27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2005
This collection of "selected poems on religious themes" is not to be confused with religious poetry, or inspirational poetry. Here we have a renowned modern poet from the late 20th Century, who embraced the Christian faith late in life, interacting with spiritual sources that crossed her path while on her journey of faith.
Often one only gets out of a poem what one brings to it, at other times the poem speaks for itself. Both are the case here. Levertov develops a personal dialogue with various texts, personages and paintings, such as Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, the Mass for St. Thomas Didymus, Caedmon from Bede's "History of the English Church," Velazquez's "The Servant Girl at Emmaus," Brother Lawrence's "Practice of the Presence of God," "Hail, space for the uncontained God" (from the Orthodox Christian Akathist hymn), as well as numerous New Testament passages.
Some of these poems presuppose at least a nodding acquaintance with the original source. Others, such as those dealing with Christ's suffering on the cross, will be more accessible, since most of our culture still retains an awareness of the life of Christ.
While I struggled through some of these works, knowing that if I took the time I could get much more out of them, others demanded to be read a second and third time immediately.
Such was the case with "Annunciation," which draws on the Gospel account of when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to bear the Son of God: "But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions/ courage./ The engendering Spirit/did not enter her without consent./ God waited./ She was free/ to accept or to refuse, choice/ integral to humanness."
Many still believe that modern poetry and the Christian faith don't mix. Here is proof otherwise. Going through this volume may be like mining for gold for some, but believe me, it's worth the effort. If you like this volume, check out works by Scott Cairns, also found here at Amazon.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 1999
The need for simple groupings of poems into thematic clusters may be too convenient and decpetive of the complexities of the poems themselves. But with Levertov, as with others, there is such a compelling predeliction towards specific themes and subjects that to do so can be useful.Here we have her major religious poems in a separate volume, just as there has been a volume of her poems on nature and a deserved volume of her political poems (if one hasn't been published already). These poems do chart Levertov's progressive understanding and acceptance of Christianity, but at their best they do something else. Their focus is often on natural scenes which have a humbling effect. The level sought isn't always that of the often over-mystified religious ceremony, though there's plenty of mystery to the poems. In "The Avowel" this effect is achieved through analogy, the submissive posture of lying on one's back hearkening not only a religious submission but one which the speaker is reminded of by the natural world. "As swimmers dare/ to lie face to the sky/ and water bears them,/ as hawks rest upon air/ and air sustains them,/ so would I learn to attain/ freefall, and float/ into Creator Spirit's deep embrace,/ knowing no effort earns/ that all-surrounding grace."
The "free-falling" that occurs is much like that effect of flight in George Herbert's concrete poem "Easter Wings," which takes the shape of a bird. Here the use of a center alignment (which is hard for me to approximate) gives the impression of both the "deep embrace" and the fall, each line arrising not from a speakerly margin but from a need more like song. Again, the groupings of these poems together is a faulty judgement of Levertov's range, yet considering her uncanny ability to mask her concerns in a seemingly banal tone through everyday language we should be thankful that these small volumes have been available as studies into one of the best American poets of the last half century.
22 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 1997
This set of books frighten me. Both are powerful and wonderful and deserve
your immediate and lasting attention. The poems are not new, they are a
themed selection. Interestingly enough placed in seperate but equal volumes.
The Stream and the Sapphire is a selection of poems that elucidate the
growth of Denise as a Christian. And an exciting growth it is. My favorite
of the moment are words I use as prayer: "How can I focus my flickering,
perceive at the fountain's heart the sapphire I know is there?"
The Life Around Us is subtitled "selected poems on nature". In "A Reward",
we live a harried day with the narrator and watch with her as "the heron,
unseen for weeks, came flying widewinged toward me."
What is probably a marketing tool, a most wise one by the publisher, is
what scares me about these two volumes. In theme, the power of God is told
in lush detail in both volumes. The heron in the nature selection is the
holy spirit of the religious selection, and in our natural state both can
and will be the same. Those brief moments of recognition of something
So with these two volumes to recommend, why should I be trepiditious? The
marketing folks know us so well, and as poets we cannot overcome the
marketing department. "Christians" are right winged slobs that grow fat and
salute the flag and make fools of themselves on TV. They have absolutely no
regard for nature because they are Republicans bound and determined to
destroy the rainforest. Friends of the natural world cannot be interested
in true spiritual life because they worship nature, and are Democrats, and
would not consider a Christian a person. A nature person is good and
upright and has never done wrong, and therefore has no need of the "crutch"
Crass? Yep. That's why I'm scared of these two books. Because it brings out
the crass nature of our commercialized economy. Everything is cut and dry -
a cookie cutter product determined and produced by a media that thrives on
exacting stereotypes. I can hear the salesman now walking into the
Christian bookstore pitching the blue book; and the same salesman waking
into the New Age bookstore pitching the green book. I'm saddened and scared
that it's come to this - even in poetry. It's been with us in every other
aspect of life for so many years now that I guess it had to be inevitable.
Truth is, most Christians live in a more calm life than the wild-eyed
frothing at the mouth pentacostal, or the bomb-throwing fanatic at an
abortion clinic. It may be surprising to those who only read newspapers and
watch tv to find out that many Christians believe God commanded them to
take care of the planet. And vice-versa. Not all nature lovers worship the
earth as God. Not all folks who are concerned with the environment are
anti-Christian. Surprisingly to the media-fed public is the fact that there
are many people who love the outdoors who feel abortion is just as wrong as
shooting a bald eagle or a snowy songed owl.
Not all republicans are anti-abortion; not all democrats are pro-abortion;
and not all those who could care less about politics have no opinion either
way. There are many varieties of individuals; and within most of us, I
believe strongly, there is a wonderful mixture of all the above. Let's face
it, when confronted with a child molester who just raped his child, the
strongest anti-abortion catholic would probably much rather kill the man as
see him live, even if only for a brief moment. Why? Because we are human.
Which brings this around from a silly sermon back to the issue at hand -
Denise Levertov celebrates our humanity. We see Thomas - in some circles
known as the twin brother of Christ - struggling with his doubts. We hear
in other places the voice of the poet struggling with questions and
wandering doubts. In the nature series we hear the narrators of the poems
finding a deep peace - if only momentary, a solace - a knowledge. Read
together we find these powerful insights are all one insight into our inner
And, slyly, in selecting the poems, Denise was able to confound the
marketing department. From the nature series: "God is imaged as well or
better in the white stillness resting everywhere, giving all things an hour
of Sabbath." And from the religious series: "Dull stones again fulfill
their glowing destinies, and emptiness is a cup, and holds the ocean." Why
not combine these two selctions of poems into one fine volume? Marketing.
Sad, but true. Recently, ND published Robert Duncan's selected - 170+ pages
for $12.95. By seperating Denise's poems for a perceived dual market (and
unfortunately the perception is probably true), the sales force is able to
sell the two slender volumes for $8.95 apiece. A few extra bucks - and
because of the targeted audience - a lot more sales!
My recommendation? Confound the marketing department. Buy both books!
Praise both books. And praise Denise for giving us such interesting
meditations on life. If you can, then read or re-read her past volumes and
experience her growth in a more natural form; but if you are in a position
of experiencing her poetry for the first time, these two small volumes will
be an appetizer that will send you searching to experience the flavors of
The Jacob's Ladder, Evenings In Babylon, Evening Train, and quite a few more
on July 4, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
excellent condition, the poems are excellent and very engaging on Christian themes by a "slow to convert" poet -- she has many breath-taking angles on the mysteries of the faith