TESSERAE by Denise Levertov


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 Disappointing autobiographical sketches from a respected American poet, a Vietnam and anti-nuclear protestor whose social integrity is reflected in her writing. Comparing these 27 pieces with Levertov's poems, readers will encounter a mostly unfamiliar portrait of the 71-year-old artist: a home-schooled British girl whose social life revolved around her family and a few neighbor children; a 12-year-old worker for the Communist Party walking door to door with newspapers she hadn't read; a child manipulated by a disturbed sister nine years her senior. In discussions of politics, Levertov tells us, her sister treated her as an equal, helping the activist to emerge from the timid girl. A chapter entitled ``The Last of Childhood'' speaks sorrowfully of an argument with ``the first friend I chose myself,'' confessing that ``pride and the conviction I had about what constituted decent behavior'' prevented reconciliation. In contrast to the clarity so admirable in Levertov's poetry, her introspection is uncertain here. For long stretches she magnificently recaptures a child's point of view, then the adult steps in, relating a similar incident, commenting about art, interrupting that youthful vision with retrospective perceptions. Most pieces focus on Levertov's early years, and they become repetitive, as when the poet suggests twice in the course of three paragraphs that a fortuneteller's reading of her tea leaves was affected by the woman's knowledge that she had applied for a nursing job. Two-page character portraits are often too cryptic to be memorable; conversely, the volume's longest piece, a 22-page description of time spent in the Pacific island of Tonga, is downright boring. The snatches of autobiography portioned out over time in Levertov's essays have been precious to her admirers because they reveal essential aspects of a beloved and respected writer. These poorly written memoirs seem to be the work of another person.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1995
ISBN: 0-8112-1292-0
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: New Directions
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1995