On The 2

On The "Olga Poems" Essay, Research Paper Denise Levertov Andre: Prior to the sixties you suppressed the direct autobiographical allusions. But now you seem to be pulling in more actual facts. Would you say again this

On The "Olga Poems" Essay, Research Paper

Denise Levertov

Andre: Prior to the sixties you suppressed the direct autobiographical

allusions. But now you seem to be pulling in more actual facts. Would you say again this

is related to movements in poetry, such as confessional poetry?

Levertov: I’m rather antagonistic on the whole to what is called

confessional poetry which seems to exploit the private life. I’ve even felt that some

young poets, students, feel that they have to make a suicide attempt, that they must spend

some time in a mental hospital in order to be poets at all. I think that’s rather a bad

idea. I feel at this point in my life–I’m forty-seven, and I’ve been writing since I was

five years old, and publishing since I was about 20–that I have maybe earned the right to

write more personal poems if I feel like it. I’m often bored and impatient with poems by

young poets who, before learning how to relate to language, to make a poem that has

structure, has music, has some kind of autonomy, launch out into confessional poems. It

seems to me something that you earn by a long apprenticeship. I think the first poem in

which I was largely autobiographical was in a group called "The Olga Poems"

about my sister and that will be re-printed in my new book. It seems to be a prelude to

some of the later stuff and I want to get it all into one book. I’ve written an

"Introduction" for that book:

The justification then of including in a new volume poems which are available in other

collections is aesthetic. It assimilates separated parts of a whole. And I’m given courage

to do so by the hope that whole will be seen as having some value not as mere confessional

autobiography but as a document of some historical value, a record of one person’s inner

and outer experience in America during the sixties and the beginnings of the seventies, an

experience which is shared by so many and which transcends the peculiar details of each

life, though it can only be expressed through those details.

From Conversations with Denise Levertov. Jackson: University Press of

Mississippi. Copyright ? 1988 by The University Press of Mississippi.

Linda Wagner-Martin

It is a commonplace of contemporary criticism that modern poetic techniques are

inadequate to sustain a long poem. What modem epics exist–Pound’s Cantos,

Williams’ Paterson, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Charles

Olson’s Maximus–have all been censured because of their "formlessness,"

their unevenness, or–at times–their sporadic applications of technique. The question is,

then, can modern poets write long poems? In Levertov’s case, there is no epic as yet to

judge. There is, however, the group of "Olga Poems," some two hundred lines of a

single theme sequence written in memory of her sister, Olga Tatjana Levertoff, who died in

1964, aged forty-nine. It is Levertov’s longest poem–at this time, one of her most

recent–and it is interesting as an illustration of her means of sustaining a single


Poem I, a succinct introductory song, is comprised of four short-line paragraphs in

which the poet’s older sister Olga lives in the poet’s memory. Details accumulate as the

poem progresses. the fire burns, the girl undresses, her skin is olive. The poet, then a

child, watches from her bed, "My head/a camera." The poem concludes with a vivid

contrast between the completeness of the young girl’s body, and the fragmentation of that

same body in death:

Sixteen. Her breasts

round, round, and


who now these two months long

is bones and tatters of flesh in earth.

Poem II, more formal in its structure of short tercets, presents Olga’s character more

intensely–and that of the poet as well, in contrast. Although Levertov still uses much

concrete detail ("the skin around the nails/nibbled sore"), it is detail

integral to the type of personality described here–Olga at nine already filled with

"rage/and human shame" at all injustice, herself often dealing unjustly with

others in order to correct the initial wrong. The last stanza of this poem declares the

recurrent theme, while reinforcing the image of the physically dark sister and that of the

light already introduced in the fire passage:

Black one, black one

there was a white

candle in your heart.

These preface poems are short and concise, the first written in paragraph format

relying on visual presentation; the second, arranged in tercets and oriented toward Olga’s

character. Pace changes dramatically in Poem III. Itself a sequence of three longer

segments, Poem III moves rapidly but gently. The long phrases are valid for two reasons:

the poet is here speaking much more freely, with reminiscence woven into her direct

commentary. Also, the interweaving motif of this sequence is "Everything flows,"

a line from the hymn, "Time/like an ever-rolling stream/bears all its sons

away." The motion of this theme, of the actual words in it, demands a longer, more

ostensibly accented line.

Part I of this sequence introduces the hymn concept, as the poet remembers its use in

her earlier life. The second section shows Olga’s dread of this concept of flow, of death.

Some of her terror is reflected in the more restrained line arrangement here; although

still long, lines now fall into tercets:

But dream

was in her, a bloodbeat, it was against the rolling dark

oncoming river she raised bulwarks, setting herself

to sift cinders after daily early Mass all of one winter, . . .

To change,

to change the course of the river! What rage for order

disordered her pilgrimage–so that for years at a time

she would hide among strangers, waiting

to rearrange all mysteries in a new light.

The tercets continue in Part III, but lines are here short, helping to reflect a new

intensity as the poet pictures her sister "riding anguish . . . over the stubble of

bad years," "haggard and rouged," "her black hair/dyed blonde."

The two concluding lines of this segment return somewhat ironically to the longer rhythms

of earlier parts of this poem, and to the "Everything flows" theme. Now,

however, it is said that Olga’s life was "unfolding, not flowing." It appears,

then, that the contrast between the grandeur suggested in the hymn and Olga’s actual

life–and death–is central to the poet’s feeling as expressed through the poem.

