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On "What Were They Like?"

Audrey T. Rodgers

In "What Were They Like?" the poem rests upon a dialogue between an innocent—the questioner—and the speaker who "knows" all:

1.    Did the people of Viet Nam
       use lanterns of stone?
2.    Did they hold ceremonies
       to reverence the opening of buds?
3.    Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
4.    Did they use bone and ivory,
       jade and silver, for ornament?
5.    Did they distinguish between speaking and singing?

There were few metaphoric overtones in this first part; Levertov is dealing with the "facts" of Vietnamese life. The responses comprise the remainder of the poem. The "answers" ironically pick up the language of the questions, and the perversions of wartime are revealed in the "distortions" of a once-revered way of life. What emerges from the answers is the summation of war’s inevitable outcome expressed as metaphors: "hearts turned to stone," children killed, bones charred, bombs smashing mirrors so that "there was time only to scream,"—the destruction of the human spirit. The final stanza—the final answer—strikes a poignant note as an echo of the past haunts the present:

There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

One might question the format of the poem—a pseudo-journalistic and deliberately cold approach to the catastrophe of Vietnam (so effectively emphasized by the repetition of "It is not remembered"), but the device is reminiscent of the reportage of the Vietnam War in interviews on television. Equally absent from this poem is the presence of metaphor and symbol in the earlier part of the poem—something we have come to associate with Levertov’s later poetry. True, there is a value in the poem’s "understatement" and lack of intensity that is present in "Life at War," but the horror and the tragic waste of a civilization are present here. The final stanza offers an added dimension of recollected beauty in the image of the flight of moths. One is struck by the reportorial voice of the first six questions contrasted with the graphic images and the poignancy of the final lines. After her visit to Hanoi, as we shall see, there is a subtle shift in tone that reinforces this note of empathy. The silence that closes the poem is juxtaposed to the "echo," which echoes in our minds. This is a poem not of anger but of anguish.

"Enquiry," one of "Two Variations," presents us with another perspective—that of a Vietnamese woman who watches the atrocities of war in silence. The omniscient speaker, whom I assume to be a mother, addresses the "killers," those who carry on the "scheduled" destructive business of war and yet sleep at night. The first poem closes with the ominousness of the lidless eyes watching and the reminder that "She will outlast you." The form of the poem—the short lines, sharp images, juxtapositions of burning flesh, writhing, dying children and lidless eyes with the eating, sleeping, buying, selling killers—creates the tone of bitterness. There is no hope here, save that the woman will outlive the killers. And there is little solace from that observation. Here, Levertov allows herself the temptation to preach to the killers—a tone that flaws the first part of the poem. But in "The Seeing," the power of the suffering victims is reminder enough of the inhumanity of killing children indiscriminately. In this poem Levertov reaches the nadir of despair. The tone—not the theme—will change in later poems, but the sheer horror of seeing what war wreaks upon the innocent—women and children—cannot be assuaged.

The mother "sees" even with "hands over my eyes" the living and the dead; ironically, the dead are "as if alive" and the living as if dead. Death comes from the skies releasing "wet fire, the rain that gave / my eyes their vigilance." There is no overt emotionalism in the poem, but the fragmented images, the terse lines, the act of "seeing" give emotional weight to the poem. Mere survival itself seems a pyrrhic victory.

Levertov has been censured as "hysterical," over emotional, lacking control and order which she so highly prizes. There is anger but not "hysteria" in the poems in Life at War. Yet, the immediacy of the Vietnam War in these poems cannot be dismissed, and the sharp visual images capture the violence and the human indifference to the ravishment of the human body and soul. The images of burned human flesh, lidless eyes, babies nursing at dry breasts, and charred bones are the realities of Vietnam, and the tone fo the "Life at War" poems, while at times bitter, incredulous, poignant, or despairing, is always controlled. The order that Levertov assumes is the antithesis of the horrors she describes—in vivid image collages, in rhetorical structures (such as "What Were They Like?") in measured rhythms and repetitions. That order, for Levertov, is to be the underpinning of her poetry, to be sought and found, as she reaffirms again and again.


To Stay Alive, Denise Levertov explained in the "Author’s Preface," is "one person’s inner / outer experience in America during the ‘60's and the beginning of the ‘70's, an experience which is shared by so many and transcends the peculiar details of each life, though it can only be expressed in and through such details." Many of the poems were written while Mitchell Goodman, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and three other war resisters were on trial in the spring of 1968. But the volume also contains several poems, under the section titled Preludes, that had been included in The Sorrow Dance and Relearning the Alphabet: "Olga Poems," "A Note to Olga (1966)" (Olga had died in 1964), "Life at War," "What Were They Like?" "Advent 1966," "Tenebrae," and "Enquiry." The justification for their inclusion, Levertov explains "is esthetic—it assembles separated parts of a whole. . . . that whole being seen as having some value not as mere ‘confessional’ autobiography, but as a document of some historical value. . . ." 

Audrey T. Rodgers. Denise Levertov, The Poetry of Engagement. Copyright 1993 by Fairleigh Dickinson University. London and Toronto. Pp. 88-90.

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