Louis-Emile Adan, The Suitor, oil on canvas.
Denise Levertov’s poem “The Mutes” appeared in our Winter 1965 issue. Levertov was born in Britain but immigrated to the United States when she was twenty-five; she died in 1997.
Those groans men use passing a woman on the street or on the steps of the subway
to tell her she is a female and their flesh knows it,
are they a sort of tune, an ugly enough song, sung by a bird with a slit tongue
but meant for music?
Or are they the muffled roaring of deafmutes trapped in a building that is slowly filled with smoke?
Such men most often look as if groan were all they could do, yet a woman, in spite of herself,
knows it’s a tribute: if she were lacking all grace they’d pass her in silence:
so it’s not only to say she’s a warm hole. It’s a word
in grief-language, nothing to do with primitive, not an ur-language; language stricken, sickened, cast down
in decrepitude. She wants to throw the tribute away, dis- gusted, and can’t,
it goes on buzzing in her ear, it changes the pace of her walk, the torn posters in echoing corridors
spell it out, it quakes and gnashes as the train comes in. Her pulse sullenly
had picked up speed, but the cars slow down and jar to a stop while her understanding
keeps on translating: “Life after life goes by
without poetry, without seemliness, without love.”
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