Poem IV is another restrained poem before the rising rhythms of the concluding poems, V

and VI, The short-line quatrains describe Olga’s hospital life, hours of love and hate,

pain and drugs quarreling "like sisters in you." In this poem return the images

of the "kind candle" and the purifying flame, "all history/ burned out,

down/to the sick bone, save for/that kind candle."

Poem V, another sequence, moves again more slowly. Part 1, in couplets, is dominated by

images of gliding, winding, flowing–the poem thus is tied thematically and rhythmically

with Poem III. These steady images, however, describe the poet’s life as it was

when both girls were young. There is momentary repose in this segment with its closing

refrain, "In youth/is pleasure"; but the second poem returns to the painful life

of an older Olga, buffeted by coldness "the year you were most alone."

Levertov achieves a vivid picture of Olga’s desolation through images of frost and

cold, loneliness, neglect, but perhaps even more effectively through the rhythms of this

poem. Lines still are long, but they move more slowly because of monosyllabic words and

word combinations difficult to articulate. The alliterative opening sets the pace for the


Under autumn clouds, under white

wideness of winter skies you went walking

the year you were most alone

Such lines as "frowning as you ground out your thoughts," "the stage

lights had gone out," "How many books you read" lead to the closing tercet,

which again depicts Olga as walking, but more than that: "trudging after your

anguish/over the bare fields, soberly, soberly."

With a reference to "tearless Niobe," Levertov introduces the theme for the

strongest poem in the group, the sixth. Light in various contexts (firelight, the light of

memory, the candle) has been a central image throughout the poem–especially in contrast

with the "black" elements, Olga herself and death. Levertov has used much visual

detail, so that seeing has been important to the reader in the course of the poem, Now the

eye itself is added to the accumulative image–and Olga’s golden, fearful, mystery-filled

eyes dominate Poem VI. Her eyes are the color of pebbles under shallow water, the water

that flows throughout the poem. And in a very real sense her eyes are–for the fear of the

moving water (representative, I assume, of the inherent flow from life to death) has

colored Olga’s life. Perhaps her eyes have always looked through this distorting mist. The

remarkable thing about Olga’s eyes, however, as the image pattern makes clear, is that

they did remain alive, lit by "compassion’s candle," even through their fear.

Levertov turns to the rhythms of blank verse in this most majestic part of the total

poem. Poem VI is a continuation of the tone and movement established in the fifth,

particularly in the second part, but the structure of the sixth poem is marked with an

important difference–it is tightly connected through an interplay of the sounds which

have been used at intervals throughout the poem–l’s, s’s, o’s–sounds

which in themselves create a slow full nostalgia. The final stanza of Poem VI incorporates

these sounds, as well as the images and themes which have pervaded the earlier poems. The

viewpoint reverts to that of the poet, but the tribute to Olga is clear:

I cross

so many brooks in the world, there is so much

light dancing on so many stones, so many questions my eyes

smart to ask of your eyes, gold brown eyes,

the lashes short but the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or shining,

unknowable gaze . . .

It is interesting that Levertov has included in this poem what recently appears to be

one of her major poetic themes–the acceptance of change (even the last great change) as

necessary to life. Olga’s tragedy was an inability to accept that change. Her "rage

for order" made her inflexible, even though "compassion’s candle" burned

through that inflexibility. This central theme was well expressed affirmatively five years

earlier in "A Ring of Changes," the longest poem Levertov had written at that

time. This poem is interesting technically as well as thematically. She uses a six-part

arrangement, the first four short poems serving as prefaces. All four are in free

paragraph form. The fifth poem is much longer; still in free form, it has longer lines.

This central poem contains many symbols–the treevine of life, Casals’ cello, a writer’s

worktable, light. It is a good poem, despite more didactic statement than in most of

Levertov’s poetry.

Yet "A Ring of Changes" as a whole is comparatively weak, I think, because it

has no technical rationale. All the poems are separate, with few interrelating images

or–perhaps more important to the poet–rhythms. Each poem is written in the same form;

consequently, there seems to be little reason to divide the parts. The technical contrast

between this poem and the Olga sequence is great.

The most critical reader cannot question the unity, the single effect, of the

"Olga Poems"; yet Levertov’s patterns of organization and rhythms differ widely

within the poem. It is from her masterful use of contrast and balance that the harmony of

the sequence comes–Poem IV, for example, slowing the movement, bringing the

"everything flows" theme back to rest before it sets off again with new impetus.

It should be of interest to those critics who question the modern poets’ technical

proficiency that the techniques used throughout this long poem are the same devices

Levertov uses in her short poems–the single-theme lyric, the sequence, the madrigal–each

with its own appropriate line length and stanza arrangement. One fruit of her poetic

experience is surely the unity of the "Olga Poems."

[. . . .]

Worksheets as Illustration of Practices, "Olga


Criticism by its very nature tends to establish arbitrary standards for judging poetry.

