Levertov: “Tenebrae”

Denise Levertov is one of my favorite American poets, and recently I purchased a new selection of her anti-war poems, Making Peace. I hope to post several of these poems and offer a few comments of my own. Levertov is a beautiful writer and her poems are more relevant now than ever before. To commence this series of poetic reflections on peace and war, I offer a poem not included in the collection, Making Peace. The following poem, “Tenebrae,” was published in her 1970 collection, Relearning the Alphabet.


Heavy, heavy, heavy, hand and heart.
We are at war,
bitterly, bitterly at war.

And the buying and selling
buzzes at our heads, a swarm
of busy flies, a kind of innocence.

Gowns of gold sequins are fitted,
sharp-glinting. What harsh rustlings
of silver moiré there are,
to remind me of shrapnel splinters.

And weddings are held in full solemnity
not of desire but of etiquette,
the nuptial pomp of starched lace;
a grim innocence.

And picnic parties return from the beaches
burning with stored sun in the dusk;
children promised a TV show when they get home
fall asleep in the backs of a million station wagons,
sand in their hair, the sound of waves
quietly persistent at their ears.
They are not listening.

Their parents at night
dream and forget their dreams.
They wake in the dark
and make plans. Their sequin plans
glitter into tomorrow.
They buy, they sell.

They fill freezers with food.
Neon signs flash their intentions
into the years ahead.

And at their ears the sound
of the war. They are
not listening, not listening.