Bearing Witness

By Jan Wallace

 Denise Levertov.  Photographer unknown, provided by Jan Wallace.

Denise Levertov.  Photographer unknown, provided by Jan Wallace.

Cemetery

1

Someone I cared for, and who happened to be famous among poets and lovers
of poetry, is buried in a fancy graveyard where our city founders rest along
with the sister of the Indian Chief they hoodwinked into giving us this land.
Lots of folks have landed here that would not show up on the same guest list.
Bruce Lee’s address is just down from hers at the top of the hill
under a steady evergreen, above a lake view that will never end. 

2

When I was in Scotland staying at that castle with scratchy horsehair beds —
in that ancient place meant to be a writer’s retreat but which, in November, was one long
Victorian ghost story—complete with creepy mirrors everywhere, shutters that slammed
and a neighboring room where another writer suffered night terrors and screamed
through the night— I ate my lunch alone in the local cemetery.
A grave is like a little boat that has run finally aground. Cemeteries help me settle down.

3

I like to think about a cocktail party, everybody freed from the body’s concerns,
from vanity, “my earlobes are growing as I get older” my friend complained,
freed of the problem a gunshot wound presents to the ongoingness
of a martial arts star. So many flock to the fighter’s grave wearing baseball caps
and sunglasses in taxicabs. They leave tricked-out wreathes. Take photos
of themselves, light candles, carry on. While those that visit her routinely
give directions to that other star’s grave. They trail jeans in mud, sniff
into handkerchiefs thrust into pockets, read her words aloud and leave
stones or pennies. One fan taped the poet’s own words to her stone:
"You have come to the shore. There are no instructions."
I wonder what the poet would say to the martial artist. She might admire
the structure of his art. The graceful physicality of how, in his own way,
he makes his lines. He might be startled by her vivid scarves gathering
every color, her steady light trained exactly on beauty. 

— Denise Levertov, Bruce Lee, and his son Brandon are all interred in Lakeview Cemetery, 

Seattle, WA

 

I don’t often write poems on a dare. But when the Seattle writer Rebecca Brown and I were in Lakeview Cemetery recently, she pointed out that Denise Levertov and Bruce Lee were both buried there, and dared me to write a poem about that as part of an upcoming celebration of Denise’s work. Rebecca is working with a group of people at St. Joseph’s Parish on the celebration, which will consist of several weeks of events, classes, and book group visits centered on Denise and her work. The events will culminate in the presentation of “Making Peace,” a poem that is being set to music by the Seattle-based composer John Muehleisen. The choral work will be performed at St. Joseph’s Parish on Capitol Hill in Seattle on May 16 of this year. In conjunction with this celebration, May 16 will be proclaimed official Denise Levertov Day in Seattle. 

Rebecca’s dare sent me down a path to explore what a cemetery really is—about the connection between the histories and stories that are memorialized in each specific cemetery—about how graves serve the living.

I knew Denise Levertov first as a student, then as a “part-time personal secretary,” and finally as a friend. We knew one another for just seven years, a short part of her rich life, up until her death in December of 1997. I’ll admit here that I was not a big fan of Denise’s poetry before I met her. This was due to my own vast ignorance, not to my aesthetics. I suspect that this helped me get to know her more easily because I was never star struck in the way I can be around writers I admire. I’ve been fortunate in that over the time since Denise’s death, I’ve grown close to a few of her oldest friends (by which I mean people she’d known the longest, not that these people are all that ancient). As a result of all of this, I remember her first for her particular habits of being—just as I believe we all remember friends and loved ones. From there, I remember her for what she taught me through her unique ways of seeing. The particular things I learned from her about poetry are important, certainly, but I recall more vividly the person who wrote poems out longhand and gave them to me to type on her electric typewriter upstairs at the end of the wooden table in her workroom. 

