Denise Levertov, “Witness”

Yesterday, I did not know how I wanted to feel.

I started with wanting to be sad. Wanting anger towards myself.

And I couldn’t indulge it. Some amazing conversations. Met someone new. Did research and discovered something new to me.

Attentiveness dragged me to brightness. I’m still not sure if I should be happier.

I wonder if a similar process occurs in “Witness:”

Witness
Denise Levertov

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain 
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

“Sometimes the mountain / is hidden from me in veils / of cloud.” I’m looking out. A clear sky would be loved. With any clarity, I could bear witness to the mountain.

This initially leans ridiculous. Too much poetry at the opening of the poem. But some of us have dear memories of mountains. Donald Hall speaks of Mt. Kearsarge, which was there for him and generations of his family. His exclamation: “I look at you / from the porch of the farmhouse / where I watched you all summer / as a boy.”

What if you’re like me, raised in the suburbs, addicted to city life? Could a mountain have meaning then? Here is Li Po, in two justly famous lines:

“We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.”

These lines do not allow words like “immensity” and “permanence” to be cliche. Rather, they put what is human into perspective. We are small and frail, and this resonates. The meditative act, “we sit together,” stands in for our busy lives in addition to being life itself. 

That conception of “the mountain,” I believe, is what’s ultimately at stake in Levertov’s “Witness.” Something, on this earth with us, always reaching higher. Going beyond clouds. And then there’s us, limited by the day. Sometimes forgetful. 

As she states: “sometimes / I am hidden from the mountain / in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue.” This was me yesterday. “Veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue” wherein anger and sadness wanted to monopolize my mind. I don’t have much more to add other than to say I felt the illusion of thinking through real issues. For example, I might have started thinking through a bad relationship from years ago, but whatever I wanted to conclude remained fragmented and incomplete as I prioritized the feeling, unaware. It’s sneaky how regrets and doubts work. They’re out for themselves; they’re eager to splice memories how they wish.

Levertov accounts for “veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue” a different way. She speaks of them arising “when I forget or refuse to go / down to the shore or a few yards / up the road, on a clear day, / to reconfirm / that witnessing presence.” Her language evokes ritual. “To reconfirm / that witnessing presence” means “to go / down to the shore” or “a few yards up the road.” Ritual does not depend on dramatic or grave actions, but small ones which acknowledge the presence of something else. So small they may not be actions, but thoughts. She reprimands herself: “when I forget.”

The mountain bears witness to her. It can bring her to brightness through attentiveness. Some might say it is a moral failing—perhaps that of selfishness—which causes someone to forget. I did say I wanted to be angry and sad yesterday. But it’s remarkable that there’s no judgment in Levertov’s poem. No attempt to say that forgetting or refusing to walk a few feet is any different from not being able to see through clouds. A sense of the divine begins with recognition that human failings occur in a multitude of ways. Blame isn’t important, not compared to realizing devotion.

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