What Rises So Far Above into the Light?


Spiritual Sunday 

I am poised to leave Sewanee, Tennessee after eight weeks of helping out with my father. My parents live in the midst of a heavily wooded 20-acre lot, which helps explain why I respond to this Denise Levertov poem, with its description of moving among “the ankles of forest Elders.” I post it today because, even though it’s not an explicitly religious poem, like all of Levertov’s nature poems it has a spiritual dimension.

The poem also takes me back to my childhood, to which my mind has been returning frequently given that this is the longest that I have resided with my parents since 1972. Living with an only partially mobile father also means that small, everyday acts require focus and planning, not unlike what happens with children. Every action–from bathing to eating to getting in the car to going to bed–takes an extra 15 minutes. As a result, I find my attention once again caught by small things, Levertov’s “leaf and bark at eye level.” It’s as though I have returned to my place amongst “the carved legs of the table.”

And yet, the fact that I am doing so while confronting the hard facts of mortality also means that my attention periodically gets pulled in the opposite direction. As Levertov puts it, I find myself “drawn to upgazing—up and up: to wonder about what rises so far above me into the light.”

Obviously, she’s talking about more than tree canopies and parental conversations. She wrote this poem towards the end of her life, which helps explain why her mind moves easily between the world here below and the light beyond.

In some ways, I am still a child, moving amidst the human feet and legs of my forest elders, only vaguely aware of the perplexities and wisdoms they exchange. Is this the paradox of very old age, that the imminence of eternity makes the here-and-now all the more vivid?

From Below

By Denise Levertov

I move among the ankles
of forest Elders, tread
their moist rugs of moss,
duff of their soft brown carpets.
Far above, their arms are held
open wide to each other, or waving
what they know, what
perplexities and wisdoms they exchange,
unknown to me as were the thoughts

of grownups when in infancy I wandered
into a roofed clearing amidst
human feet and legs and the massive
carved legs of the table,
the minds of people, the minds of trees
equally remote, my attention then
filled with sensations, my attention now
caught by leaf and bark at eye level
and by thoughts of my own, but sometimes
drawn to upgazing—up and up: to wonder
about what rises so far above me into the light.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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