Sometimes in speaking of organization, of prosody, of theme, the reader forgets that these

segments are not separate from the poem as a whole–except as a convenience in the process

of analysis. The poet does not think first of structure, then of words; he conceives of

the poem as an entity. Perhaps in revision he considers separate elements in that, for

example, he may change a word to strengthen rhythm. But writing poetry is seldom the

orderly application of theories to practice that most critical discussions unfortunately


At issue here, I think, is the definition of the poetic process itself, a process which

has been explored and described for centuries. That its mysteries have never been

unraveled is, perhaps, a tribute to the innate power of the human spirit. For it seems to

be agreed by nearly all poets, Levertov among them, that the poem begins somewhere in a

non-intellectual response and is brought to perfection, finally, through a surveillance

which is at least partly intellectual. As Levertov writes of Wallace Stevens’ mot:

"’Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.’ Almost."

Lest the poem sound entirely like a gift from a willfully evanescent muse, let

me quote from her description of finding the impetus for poetry:

I have always disliked the idea of any kind of deliberate

stimulation of creativity (from parlor games to drugs)–believing that if you have nothing

you really feel, really must say, then keep your mouth shut; and I still believe that–but

with a difference: Namely, that since I also believe that whatever in our experience we

truly give our attention to will yield something of value, I have come to see that the apparently

arbitrary focussing of that attention may also be a way in to our underground

rivers of feeling and understanding, to revelations of truth.

Supervielle: "How often we think we have nothing to say when a

poem is waiting in us, behind a thin curtain of mist, and it is enough to silence the

noise around us for that poem to be unveiled."

Rilke: "If a thing is to speak to you, you must for a certain time

regard it as the only thing that exists, the unique phenomenon that your diligent and

exclusive love has placed at the center of the universe, something the angels serve that

very day on that matchless spot."

I think what validates a practice or device, which may otherwise only

stimulate worthless, superficial, cynical work, is the writer’s attitude when he uses it.

If he works with "Kavonah" (care, awe, reverence, love–the "diligent

love" Rilke speaks of) he can release the spark hidden in the dust."

Levertov emphasizes that the poet must attend the poem, must "stay with the

prima materia of a poem patiently but with intense alertness. As a result the

language becomes active where in earlier stages it was sluggish. However, let me add that

there are times when it is as important to know enough to keep one’s hands off a poem–off

a first draft that is right just the way it came–as to revise. Some ‘given’ poems arrive

without any previous work (of course, unconscious psychic work has undoubtedly preceded

them )." The writer "has to look at the poem after he’s written the first draft

and consider with his knowledge, with his experience and craftsmanship, what needs doing

to this poem. . . . It’s a matter of a synthesis of instincts and intelligence."

Since one of the paradoxes of art is the fact that some poems are "given"

entire while others require more or less revision, this chapter consists largely of

comparative excerpts from Levertov’s worksheets. Through the example of the poet’s own

practice, I hope to identify her more common patterns in revision and, consequently, to

add to knowledge of the craft of poetry.

Worksheets from the "Olga Poems" are interesting for various reasons. This

particular group of poems poses the problem of controlling sentiment so that the poem is

not obscured by too personal detail. In Poem IV, for example, the account of Olga’s

hospital life originally contained a reference to her fear of swimming, a biographical

comment which seems irrelevant in this particular poem.

In early versions of Poem VI, the line "It was there I tried to teach you to ride

a bicycle" has become, more appropriately, "I would . . . go out to ride my

bike, return." The point to be made is that Olga is persistent, "savagely"

so, in her playing; not that she needed instruction in bicycling.

Early Version:

you turned savagely to the piano and sight-read

straight through all the Beethoven sonatas, day after day—

weeks, it seemed to one. I would turn the pages, some of the time.

It was there I tried to teach you to ride a bicycle.


you turned savagely to the piano and sight-read

straight through all the Beethoven sonatas, day after day—

weeks, it seemed to me. I would turn the pages some of the time,

go out to ride my bike, return–you were enduring in the

falls and rapids of the music.

In the final draft of the sixth poem again, personal emotion assumes what might be

considered a more subtle expression.

Early Version:

though when we were estranged,

my own eyes smarted in the pain

of remembering you

as they do now, remembering

I shall never see you again


Even when we were estranged

and my own eyes smarted in pain and anger at the thought of


Toward the end of the poem, the original line "gold brown eyes I shall never see

again" becomes "gold brown eyes." To emphasize the finality of death, as in

these early versions, is to mislead the reader at this point; for Levertov has further to

go in her poetic re-creation. The central image of the late poems is of eyes, Olga’s

golden, mystic eyes–the candle image modified through implication. The closing impression

of the poem sequence is not the poet’s bereavement; it is rather Olga’s unbroken


The sound pattern is particularly compelling in this last poem of the sequence. Yet in

the early version, for all its contextual similarity, the pattern does not exist.

Early Version:

Crossing the wooden bridge over the Roding

where its course divided the open

field of the present

from the mysteries of the past,

the old forest,

I never forgot to think of your eyes

which were the golden brown of

pebbles under the water,

water under the sun.

And crossing

other streams in the world

where the same light

danced among stones

I never forgot …


Your eyes were the gold brown of pebbles under water.

I never crossed the bridge over the Roding, dividing

the open field of the present from the mysteries,

the wraiths and shifts of time-sense Wanstead Park held


without remembering your eyes. Even when we were estranged

and my own eyes smarted in pain and anger at the thought of


And by other streams in other countries; anywhere where the


reached down through shallows to gold gravel. Olga’s brown


"where the same light/danced among stones/I never forgot . . ." is very far,

in sound, from "anywhere where the light/reached down through shallows to gold

gravel. Olga’s/brown eyes." It is interesting that Levertov has opened this final

version with a thought expressed almost as an aside in the earlier poem.

