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Sojourns in the Parallel World: America Ferrera Reads Denise Levertov’s Ode to Our Ambivalent Relationship with Nature

Sojourns in the Parallel World: America Ferrera Reads Denise Levertov’s Ode to Our Ambivalent Relationship with Nature

“More and more, in a place like this,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote while beholding Yosemite for the first time, “we feel ourselves part of wild Nature, kin to everything.”

We could lament that the price we have paid for our so-called progress in the century and half since Muir has been a loss of perspective blinding us to this essential kinship with the rest of nature. But that would be a thoroughly ahistorical lament. We humans have always had a troubled relationship with this awareness — from the pre-Copernican days, when we hailed ourselves as the center of the universe, to the campaign launched against Darwin for demonstrating our evolutionary consanguinity to every single creature on this beautiful planet.

Still, something deep inside us — something elemental, beyond the ego and its conscious reasonings — vibrates with an irrepressible sense of our belonging to and with nature. Rachel Carson, to whom I dedicated the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse, captured this intuitive sense perfectly in her assertion that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”

That deep-seated response is what Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997) celebrated in a splendid poem titled “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” found in her 1998 poetry collection Sands of the Well (public library) — a meditation on our strange chronic resistance to seeing ourselves as part of nature, and what happens in those transcendent moments when we let go of that resistance.

Denise Levertov, 1959

Levertov — who believed that poetry’s social function is “to awaken sleepers by other means than shock” — composed this subtly, profoundly awakening poem in the final year of Carl Sagan’s life, which is why I chose it as the second piece in The Universe in Verse, following Maya Angelou’s stunning humanist poem inspired by Sagan. Performing it at the show was actor, director, and activist America Ferrera, who heroically travelled to Pioneer Works to celebrate Mother Nature while herself embodying the miracle of life at its most extreme — being nine months pregnant. Please enjoy:

by Denise Levertov

We live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension—though affected,
certainly, by our actions. A world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
We call it “Nature”; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be “Nature” too.
Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal—then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
No one discovers
just where we’ve been, when we’re caught up again
into our own sphere (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
—but we have changed, a little.

Savor other highlights from The Universe in Verse here, then revisit Loren Eiseley on the relationship between nature and human nature and Henry Beston on relearning to be nurtured by nature in a mechanical age.

Published May 10, 2018




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