I was one of a series of secretaries Denise employed over the years. When I worked for her, I turned up in the morning on appointed days to type many things: poems, book blurbs, letters she wrote replying to fans, and recommendations for students. She sent me home with longer pieces to “do on my machine,” which is what she called the computer. I was supposed to balance her checkbook (which is really pretty funny since I am not very good at math), open and sort her mail, pay and file bills, and re-shelve books in her vast home library. I also answered the phone and made calls because she detested talking on the telephone. She usually made lunch for us, which we ate together at her big, round, oak table in the kitchen. 

One of my duties as secretary was to drive Denise to appointments. For a time, I drove her to what I misunderstood to be her “elation exercises” that she did with a nun. It took a long time to realize these were “Ignatian” exercises. 

 Denise Levertov.  Photograph from book dust jacket cover published by Academy of American Poets.  Provided by Jan Wallace. 

Denise Levertov.  Photograph from book dust jacket cover published by Academy of American Poets.  Provided by Jan Wallace. 

At that time, I drove a 1976 Dodge Dart. The deteriorating headliner was held up with duct tape to which Denise’s hair would sometimes become attached. Rather than finding this annoying, Denise would burst out with her satisfyingly hearty laugh. Denise had a playful sense of humor. I did not find her august, really. But she was the best read, best-educated person I’ve ever known. She was generous with this knowledge if she felt one was worthy that day of being enlightened.

Working as Denise’s secretary should have been a gentle job. But Denise had very firm convictions about how things should be done and was anything but soft with her corrections. I think I fell a bit under a spell in her house in that I so badly wanted to please her. I have dreadful handwriting, and was called on the carpet more than once for my penmanship with which I had addressed envelopes and packages. Once I typed the poem “Bruckner” which refers to “stormwracked” air, but which I misread (in her handwriting) and typed as “stormwhacked air.” I had come downstairs to hand her the poem for review and was halfway back up to the workroom when I heard a tremendous roar. “Stormwracked! Wracked! Not Whacked!” It’s not the sort of thing one easily forgets. That poem appears in Sands of the Well, by the way, if you want to look it up. 

I helped organize Denise’s funeral, and I read something at it. I know because I still have the Memorial Folder in which my name is listed. But I remember very little about that time. Denise was extremely intense. She was passionate about art, politics and the natural world, and she lived every moment with focus. She drew me in—as she did many people. She inspired deep loyalty in me, which may or may not say more about my personality than hers. When she died I felt a hole had been blown in my sky.

After Denise’s death, a few of her friends formed a committee to decide upon a fitting stone to mark where she was interred in Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. We called it “the gravestone committee.” I believe it was made up of: Marlene Muller, a poet who was Denise’s secretary after me; Valerie Trueblood, an author and one of Denise’s estate executors; Lou Oma Durand, Denise’s neighbor; Emily Warn, a poet and Denise’s former student; the writer, actor, director and professor Mark Jenkins; and myself. If I’ve left anyone out it is inadvertent.

As I remember we wanted to choose a headstone that would in some way reflect Denise’s strong admiration for visual art. We knew that any single quote we included on the stone would not reflect Denise’s life and work in any meaningful way. We did cast around for the right quote for a time but when one is creating a monument to a writer this is crazy-making task. I remember this from helping select the poems for the Memorial Folder as well. As I note in the poem at the beginning of this essay, one of her fans clearly felt that the passage they taped to her stone was what she should be remembered for. The act of choosing a particular way to memorialize someone is interesting. We have to make that choice from our own, subjective viewpoint so the choice winds up reflecting, perhaps, more about ourselves than the individual who is being remembered.

 Denise's gravestone, with the line of one of her poems taped to it. Photograph by Glenn MacGilvra.

Denise's gravestone, with the line of one of her poems taped to it. Photograph by Glenn MacGilvra.

