Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Denise Levertov: At the Justice Department November 15, 1969

Brown gas-fog, white

beneath the street lamps.

Cut off on three sides, all space filled

with our bodies.

       Bodies that stumble

in brown airlessness, whitened

in light, a mildew glare,

       that stumble

hand in hand, blinded, retching.

Wanting it, wanting

to be here, the body believing it’s

dying in its nausea, my head

clear in its despair, a kind of joy,

knowing this is by no means death,

is trivial, an incident, a

fragile instant.    Wanting it, wanting

          with all my hunger this anguish,

          this knowing in the body

the grim odds we’re

up against, wanting it real.

Up that bank where gas

curled in the ivy, dragging each other

up, strangers, brothers

and sisters.    Nothing

will do but

to taste the bitter

taste. No life

other, apart from.

”At the Justice Department, November 15, 1969” by Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1968-1972, copyright ©1969 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

Born in Ilford, England, Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997) emigrated to the United States in 1947. She wrote and published 24 books of poetry, criticism and translations, as well as editing several anthologies. Among her many awards and honors, she received the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a Catherine Luck Memorial Grant, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Levertov wrote poems about a wide variety of subjects, including marriage, nature, and spirituality. During the 1960s and 70s, Levertov became politically active in her life and work. As poetry editor for The Nation, she was able to support and publish the work of feminist and other leftist activist poets. The Vietnam War was an especially important focus of her poetry, which often tried to weave together the personal and political, as in her poem “The Sorrow Dance,” which speaks of her sister’s death. Also in response to the Vietnam War, Levertov joined the War Resisters League, and in 1968 signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the war. Levertov was a founding member of the anti-war collective RESIST along with Noam Chomsky, Mitchell Goodman, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald. Levertov is widely regarded as one of the most important American poets of the 20th century, and today many poets and artists find inspiration in the example she set as a poet-activist. [bio adapted from Wikipedia and The Poetry Foundation]

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