Jim Schley's Essays

Among the Birds: Levertov and Nathan

The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature. By Denise Levertov. New Directions, 1996. Diary of a Left-handed Birdwatcher. By Leonard Nathan. Graywolf Press, 1996.

Vermont poet Cora Brooks has written, "Forgive these words, they are not birds."  

Academic philosophers have built careers upon speculations that what most of us call Literature is a falsehood, an intellectual sham or circus trick. Meanwhile, for altogether different reasons, imaginative writers continue to wrestle, as they have always done, with the difficulty of accurately catching in words the dizzying vivaciousness of being alive. Two recent books by poets Denise Levertov and Leonard Nathan celebrate both the effort and joy of reaching with language for a momentary grasp of the "realness" of the natural world — a realm we experience through a perpetually shifting range of sights, sounds, and feelings.

Consider the one-line poem of Cora Brooks, one fluent gesture, one rapidly balanced and articulated sentence. The poet concedes the inability of words to embody the actual winged miracles that surround us, yet with equal verve demonstrates how suddenly poetry can penetrate an ordinarily distracted mind. The reader knowledgeable about craft would recognize the phrasing as perfect iambic tetrameter, with a strong and pivotal caesura or pause in the middle, but you don’t need to know this to get a rush of sensations from the line. Literary-critical theorizing seems extraneous under the glancing blow of that poem.

Denise Levertov, who died in December 1997, was the author of more than twenty books of poems. The longevity and breadth of her influence upon readers and writers since the 1950s has been underscored by poet Kenneth Rexroth, who praised her as "the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, the most modest, the most moving." Levertov’s longtime publisher has recently released two pocket-sized, clothbound anthologies drawing upon collections published in all phases of her writing life. The Life Around Us, which I’ll describe here, is thematically organized around poems that meditate upon our relationships with nature. The book is handsomely composed, intended to be carried along like a book of common prayer. As ever in this poet’s work,  the music is richly detailed, awestruck as well as elegiac. 

Here is "The Willows of Massachusetts":

Animal willows of November

in pelt of gold enduring when all else

has let go all ornament

and stands naked in the cold.

Cold shine of sun on swamp water,

cold caress of slant beam on bough,

gray light on brown bark.

Willows — last to relinquish a leaf,

curious, patient, lion-headed, tense

with energy, watching

the serene cold through a curtain

of tarnished strands.

Levertov works like a spider, drawing out from within her body lines as fine as gossamer filament, yet resilient and adhesive. Actual spider web is, relative to its breadth, one of the toughest materials on Earth — the same substance enlarged would be stronger than steel cable, capable of spanning bridge supports.  Like spider web, by design Levertov’s poems are as much a matter of gaps and openings as anchored fibers. And she’s as industrious as the prolific orb spinner whose web-works are ripped to tatters and who simply re-commences, because that is her nature and need:

Everything is threatened, but meanwhile

everything presents itself:

the trees, that day and night

steadily stand there, amassing

lifetimes and moss, the bushes

eager with buds sharp as green

pencil-points . . . 

Her poems can at times seem didactic or excessively emotive, to a degree that evades rather than engulfs the reader, but following the course of Levertov’s books for years, one comes over and over to scores of indispensable poems as well as some of the most gorgeous and intricate essays ever written on the tactile craft of writing. These are all the more piercing for originating in an age when the survival of no species or habitat can be taken for granted. As the poet observes in her foreword to The Life Around Us, "In these last few decades of the twentieth century it has become ever clearer to all thinking people that although we humans are a part of nature ourselves, we have become, in multifarious ways, an increasingly destructive element within it, shaking and breaking the ‘great web.’ So a poet, although often impelled . . . to write poems of pure celebration, is driven inevitably to lament, to anger, and to the expression of dread."  

An artist as consummately confident as Levertov tends not to despair at the distance between word and world, but instead uses every resource at hand so as to completely inhabit the interval itself.

Leonard Nathan is the author of nine fabulous collections of poems, and the book here reviewed is a hybrid, written in prose, neither fiction nor nonfiction precisely. I use the term "precisely" on purpose, because like Levertov’s, Nathan’s work is replete with exact connections and combinations, images and phrases that defy passing quickly over. 

In design and presentation, Nathan’s new book is also like Levertov’s — beautiful and compact. In plot, his meta-fictional Diary is oblique, left-handed in more ways than one, built up like a montage of ruminative passages such as those in a personal diary. One ostensible purpose of Nathan’s "entries" is to record the excursions of Thursday’s Children, an otherwise unaffiliated gang of aspiring naturalists who gather once a week to carpool to promising sites with their field guides and binoculars. The narrator — a version of Nathan himself, bookworm and unabashed amateur — insists upon the distinction between the serendipitous  birdwatcher and the more zealous  birder, who is "more hunter than looker-on, more passionate about having seen than seeing," and whose Life List is paramount. Nathan playfully interlaces in these pages accounts of hilarious field-trips (grown men and women piling into cars to hurry somewhere because someone has reported sighting), snatches of dreams, poems from various writers, and meditations upon the allure of finally seeing — really seeing — an elusive exemplar, the snow bunting, which he believes he’s only glimpsed once from the edge of an eye. Running through the other diary entries is a series of conversations between poet and scientist, in this case an ornithologist who scornfully questions the idea that an artist could make any genuinely useful contribution to comprehension of the avian world. Our poet is bewildered by the scientist’s rebuttals, and he repeatedly tries to reformulate a precept that the scientist will accept. This philosophical confrontation is fierce and grand, even as the genuine friendship of these two men of contrary sensibilities is insightfully dramatized. 

I cannot recommend  Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher more delightedly. This is one of the most unusual and evocative books of prose I’ve read in a long while, as likely to please lovers of poetry as devotees of superb nature writing. 

I’m impressed that my own group of friends in New England has become avid for birdwatching. Many of these are people who formerly lived seasonally in different houses, renting or house-sitting or even tenting, and who now have children and homes they’ve built. We’ve grown more alert to the other residents of our territory. The activities of the birds around us, arriving and nesting, mating and feeding and fledging then moving on in the fall, keep coming up in conversations as we pass on the sidewalk or in the aisles of a store — the first vireo heard, or last warbler; an unexpected glimpse of a scarlet tanager; the enormous gray goshawk on a maple bough.

In Genesis, Adam undertakes responsibility for assigning a name to each creature in existence, and ever since, poets have defended their task as comparably essential. In actual practice, even poets as skilled as Levertov and Nathan are less likely to invent than refresh — using the shared vocabulary of our working-day language, to show all over again how bracingly words plunge us not out of but  into what Levertov calls the life around us.  If the aim of scientific taxonomy is to be exhaustive, comprehensive, categorical, and discriminating, the aim of poetic rendering is to crisscross and blend. These are different but complementary modes of precision. 

 ― Published in abbreviated form in Northern Woodlands, Spring 1998