Reading Denise Levertov to Know You by Carol V. Davis

Under autumn clouds, under white
wideness of winter skies you went walking– Denise Levertov

for Efim Levertov

Tell me what gets inherited?

Is it more than a gene for curly hair

or the height of a man?

You – compact, hands not many

generations from the plow,

fingers strong to snap the stalk,

rub the wheat from the chafe.

Instead you toil in a Leningrad factory,

hold tight the reins of the lathe to prevent

its gallop across the shop floor.


You are bound by name

to a cousin you never knew.

Her father/your uncle shed

homeland, religion, sought refuge in England.

Extending the family exodus,

she planted herself across the ocean,

a poet in the New World.


Though she is long dead, you seek her.

I bring you her books as an offering.

You learn her language, dig for facts

like explicating a passage of Torah.

I become the bridge from America

to Russia and back.

Stones to cross the ocean.


With each step you fill in names

on the Levertov family tree:

father, Paul, daughters, Denise and Olga,

the one who died young,

eyes the color of  river pebbles.


The night I left Russia you slipped me your photo.

Its expression startled, as if interrupted.

Now I hold this black and white image to the light.

The fear in your eyes still.

Your lips begin to move; sound emerges

in the middle of a sentence.

I lean it on a book of Denise’s

so you can rest at last.


Carol V. Davis
Carol V. DavisCarol V. Davis is the author of Between Storms (Truman State University Press, 2012). She won the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg. Twice a Fulbright scholar in Russia, her poetry has been read on NPR, Radio Russia, and at the Library of Congress. She teaches at Santa Monica College and Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is a poetry editor of the Los Angeles newspaper, the Jewish Journal.