your insights into its meaning are just as rewarding.

Ruth said...

At last I have arrived at this far-off shore to read another Levertov poem, connection with Rilke, and your lovely observations, as well as the commenters'. I really have nothing to add to your interpretation, and George's comparison with Fitzgerald, except that as George quotes Fitzgerald about the past, here in this poem Levertov reflects Rilke's future-looking god-quest in her line, "its dragonfly blue / restored to us / a shimmering destination." The stream, the river, the journey, it lies ahead, in the veiled distance. The God who we will know some day hence.

I was glad you brought Orpheus in, as he was much in my mind as I read the poem. And yes, Charon. I can't help but also think of the oarlocks of Elizabeth Bishop's, in "The Fish" and and the rainbow, rainbow, rainbow that is so like the dragonfly [irridescent] blue of Rilke in Levertov's vision. In Bishop's poem, she lets the fish go in her moment of connection with that rainbow. Here, Levertov transcends the material as well and connects with the silent song, guided by the prow-man Rilke.

These are grand themes we are studying. Thank you so much for your gorgeous contributions. I agree with Lorenzo, please continue this series. We'll find time, even if it takes a while to get here!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this, am. I remembered you loved Levertov. What a great thing to have heard her read.

Lorenzo - yes it has kind of developed into a short series!

Thanks, as ever, George ... and Ruth, thanks for pointing out the connection with the Elizabeth Bishop poem, a poem I've always liked very much.