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This review is taken from PN Review 142, Volume 28 Number 2, November - December 2001.

WHAT STILL DEEPENS DENISE LEVERTON, This Great Unknowing. Last Poems (Bloodaxe) £7.95
MICHAEL HASLAM, The Music Laid her Song in Language (Arc) £5.95.
CATRIONA O'REILLY, The Nowhere Birds (Bloodaxe) £6.95.

Although modernism (and post-modernism) is usually taken as an omnivorous, deterministic force, culturally the most fertile modernist projects maintain a creative tension between modernist form and a subject which is conservative (in the ecological sense) in its resistance to modernism. Joyce's Bloom preserves old Dublin in new ways, for instance, and Fitzgerald's Gatsby embodies the slipperiness of modern identity in his desperate attempt to recapture the past. Fatal to modernism, as it is to all good writing, is nostalgia. Unfortunately, the late Denise Levertov's posthumous collection, This Great Unknowing is weakened by a persistent inability to avoid sentimentality in both her poetry and politics. Most egregious is her 'A Hundred a Day' which laments the contemporary disappearance of natural species by hearkening back to a 'Dear 19th century! Give me refuge/in your unconscious sanctuary for a while,/let me lose myself behind sententious bombazine...' A poet with a greater sense of irony could make something out of how nineteenth century ideals of progress metastisised into the destruction of nature in the twentieth. Romanticising, the 'other' does no one any favours if you want to write poetry instead of slogans. In 'Roast Potatoes', Levertov does the same thing across a shortened gap of time, finding a 'golden age' of the homeless back in the 1960s which contrasts with the awfulness of being homeless now: 'Around those fires, those roasting potatoes/you could see, even from our top-storey windows,/... something/...something you might call blessed?' This outside, looking down perspective is a sensibility that ...


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