Similar modifications are evident in the ending of the poem. The final impression is to

be of Olga’s calm yet unappeased eyes. One early version of the poem ends,

… the lashes short but the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of abundant and joyful life in back of them.

Rather than relying on the somewhat set adjectives, abundant and joyful,

the final version suggests the wealth, the ambiguity of those very human eyes:

… the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or shining,

unknowable gaze.

Often in revision the change is small–perhaps only a word or two–but the effect is

striking. I cite the closing lines of Poem V, for example:

Early Version:

–Oh, in your torn stockings

and unwaved hair

you were riding your anguish down

over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.


Oh, in your torn stockings, with unwaved hair,

you were trudging after your anguish

over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.

For the passive, tearless Niobe, trudging is a better expression than riding.

The same can be said of the changes made within Poem I. "The red waistband ring"

of the final version was originally written as "itchy skin released from elastic

reddened . . ."; objective detail must be not only accurate but consistent with the

tone and movement of the poem. Tone may also have caused Levertov to delete the reference

to "her kid sister’s room" which appears in the original draft.

Many changes are made for the sake of emphasis. "I never forgot to think of your

eyes" becomes "without remembering your eyes," a phrase much more positive

in a grammatical sense. The movement of the latter phrase is also more suitable to the

poem in which it appears, and rhythm in Levertov’s poems is consistently an important

consideration. For example, there are these lines from Poem V:

Early Version:

… seeing again

the signposts pointing to Theydon Garnon

or Stapleford Abbots or Greensted

crossing the ploughlands whose color I named ‘murple’

a shade between brown and lavender

that we loved

How cold it was in your thin coat,

your down-at-heel



… seeing again

the signposts pointing to Theydon Garnon

or Stapleford Abbots or Greensted,

crossing the ploughlands (whose color I named murple,

a shade between brown and mauve that we loved

when I was a child and you

not much more than a child) finding new lanes

near White Roding and Abbess Roding, or lost in Romford’s

new streets where there were footpaths then—

[. . . .]

Beginning with trampled grass, Levertov in the final draft suggests the struggle

present in Olga’s relationships with others, intensified later by stung and lash.

Alien helps to revivify the somewhat overused puppet metaphor, as does the figure

"rehearsed fates." An intermediate version of this passage is closer to the

final, but the phrasing is awkward:

Pacing across the trampled lawn you were,

where your actors, older than you but assembled and driven

to intense semblances alien to them by your will’s fury

had rehearsed their parts.

So far as arrangement of the total poem is concerned, Poem IV (the slow hospital

sequence) and Poem V were reversed, earlier. The present arrangement is more effective

rhythmically: the hospital passage provides needed contrast before the last two poems

build to the high pitch of the ending. As Levertov’s comments about the sequence form

indicate, a poet working with several elements may well have no preconception of total

form. Once the parts are written, he must then find the most telling arrangement for the


From Denise Levertov. New York: Twayne Publsihers, Inc, 1967. Copyright ? 1967

by Twayne Publishers, Inc. Reprinted by Permission of the Author.

Suzanne Juhasz

The nature of Levertov’s political consciousness is indicated by the fact

that these first political poems are an elegy for her sister, a sister who was,

indeed, long before Denise Levertov, a political person.

The poems reveal Levertov trying to come to terms with her dead sister?particularly

with the relationship that existed between them. Olga, the elder: fierce,

passionate, anguished, dedicated, wanting "to change the course of the

river" (iii); Denise, the younger: "the little sister / beady-eyed in

the bed" (i), watching, following, not understanding, yet loving. The poems

are a series of memories (meditations) about Olga, which constantly indicate the

fascination of the elder sister for the younger as well as the accompanying


Everything flows

she muttered into my childhood . . .

I looked up from my Littlest Bear’s cane armchair

and knew the words came from a book

and felt them alien to me


Many years of such observation allows her to characterize Olga with exquisite


. . . dread

was in her, a bloodbeat, it was against the rolling dark

oncoming river she raised bulwarks . . .


Black one, incubus?

she appeared

riding anguish as Tartars ride mares

over the stubble of bad years.


Oh, in your torn stockings, with unwaved hair,

you were trudging after your anguish

over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.


But it is when she encounters the fact of herself in Olga, Olga in herself,

that the poem (which was written over a four-month period, from May to August

1964) draws together.

As through a wood, shadows and light between birches,

gliding a moment in open glades, hidden by thickets of holly

your life winds in me.


The final sequence of the poem focuses upon Olga’s eyes, "the brown gold

of pebbles underwater."

. . . Even when we were estranged

and my own eyes smarted in pain and anger at the thought of you.

And by other streams in other countries; anywhere where the light

reaches down through shallows to gold gravel. Olga’s

brown eyes.

She thinks of the fear in Olga’s eyes, wonders how through it all

"compassion’s candle" kept alight in those eyes. The river that has

become in the poem a symbol of the forces of time and history against which Olga

had fought, in vain, or so it had always seemed to Denise ("to change, / to

change the course of the river!") is now recognized as a part of the poet’s

life, too; and she wishes that she had understood more fully Olga’s whiteness as

well as her blackness ("Black one, black one, / there was a white / candle

in your heart" [ii]).

