"Life at War" by Denise Levertov, 1966


Photograph by Chick Harrity, 1973, Vietnam

The disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough

weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.
Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart. . .
Could I say of it, it overflows
with bitterness . . . but no, as though

its contents were simply balled into
formless lumps, thus
do I carry it about.’
The same war

continues.
We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it:

the knowledge that humankind,

delicate Man, whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,

whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understanding manifests designs
fairer than the spider’s most intricate web,

still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.

We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—

who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Vietnam as I write.

Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love;

our nerve filaments twitch with its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.


I post this because this is National Poetry Month.

This poem was featured on Poetry Off the Shelf. You can hear Levertov read the poem, and a discussion about it here.

Thoughts: This poems stabs deep, as great poetry should do much of the time. We see the past too often as a presented and mediated set of ideas, truncated and accepted and reaffirmed. But the war against the Vietnamese people was little different than the current wars against the Iraqi and Afghan peoples, or the war against the Palestinians. They are all raw and ugly. They are all about the human urge for power and security and control. This poem, from 1966, reminds me that the same war continues today.

One thought on “"Life at War" by Denise Levertov, 1966

  1. Thank you for posting this poem; I wanted to teach it in my online English course. When I was draft age (and after) Levertov was one of the few articulate and moving poet voices of compassionate dissent.

    Appreciation.

    Dore Robbins, dorenrobbins.com

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