As our group looked for an appropriate way to memorialize Denise, we fell into a bit of synchronicity, for which Denise and her son Nikolai had already planted the seed. The great photographer, and friend of Denise, Mary Randlett suggested we get in touch with the sculptor Philip McCracken and his wife Anne who live on Guemes Island. Mary recalled that Denise, along with her son Nikolai and some friends, had visited McCracken’s studio because Denise so admired his work. The committee looked through a book of photographs of McCracken’s work and we were taken with one sculpture in particular, called “Stone Poem.” 

Jenkins phoned McCracken saying we liked “Stone Poem” so much we wondered if he would be willing to design something for Denise’s grave. In fact, McCracken said that piece had just come back to him after being away for 30 years (I am not sure where the piece had been for all that time). He said he would allow us to use it if it had a proper presentation. Jenkins worked with the architect Lydia Aldredge, who donated her time and talent to design the way the stone would be presented. Due to the cemetery’s rules and the technical challenges presented by physically connecting the piece to the granite stone on which it now sits, the stone did not get situated until 2001. Jenkins’ has since said that at any point in the process of getting the stone installed something could go terribly wrong. 

We’re lucky to have a beautiful piece of art situated under a really big evergreen tree that I feel certain Denise would have loved, in a place meant for remembering. Those who knew Denise have tangible memories that can be stirred by a visit to her grave, or by a particular passage of music, or a bit of conversation. She lives on in this way. And as is fitting of a literary figure of her stature, her work is now explored and commemorated in two biographies. I was worried when I heard biographers were asking about Denise because I had once typed an essay for her about her distaste for literary biographers that attempt to delve into the psychology of a writer, or present salacious or too-personal details about them. I was working for Denise at the time that she read a biography of Anne Sexton. She did not appreciate the angle the writer had taken toward her subject, finding it too psychological and less about the work Sexton had done than on her state of mind. Having read the biographies of Denise, I agree with her friends, David Mitchell and David Hass, who say that it’s wonderful that people are thinking about Denise’s work. The biographies keep her in the current zeitgeist and this is good. 

The biographers are doing their work in the world. For myself I prefer to remember how she made me read poems aloud over and over until I learned how the lines could reflect the breath pattern. I prefer to remember that for her, the line in a poem was like a musical phrase. The poem was a score, in a sense. I prefer to celebrate her poems being set to music as in the case of “Making Peace.” I prefer to notice with some surprise and admiration how her political poetry is still relevant.

I prefer to remember walking with Denise along the “rabbit trails” in Seward Park where she would look steadily at this tree or that nurse log, and the four tall thin trees she could see from her kitchen window along the lakeshore. I remember the way it took so long to get from the car up through her garden rockery to the front door because she paused at each flower to show how it had changed in a day, or how another flower had bloomed, or how rain and wind had ravaged the pansies. How she sometimes left the bedroom door to her backyard garden open as she slept and how that worried me, but the trust she had in the world was unconquerable. I prefer to remember that she taught me how to be still and regard each marvel; no maple tree with its autumn colors, or pack of raccoons “like busy little criminals” could be mundane in her gaze. It is that way of looking, and of bearing witness, that I remember most of all about Denise. It is what I try to share and pass on in poems, it is a way of deepening the wake such an interesting and creative person leaves as they move along the way.

 Denise Levertov with her friend Barbara Fussiner.  Photographer unknown.

Denise Levertov with her friend Barbara Fussiner.  Photographer unknown.

Poet and essayist Jan Wallace lives North of Seattle. Some of her poems currently appear in Terrain. A Journal of Built and Natural Environments. Her work has appeared in ARCADE, Fine Madness, Field and other journals.


To learn more about Denise Levertov and Seattle's forthcoming celebration of Levertov's life and work join us @ The Project Room for this upcoming live event:

Mon. May 4, 6-7pm: Breathing the Water: Short Films about Denise Levertov.  Author Rebbecca Brown and TPR host this evening remembering the great American poet, activist, and teacher Denise Levertov.  This happening is part of a city-wide celebration of Levertov culminating on the May 16th, Seattle's Denise Levertov Day.