I cross

so many brooks in the world, there is so much light

dancing on so many stones, so many questions my eyes

smart to ask of your eyes, gold brown eyes,

the lashes short but the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or shining, unknowable

gaze . . .


The poem’s message to herself is clear: you can’t only watch; you can’t only

remember; you must allow yourself to participate, to be touched.

from Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New

Tradition. New York: Octagon Books, 1976. Copyright ? 1976.

Robin Riley Fast

Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich, while they

might be considered opposites in some respects, share an appreciation of the sensuous, a

recognition of the political nature of individual experience and of poetry, and the fact

that each has written of her relationship with her sister, exploring movingly both the

personal and the political importance of the relationship.

Levertov writes of the sister bond in a formal

sequence; Rich, in poems that have appeared in several books over a period of years. Each

examines a complex and changing bond, colored with rivalry and intimacy, loss and

reaffirmation, shaped by forces inside each sister and outside both. They deal with

similar dilemmas: each must recognize both her likeness to and difference from her sister.

For each, the recognition of similarity and difference complicates a common double image,

that of the sister as a mirror, or as "what I might have been."

Having confronted the difficulties of sisterhood,

they suggest ways of moving toward relationships that may be both personally and

politically sustaining. Understanding her sister and their relationship allows each poet

to understand herself and to grow poetically and politically: Levertov becomes a more

politically assertive writer, and Rich establishes a concrete bridge to relationships with

other women. For both, then their poems about their sisters contribute to the development

of their poetry. And the fact that, in spite of their differences, Levertov’s and

Rich’s responses to this topic have much in common suggests the truth of their

findings for other sisters.

In her "Olga Poems," Denise Levertov

explores and recreates her relationship with her dead sister, Olga. The primary fact of

this relationship, as it is initially described, is distance.

By the gas-fire kneeling

to undress,

scorching luxuriously, raking

her nails over olive sides, the red

waistband ring–

(And the little sister

beady-eyed in the bed–

or drowsy, was I? My head

a camera–)

Sixteen. Her breasts

round, round, and

dark, nippled–

(Sorrow Dance, p. 53)

Olga, at 16, was sensuously alive; Denise was

separated from her by years and experience. The sisters’ present separation by death

seems to confirm the earlier distance. The gap persists as the second poem describes

Olga’s nagging voice and chewed nails, symptoms of her rage at the world, a rage her

younger sister did not share:

What rage

and human shame swept you

when you were nine and saw

the Ley Street houses,

grasping their meaning as slum.

(Sorrow Dance, p. 54)

Denise, at nine, teased her sister about the

slum, "admiring/architectural probity, circa/eighteen-fifty." Yet as poem ii

ends, the adult Denise recognizes the paradox and contradiction at Olga’s center:

"Black one, black one,/there was a white candle in your heart." "Paradox

and contradiction, we will find, are characteristic of the sisters’ relationship and

essential to the reconciliation that Denise achieves through these poems.

Recurrent images and motifs suggest Olga’s

powerful character and the difficulties of the relationship. Images associated with fire

indicate Olga’s passionate anger, desire, and nonconformity. After Olga has cast off

her family and disappeared, Denise dreams of her "haggard and rouged/lit by the

flare/from an eel– or cockle-stand on a slum street" (p. 56). When she lies

dying, her sister remarks that Olga’s hatreds, her "disasters bred of

love," and all history have "burned out, down/to the sick bone" (p. 57).

The color black also recurs, suggesting the anguish of this black-haired, olive-skinned

sister. Olga’s desperate fury seems compelled by a vision expressed in her

compulsively repeated "Everything flows" and in the image of "the rolling

dark oncoming river" whose course she struggles to change: "pressing on/to

manipulate lives to disaster. . .To change,/to change the course of the river!" (P.

55). The gradual transformation of these images, as the sequence develops, indicates the

transformation of Denise’s vision of Olga and their relationship.

The intensity of Denise’s feelings and of

her desire for reconciliation is evident in her tendency to repeat key words and

phrases—Olga is "Ridden, ridden," or "Black one, black

one"—and most powerfully in the poem immediately preceding the "Olga"

sequence in The Sorrow Dance, "A Lamentation" (p. 52):

Grief, have I denied thee?

Grief, I have denied thee.

That robe or tunic, black gauze

over black and silver my sister wore

to dance Sorrow, hung so long

in my closet. I never tried it on.

. . . . . . . .


have I denied thee? Denied thee.

But her grief and desire are mixed with

uncertainty: fire burns, Olga’s efforts to stem the flow are worse than useless, and

she betrays her "blackness" when she dyes her hair blond. The younger

sister’s ambivalence is evident, too, as she vacillates between speaking to Olga and

describing her in the third person, before she finally commits herself to sustained direct

address, which carries her into a closer bond with Olga.

The sisters’ estrangement seems to have

several sources, which vary in importance over time. The poet repeatedly draws attention

to the nine years’ difference in their ages by referring to herself as "little

sister," sitting in her "Littlest Bear’s" armchair or riding her bike.

