Poet’s Nook: Denise Levertov’s "What Were They Like?"

This poem by Denise Levertov gets us to think of the victims of war in quite a personal & painfully human way. The probing questions that open it & the equally impactful responses encapsulate the horror and the tragic waste of a civilization. Substitute “Vietnam” with “Afghanistan” or “Iraq” (& increasingly now, “Libya”). Imperial power has no vision which is why all empires turn to dust. It is poets like Levertov who give voice to the anguished & help us along to become more fully human ourselves even as the hubris of empire thunders & claps away…..

(1) Did the people of Vietnam use lanterns of stone?
(2) Did they hold ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds?
(3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
(4) Did they use bone and ivory, and silver, for ornament?
(5) Had they an epic poem?
(6) Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.

Who can say? It is silent now.
Denise Levertov



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s