The unofficial Poet Laureate of Seward Park.
Denise Levertov lived the last eight years of her life a block from Seward Park. A plaque installed in 2016 marks her home nearby. She was an anti-war activist, a feminist, an environmentalist – “a fiery pilgrim who never wanted to be known as any of those things” (Rich Smith in The Stranger, 2015). If rankings and company matter, then she comes off well, grouped with Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, a young correspondent with T.S.Eliot, mentored by William Carlos William, associated with the Black Mountain School. With her friend Robert Duncan she was viewed as among the most important post-war American poets.
Levertov knew and loved Seward Park. She walked the trails of what she described as this “almost island, almost wilderness”. She captured some of its strength and depth in her late poems.
In a 1991 essay “Some Affinities of Content” she wrote “People say that every poet of the Pacific Northwest has to write a heron poem now and then.” And she soon obliged. Here is her second heron poem, from the 1992 collection Evening Train.
Elegantly gray, the blue heron
rises from perfect stillness on wide wings,
flies a few beats
trails his feet in the lake,
and rises again to circle
from marker to marker (the posts
that show where the bottom shelves downward)
and lands on the floating dock where the gulls cluster —
a tall prince come down from the castle to walk,
proud and awkward, in the market square,
while squat villagers
break off their deals
and look askance.
And from the same collection (Levertov reads this live, the first poem in the video above):
I was welcomed here—clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,
the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing herself unclouded, her snow
tinted apricot as she looked west,
tolerant, in her steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
Now I am given
a taste of the grey foretold by all and sundry,
a grey both heavy and chill. I’ve boasted I would not care,
I’m London-born. And I won’t. I’ll dig in,
into my days, having come here to live, not to visit.
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain’s vast presence, seen or unseen.
In 1961, witnessing the decline of her mentor William Carlos Williams, and the mental illness of Ezra Pound, she wrote these words – words which we may now apply fairly to her as well.
This is the year the old ones, the old great ones leave us alone on the road. The road leads to the sea. We have the words in our pockets, obscure directions.
And not always obscure: it is not easy to miss heron’s feet trailing in the water. And we all – knowingly, and maybe sometimes willingly – pay the price of grey to neighbor with eagles. This beautiful peninsula, almost island, almost wilderness, and with – almost – an official poet laureate.