The younger girl apparently resisted growing up and probably resented Olga’s womanly

body. But more than age separates them; their views of life are radically different. Olga

seems to see life and history as relentlessly surging onward, carrying everything

implacably toward disaster: "everything flows." Her dominant impulse appears to

be resistance. And her resistance takes the form of rage that "burns" but

doesn’t accomplish the change she desires, rage equivalent perhaps to that of Sylvia

Plath, or to the "bomb" whose power Emily Dickinson managed only with great

effort and skill to control. Bent on changing the world, Olga attempts to control her

sister, who becomes one of the "human puppets. . . stung into alien semblances by the

lash of her will" (p. 54). Her passion makes her overbearing, manipulative, and

demanding—not the easiest person to love.

Denise, on the other hand, "feels" life

as "unfolding, not flowing" (p. 56). Unlike the overwhelming

river-like"flow" against which Olga struggles, "unfolding" suggests

the opening of a plant—that is, life, and the power of individual life. It implies

the quiet process of gradual growth and assurance about the continuity and the essential

goodness of life. "Unfolding" is thus, at least in this context, more consistent

with the organicism that moves most of Levertov’s poetry. Her different view of life

gives Denise a different mode of action and thought. She is careful, quiet, controlled.

Early in her assessment of Olga and their relationship, this habit sometimes makes for

cool, unsympathetic distance, as evidenced in her nine-year-old response to the slums.

However, this quiet mode helps her gradually to reconnect with Olga, for it enables her to

balance and examine multiple layers of experience in long, complex lines that move surely,

if not rapidly, to the final, affirming image of Olga.

Beneath the (at first apparently

absolute)estrangement, the pet reveals an impulse to reach out to her sister, to

understand, and recover the bonds between them. It is an impulse based in implicit

acknowledgment of shared experience and love. Her desire for connection is most evident

when she evokes moments of intimacy, often rediscovered beneath the surfaces of the same

words, events, or scenes that estrange the sisters, indicating that their bond preceded,

and must finally bridge, the distance between them. Thus, Denise twice recalls Olga’s

loneliness, only to be reminded of their deep bond.

. . .you went walking

the year you were most alone.

. . . . . . . .

crossing the ploughlands (whose color I named murple,

a shade between mauve and brown that we loved

when I was a child and you

not much more than a child)

. . . . . . . .

How many books

you read in your silent lodgings that winter,

how the plovers transpierced your solitude out of doors with

their strange cries

I had flung my arms to in longing, once by your side

stumbling over the furrows–

(Sorrow Dance, pp. 58-59)

Recalling what they have shared, the poet first

emphasizes the similarity, not the difference, in their ages, and then, as she sees

herself flinging open her arms in longing, acknowledges a passionate desire akin to

Olga’s. Such glimpses of similarity contribute importantly to Denise’s new

understanding of Olga and to the reconciliation it makes possible.

The change in the poet’s view of Olga is

apparent in change sin her imagery. The flames of Olga’s passion fade, as the poet

comes to see clearly "that kind candle" in her sister’s heart; recognizing

that love was the source of Olga’s rage, Denise now wonders, with some awe,

"what kept compassion’s candle alight in you. . .?" (P. 60). Similarly, the

image of relentlessly flowing water becomes first "a sea/of love and pain," (p.

57) and finally the streams and brooks through which Denise sees Olga’s eyes and

fully recognizes her sister.

New motifs also reflect and contribute to

Denise’s changing view of Olga. The most important of these is music. Gradually, we

come to see Olga as a musician and lover of music. In the final poem, Denise recalls her

sister "savagely" playing "straight through all the Beethoven

sonatas," and realizes that Olga was playing to survive: "you were enduring in

the/falls and rapids of the music, the arpeggios range out, the rectory/trembled, our

parents seemed effaced" (p. 59-60). The poet is able to recognize the importance of

music to Olga here because she has earlier recalled a serener music which stills binds her

to Olga:

In a garden grene [sic] whenas I lay–

You set the words to a tune so plaintive

it plucks its way through my life as through a wood.

As through a wood, shadow and light between


gliding a moment in open glades, hidden by thickets of holly

your life winds in me.

(Sorrow Dance, p. 57)

The memory of this music leads directly to an

extended memory of shared childhood longings and secrets, in which the age difference

again dissolves; Olga’s song twines through this memory, too: she had imagines that

the sisters might lift a trapdoor in the ground and travel to "another country,"

where we would like without father or mother

and without longing for the upper world. The birds

sang sweet, O song, in the midst of the daye,

. . . . . . . .

and we entered silent mid-Essex churches on hot afternoons

and communed with the effigies of knights and their ladies

and their slender dogs asleep at their feet,

the stone so cold—

In youth

is pleasure, in youth is pleasure.

(Sorrow Dance, p. 58)

The sisters dream of freedom from adults, and of

romance. Olga, too–it is her story, we’re told–may have yearned to stay a

child. Yet Olga’s suffering, in childhood as later, runs as an undercurrent even of

this most peaceful poem. Music, recollected, then, restores and enlarges the intimacy of

which it was earlier an integral part.

Gradually, the poet’s view of Olga changes.

She recognizes Olga’s suffering more fully as she sees her sister as a child, both in

the dreamy passage just quoted, and in the painful passage that precedes her final vision:

"I think of your eyes in that photo, six years before I was born,/fear in them. What

did you do with your fear,/later?" (P. 60). Acknowledging Olga’s childhood,

Denise herself matures. Recalling Olga’s music, she finds another source of kinship

in art. Recognizing this bond between them, recreating Olga, and through her sister’s

influence eventually expanding the possibilities of her own poetry, Levertov the poet

indeed acts like Olga, the storyteller who attempted to recreate the world.

