Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”

I resolved a month ago to become more patient, act more gently, respond to situations rather than react. Now I’ve read this poem of Levertov’s and I feel like I made the most passive, almost useless set of statements to myself. She takes resolution and makes it incarnate–A certain day became a presence to me; there it was, confronting me — a sky, air, light: a being:

Variation on a Theme by Rilke (h/t Ariane Beeston)
Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me -- a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic -- or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

I think all of us would like to be more present, more focused. We might get the dishes done faster or complete a project on schedule. Levertov speaks miraculous presence, as the day is an unfolding manifestation. It begins with “presence,” then confronts her, and in the midst of “sky, air, light” no less than a being is sensed.

This must be, then, “a certain day,” one which will stay with her forever. But her experience consists of nothing other than the day itself, as the day is a being–And before it started to descend from the height of noon, it leaned over and struck my shoulder as if with the flat of a sword, granting me honor and a task. The day makes itself felt as a majestic being, not only glowing radiantly, but knighting her, imbuing her with its power. Its power is her power, her “honor” and “task.”

And then, a sound marking the actual hour. A church bell rings, and what may have been thought a reverie turns into a realization. The day’s blow rang out, metallic — or it was I, a bell awakened, and what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can. Often I’ll wonder how I can make good on my resolutions if I am not continually engaged with others. How can I be more patient and gentle when I spend plenty of time alone? An answer lies in acknowledging the day not simply as present, but presence. The “honor” and “task” it gives is possibility, and before one worries about specific efforts or accomplishments, one can understand oneself as a “bell awakened,” ready to communicate that optimism, ready to be present to others, but above all, radiating gratefulness for being.

1 Comment

  1. We could all use a little more patience and I know focus is always an issue for me. I sat down here to do something completely different than be on the internet. Thanks for the reminder. :)

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