Denise Levertov’s ‘On A Theme By Thomas Merton’
Why are some writers of faith celebrated in American Christianity while others are not? That is my question about today’s poet, Denise Levertov. Among Christians devoted to the arts, Levertov is profoundly appreciated. Yet she hasn’t received the wider acclaim and affection that many afford to Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Mary Oliver, or Wendell Berry. Today I’m featuring a Denise Levertov poem because I believe she should be more widely read. Her poetic style is clear and accessible, yet full of strength and soul.
Levertov converted to Christianity from Hasidic Judaism late in life. She has an Anglican connection, too. Her father moved from Leipzig, Germany, to England during the First World War, becoming an Anglican priest after his conversion from Judaism.
Here is a Levertov poem that meditates on the story of creation in conversation with Thomas Merton.
On a Theme By Thomas Merton
"Adam, where are you?" God's hands palpate darkness, the void that is Adam's inattention, his confused attention to everything, impassioned by multiplicity, his despair. Multiplicity, his despair; God's hands enacting blindness. Like a child at a barbaric fairgrounds -- noise, lights, the violent odors -- Adam fragments himself. The whirling rides! Fragmented Adam stares. God's hands unseen, the whirling rides dazzle, the lights blind him. Fragmented, he is not present to himself. God suffers the void that is his absence.
Meditating with Levertov’s poem
Holiness always means wholeness, a fully alive person offering himself wholly to God. Sin brings division in body, in soul, in relationships. Levertov’s opening line ‘Adam, where are you?’ resounds an echo into a distance, a separation that should never have been. God did not create Adam to ask him the question, ‘where are you?’ Yet the question resounds.
The indentation of the second line is a cue: ‘God’s hands‘ hearken back to the moment God forms Adam from the dust of the ground with his hands. But now those divine hands ‘palpate darkness.’ God touches Adam’s absence, ‘the void‘ of unnatural separation. God spoke light into darkness. Adam spoke darkness in the face of light.
A recurring theme in each stanza is the viral nature of sin: separation from God breeds endless division and fragmentation. Adam faces despair because of ‘multiplicity,’ the endless temptations to find life and meaning apart from God. Adam’s sin-virus spreads with every moment he is bedazzled by the spectacle of pseudo-wonder: ‘noise, light, whirling rides.’ Our desires are the devil’s playground. Unless the Enemy is renounced, the ‘lights [will] blind‘ Adam.
Confronting our blindness can be terrifying, which explains why we look for salvation away from God. Our Enemy deceives us that pursuing constant thrills will bring consolation. Instead of meditating on the Source of life and healing, ‘Fragmented Adam stares‘ into the void. He misplaces his meditation. Instead of meditating on his Father, he meditates on the entertainments that numb his despair.
Yet notice how God never leaves Adam in Levertov’s vision. ‘God’s hands‘ are present in every stanza. This simple repetition captures the audacious love of God persisting throughout Israel’s story. Adam is blind. Adam suffers inner division. Adam despairs. But the poem does not end with Adam’s suffering, but God’s.
Levertov brings us to a window in these final two lines: ‘God/ suffers the void that is his absence.’ What do we see from this window? The God who suffers the void of his absence sends his Suffering Servant. He will unite Adam’s viral, inner division when he is conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. He will lift Adam’s curse in the terrible moment when he suffers the Father’s absence, praying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Why this poem belongs in Lent
Lent prepares us for the events of Holy Week, when Jesus will be condemned to die on a tree. Christ’s death on the tree is the sign of the curse he bears, the curse of Adam. Levertov enters the story of Adam’s fall and meditates on the curse which afflicts Adam and all his sons and daughters. Blindness, division, and absence are the symptoms of our disease. In Lent we are called to confront our blindness, confess our scattered inattention, and seek the healing of our fragmented souls.
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