Levertov’s new understanding and sense of

kinship with Olga are confirmed in the final lines of the sequence. She recalls the past,

when her eyes "smarted in pain and anger" at the thought of Olga; at the end,

she says, "so many questions my eyes/smart to ask your eyes." (Pp. 59-60).

Finally, she returns to the imagery of the first poem, re-evoking Olga’s warm

sensuous darkness:

. . .your eyes, gold brown eyes,

the lashes short but the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or shining,

unknowable gaze. . .(Levertov’s ellipsis)

(Sorrow Dance, p. 60)

By now the vision has gained the depth and

intimacy of adult understanding and love, which allow the speaker to acknowledge her own

limits, and her sister’s integrity, and to accept the fact that some questions will

never be answered.

Coming to terms with Olga, accepting and loving

her, is important to the poet in several ways. That this relationship was long weighted

with misunderstand and pain is evident in Levertov’s earlier, less direct, references

to it. In "Relative Figures Reappear" and "A May of the Western Part of the

County of Essex in England, she refers to Olga as frightening but dear. Two other poems,

"Song for a Dark Voice" and "A Window," evoke Olga’s spirit

through imagery similar to that of the "Olga Poems" and surround that spirit

with a mysterious attraction.

Another dimension of Olga’s importance,

transcending personal emotion (but growing from it), is evident in the place this sequence

takes in the center of The Sorrow Dance, where it links poems of Eros, which explore

sensuous experience, first to poems that emphasize vision, elaborating on the new capacity

for understanding achieved through reconciliation with Olga, and then, most significantly,

to poems of ardent political commitment. Levertov is known today for her commitment to the

anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. I believe that she owes the conviction that makes her

political beliefs integral to much of her writing to Olga and to her own effort to

understand the importance of her sister and their relationship. Before The Sorrow Dance,

her poetry does not generally reflect her political interests. That Olga has freed her to

speak out is clearly suggested in poems that follow the "Olga Poems." In "A

Note to Olga (1966), "the poet detects her sister’s presence at a protest march:

"Your high soprano/sings out from just/in back of me–." It seems to be Olga

who is lifted "limp and ardent" into the gaping paddywagon (Sorrow Dance, pp.

88-89). We can also see Olga’s influence in later books, most notably To Stay Alive,

and The Freeing of the Dust. Her influence is present both in Levertov’s political

topics and in her ability to sympathize with radical protesters, some of whom are surely

much more like Olga than like the poet herself.

Olga’s life is vindicated and honored in her

sister’s poems. Her passionate commitment to change contributes to Levertov’s

maturity and her poetic development. Olga’s pain, shared by Denise, gives depth to

the latter’s vision. Levertov acknowledges her debt by concluding The Sorrow Dance

with "The Ballad of My Father," a poem written by Olga shortly before her death.

Allowing Olga thus to speak for herself, she shares her book with her sister and confirms

the link between them.

But while Denise acknowledges that she has grown

through her new understanding of Olga, herself, and their relationship, important

differences remain, and Denise’s view of life is validated. Olga’s led her to

grief and death. Denise’s view, on the other hand, is echoed in the structure and

process of the "Olga" sequence itself. Instead of "flowing"

relentlessly, the poems, and with them the poet’s view of Olga, unfold. The movements

backward in time to a more intimate past, and even to the image of Olga’s frightened

face, can be thought of as the folding back of layers to reveal the essential core of

Olga’s character and the sisters’ bond. Levertov also insists on the differences

between them in the political poems of To Stay Alive: Olga has freed the poet to a fuller

knowledge of Eros, but her fuller understanding means she must diverge form Olga’s

path, as she does when she turns away from consuming anger to affirm the value of

struggling for life.

The final words of the "Olga Poems,"

then, are true both to Denise’s love for her sister and to her recognition that Olga

will always be inaccessible to her: that "unknowable gaze" is beautiful but

impenetrable. Levertov thus acknowledges the tension of the sisters’ bond, the

contrast between intimacy and estrangement, which is one of Adrienne Rich’s dominant

themes when she explores the same subject.

Ed. By A.H. McNaron The Sister Bond, A

Feminist View of a Timeless Connection. Copyright ? 1985 by Pergamon Press Inc. New

York. pp. 107-113.

Harry Marten

That the roots of responsibility to community run deep in the poet’s personal

experience, entwining private and public feelings, is evident in the moving "Olga

Poems" that Levertov writes in memorial to her much older sister Olga Levertoff, who

died at the age of fifty. Recalling the childhoods they spent together but never quite

shared because of differences in age and temperament, the poet recreates and speculates

upon the impulses, desires, anxieties, and beliefs of the complex person "who now

these two months long / is bones and tatters of flesh in earth." What "the

little sister" rejected or was intuitively moved by, but couldn’t possibly

understand, the adult poet now knows and recognizes as an important seedbed of her own

understanding. Levertov remembers the ways Olga "muttered into my childhood,"

sounding her "rage / and human shame" before poverty, her insistence on the

worth of change, her love of the musical words of hymns. She recognizes, too, what may be

some of the cost of such sensitivity, energy and commitment: "the years of

humiliation, / of paranoia . . . and near-starvation, losing / the love of those you

loved." Levertov ponders and pays homage to "compassion’s candle alight"

nonetheless in her sister.

