A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Denise Levertov’s Collected Poems at the Ottawa Public Library on my way home from work. It’s a huge, daunting brick of a book but I knew that I wanted to spend more time with Levertov’s poems so it was worth the sore shoulder carrying it home. That was weeks ago and, to be honest, I’ve still only thumbed through. The evening that I brought the book home, though, I poured myself a glass of wine and found myself really savouring Eavan Boland’s introduction to Levertov’s work. When Boland briefly described the friendship between Adrienne Rich and Levertov, I was actually moved to tears by the thought of what this productive, creative exchange must have meant to these women. Here’s what Boland wrote:
When Denise Levertov died in the late winter of 1997, I was at Stanford. We planned a small memorial service. Immediately we asked Adrienne Rich, who also had been at Stanford, to speak; immediately she agreed.
When she spoke, she singled out one memory. Denise and herself, she said, had been young women and young mothers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And, of course, young poets. Rich remembered their long talks at the kitchen table. Always, she said, Denise would press new discoveries on her: new poets, different voices, poems from another coast. Those conversations, Adrienne Rich said, opened a new, exciting poetic horizon. She felt indebted to them all her life.
What struck a cord with me here is partly the knowledge of how precious and rare these relationships between women can be (or at least have been in my own experience) and yet how they are truly doors to “new, exciting horizons” and indispensable to our spiritual and imaginative well-being. I was thinking about the women who have been teachers and friends to me and I was filled with an overwhelming gratitude. But it was also something else, something beyond my personal feeling of appreciation, and I think that Boland included a nod to this relationship to illustrate this something else.
Boland is someone who has thought deeply about the roles of woman and poet and written at length about the relationship between these states of being. In Object Lessons she writes, “I began writing in a country where the word woman and the word poet were almost magnetically opposed. One word was used to invoke collective nurture, the other to sketch out self-reflexive individualism… In a certain sense, I found my poetic voice by shouting across that distance” (xi). The chasm between collective and individual identities is a space of negotiation for the woman poet and the development of coteries of women writers emerges in the space that Boland describes herself shouting across. That’s not to say that the communal exchanges of women writers should or have excluded male writers. Levertov’s correspondence with Robert Duncan offers unique insight into her understanding of public, political and poetic roles, and certainly opened new horizons for her as a writer and intellectual.
But the image of Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov discussing poetry at the kitchen table is a strong one for a reason. The kitchen table, the site of feminine exchange, pulls strength from a long lineage of women who have discussed ideas here. But the woman poet at the kitchen table is a new image with a lineage emerging. There is a difference between one woman writing at a table and an intellectual exchange among women writers in this space. Like Levertov “pressing new discoveries” on Rich, these exchanges bring one’s private world into dialogue with another’s. And more: they invite the public, collective realm of “poetry” into the private space of “women.” The kitchen table is transformed from a symbol of domesticity to a site of community and intellectual reciprocity. This is an appropriation that breaks from the past while nodding in its direction with an acknowledgement that women’s talk in women’s spaces, though not always publically directed, has always been stimulating.
Interestingly, when Boland invokes a space to which her thoughts and themes turn and return in Object Lessons, this visionary space is the kitchen table — “the reader will come on the same room more than once: the same tablecloth with red-checked squares; the identical table by an open window” (xiii). The imaginative feminine space of the kitchen table can also be the visionary space of female production and expression, as well as the literal site in which we exchange ideas. This is a new kitchen table. These are new women.
Here is Boland again:
There were times when I sat down at that table, or came up the stairs, my key in my hand, to open the door well after midnight, when I missed something. I wanted a story. I wanted to read or hear the narrative of someone else—a woman and a poet—who had gone there and been here. Who had lifted a kettle to a gas stove. Who had set her skirt out over a chair, near to the clothes dryer, to have it without creases in the morning. Who had made the life meet the work and had set it down: the difficulties and rewards, the senses of lack. I remember thinking that it need not be perfect or important. Just there; just available. (Object Lessons, xvi)
And I think this is why the image of Rich and Levertov at the kitchen table, chatting into the night, brought me to tears. It is the story Boland wished to have. It is a story that I can recognise myself in and as such it is the beginning of a lineage. They conversed and pushed toward new horizons in the act of communal exchange. We read the products of these exchanges and in turn discuss, consider, make new.