I had not been aware of the poetry of Denise Levertov until I read Milosz's ABC's recently (and I had to discover Milosz before I discovered Levertov. Everything is connected), which mentions her life and work. She seemed like she might be extraordinary and unusual, worth seeking out. I filed her name away in my mind, turned away to read something else waiting for me on the floor of my room. And then I went on one of my periodic used-bookstore prowls yesterday. There is a tiny bookstore in my neighborhood I that I cannot pass without going in, a hole-in-the wall crammed with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a skinny spiral staircase leading to an even tinier mezzanine, more like a balcony, filled with more books. Books are piled on the floor, on the desk where the bearded proprietor sits with his laptop, looking up and greeting me as I come in. I always find something that I didn't know I wanted, and occasionally I find something I was looking for.
The bookstore had a few sagging shelves packed with poetry. I had been looking for Mandelstam; not finding him my gaze slid slowly to the left, where I found Levertov's Breathing the Water. The title caught my eye, a slim volume nearly hidden by the other books surrounding it. Took it out, flipped through the pages. Fell into her words. Felt as though I was sliding into water, pulled beneath the surface by the undertow of poetry. The title, I think, comes from the last poem, Variation and Reflection on a Theme by Rilke (The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 7). How did I not discover her before? Now I find I must read more. A return trip to the bookstore is called for.
We must breathe time as fishes breathe water.*
*Levertov, Denise. Breathing the Water. New Directions Books, 1987. p 83.