The sequence begins vividly with a sensory recreation of a child’s vision, suggesting

in its intensity how important the older sister was to the younger, and yet how separate

and impenetrable she was. The reader can virtually feel the heat "By the

gas-fire" as Olga kneels "to undress"

scorching luxuriously, raking

her nails over olive sides, the red

waistband ring—

……………… I…………

Sixteen. Her breasts

round, round, and

dark-nippled . . .

The reader recognizes, too, how absorbed and apart the poet-child is, taking it all in

for a lifetime’s reference:

(And the little sister

beady-eyed in the bed—

or drowsy, was I? My head

a camera–) …

But the adult poet is less concerned here with the physical moment than with

comprehending the emotional tension and energy that shaped her sister and thereby affected

her own life. Quickly attention shifts from a camera view of frozen time to moments of

meditation and speculation, as Levertov, blending the child’s point of view and the

remembering adult’s more reasoned understanding, relates the physical to the emotional.

Signs of stress predominate in the portrait of a young woman who seems at once

forbiddingly old and vulnerably adolescent. They appear in "The high pitch of /

nagging insistence" of Olga’s voice; in the "lines / creased into raised

brows"; and in "the skin around the nails / nibbled sore." The teenager who

"wanted / to shout the world to its senses" who knew from the age of nine what

defined a "slum" was teased by her small sister reaching the same age,

"admiring / architectural probity, circa / eighteen-fifty." But the poet, grown

up and mixing memory with her own clear and strong adult social conscience, recognizes

that in her dark browed and mercurial sibling was a purity of caring difficult to live

with, but crucially valuable in its steady brightness: "Black one, black one, / there

was a white / candle in your heart."

Pondering the steps and missteps of Olga’s life in relation to her own values and

choices, Levertov conjures a vision of her sister’s restlessness turned fearfully against

itself. Half remembering and half creating moments of the past, Levertov recalls Olga’s

conviction that "everything flows," expressed as nervous mutterings while she

was "pacing the trampled grass" of childhood playgrounds. These were words, the

poet acknowledges, that "felt … alien" to the much quieter small child

"look[ing] up from [her] Littlest Bear’s cane armchair." Yet they were a source

of comfort and bonding as well:

… linked to words we loved

from the hymnbook—Time

like an ever-rolling stream / bears all its sons away–

"But dread / was in her" sister, Levertov concludes, "a bloodbeat"

of fear; and "against the rolling dark oncoming river she raised bulwarks, setting

herself / . . . / to change the course of the river." Recognizing clearly now the

"rage for order" that "disordered her [sister’s] pilgrimage,"

Levertov’s poem in a sense makes some order out of Olga’s anguished life and partly

clarifies her own as well:

I had lost

all sense, almost, of

who she was, what–inside of her skin,

under her black hair

dyed blonde—

it might feel like to be, in the wax and wane of the moon,

in the life I feel as unfolding, not flowing, the pilgrim years–

The poet pictures various scenes of Olga’s immense fretful energy, and envisions the

final "burned out" hospital days and nights: "while pain and drugs /

quarreled like sisters in you." She comes, after all, not to answers, but to

questions which, being raised relentlessly, offer a recognition of the shapes of two lives

linked in their diverse ways by questing and caring. As Levertov explains, addressing her

sister, "I cross / so many brooks in the world, there is so much light /

dancing on so many stones, so many questions my eyes / smart to ask of your eyes."

Sounding the most crucial of them, she exclaims that "I think of your eyes in that

photo, six years before I was born," remembering "the fear in them,"

wondering what became of the fear later, and "what kept / compassion’s candle alight

in you" through many difficult years.

The question of how to keep compassion’s candle alight in the face of numbing horror

and frustration is not simply one of hindsight or family discovery. It is one of the most

perplexing questions that faced Levertov in the coming years, as her commitments were

fired and tried by her growing awareness of what one nation can justify doing to another

in the name of abstract words and public postures. To

an extent, she found her answer in her early political poetry by looking to her own

strengths as a poet and affirming the human capacity for creative imagining and

communication. These were qualities to both counterbalance and reveal the powerful

capacities of humankind for manipulations and destruction.

From Understanding Denise Levertov. University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Copyright ? 1988 by the University of South Carolina Press.

Audrey T. Rodgers

The Sorrow Dance was dedicated to the memory of Olga Levertoff, the poet’s

sister, who died in 1964, and the "Olga Poems" are important not only because of

their intrinsic value as fine elegiac poetry, but because of the way in which they explain

and mirror Levertov’s ever-increasing social conscience. In an interview in 1971, the

poet spoke about the importance of structure: ". . . in other works of art which I

value I often see echoes and correspondences. . . . It’s the impulse to create

pattern or to reveal pattern. I say ‘reveal,’ because I have a thing about

finding form rather than imposing it. I want to find correspondences and relationships

which are there but hidden, and I think one of the things the artist does is reveal."

It is those echoes and correspondences that hold special interest for us. It would

therefore be simplistic to view the Olga poems, as one critic has, as Levertov’s

absorption with the theme of death. While the poems are nostalgic and often

lyrical—for unredeemable time, for the "older sister" clearly a

"presence" in the life of the younger child—they are more than this. The

poems are also a "portrait," an observation that "everything flows," a

painful recapitulation of Olga’s death (at wh