Deaths (Denise Levertov)

June 2, 2009


Osip Mandelstam

With a glass of
boiled water
not yet cold
by a small stove
not giving out
much heat
he was sitting
and saying over
those green words
Laura and laurel
written in Avignon

when out of the somber
winter day entered
Death in green clothing
having traveled
by train and on foot
ten thousand kilometers to
this end,
and moving aside to give him
a place at the fire, the poet
made him welcome, asking
for news of home.

Caesar Vallejo

Darling Death
shouted in his ear,
his ear made to record
the least, the most finespun
of worm-cries and
and with the courtesy he accorded
all clumsy living things
that stumble in broken boots
he bowed and
not flinching from her black breath
gave her his arm and
walked back with her the
way she had come and
turned the corner.


Levertov’s poems seem to ride the high roads of darkness and light. They haunt me the way the Bible haunts me, the way Flannery O’Connor’s charcters or Dickinson’s honed lyrical blade haunt me. Here, two versions of death arrive, one male, one female, one a traveler, the other a screamer. In both cases, the poet welcomes its arrival. The one seeking “news of home”; the other giving his arm for the journey.

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