Trees standup to their knees in
fog. The fog
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
have looked for apples.
from brook to where
the top of the hill looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.
I propose to share this poem, “The Breathing,” by Denise Levertov, with the readers of SubStance as a moment of calm, an antidote to violence and pain, and a gesture of hope in the future relations between humans and the many creatures of the vegetal and animal world.
What is remarkable in this imaginary landscape sketched by Levertov is the peacefulness of the scene which is mostly due to the absence of movement, the absence of action performed in praesentia between the first and the last word of the poem. And since we know that poets are marvelous craftsmen and craftswomen of language, we shall look for the cause to this effect in the poetic language and shall find it in the subtly modulated use (or non-use) of verbs in the poem, a different kind of use in each sentence, yet, converging to the same effect. And since verbs are also the main markers of time in language, the poem appears in the literal sense, as a verbal, a literary “still life.”
The first sentence strikes a strong blow since the verb is quite simply omitted in it. The sentence is a nominal clause: “An absolute/ patience.”
In the second sentence, “Trees stand/ up to their knees in/ fog,” we find a static verb “to stand” and the personification of the trees clearly establishes that they might have moved, but they have not; they stand wrapped in the fog up to “their knees,” i.e., between a quarter and a fifth of their trunks.
In the third sentence, something moves: “The fog/ slowly flows/ uphill.” But there is something contradictory in the fact of flowing up. Usually, rivers or brooks flow down. Flowing up, then, implies a difficulty to flow and consequently a slowing down of the rhythm of the flow which is here expressed by the adverb “slowly”; the adverb seems here all the more congenial to the flowing in that the two words are linked by a strong paronomastic effect: slowly flows, set in the two /s/, one at the beginning of slowly, the other at the end of flows: slowly flows.
The fourth sentence is characterized by still another pattern: “White/ cobwebs. The grass/leaning where deer/have looked for apples.” We now face the result of two past actions, actions that were performed before the scene that the poem invites us to contemplate was composed. In effect, the “white cobwebs” have been woven by the spiders at a previous moment, and they even had time to be colored in white by the drops of the humid fog. And “the grass leaning where deer have looked for apples” tells us that deer were here earlier, looking for food, but they no longer are, and what signals their former presence is a tenuous detail: the inclination of the grass, bent by their walking on it and searching through it, remaining bent for a little while after their passage. And to achieve her verbal strategy, Levertov even suppresses the auxiliary which might have been here. We read “the grass leaning” with a lonely present participle, and not “the grass is leaning.”
Another interesting grammatical event happens in the fifth sentence: “The woods/ from brook to where/ the top of the hill looks/ over the fog, send up/ not one bird.” The first verb is a verb of perception (“to look”) and not a verb of action. But the second verb is a verb of action (“to send up”), which is used in a quite unusual variety of the verbal negative form since instead of having the negative adverb attached to the verb (don’t send up), we have an affirmative use of the verb (“send up”), followed by a denial of the action concerned, the expression of the absolute non-productivity of the act that might have been accomplished through that verb: “not one bird” (i.e., not even one bird!) is sent up by the woods.
Then comes the sixth sentence which subsumes the atmosphere of the scene: “So absolute, it is/ no other than/ happiness itself, a breathing/ too quiet to hear.” To be is not a verb of action. It expresses a state, a way of being, and the state expressed here is absoluteness, the utmost perfection, a perfection which is assimilated to a feeling: “happiness itself,” being in its turn assimilated to the most elementary and vital pulsation: that of a breathing but … a breathing that does not stir the whole scene, because it achieves the optimal state of quietness since it is described as “too quiet to hear.”
Levertov does not tell more about the nature of the ear the sound of breathing escapes, nor does she reveal the origin of the breathing. And, of course, in our times when thinking ecologically has become an absolute necessity for all of us, we hesitate between attributing the breathing here to Nature itself, plants, animals, atmospheric events, or to a human being who would at last be wise enough to remain discreet, and refrain from any untimely interference with the life of the Earth.