Tesserae, the small individual pieces of glass or stone that make up a mosaic, is an apt title for this series of memoirs by Denise Levertov.Rather than a completed autobiography, these collected memoirs are, for the author, fragments "composed from time to time between poems." Each of the twenty-seven pieces of Tesserae explores a memory vital to Levertov's life; each isTesserae, the small individual pieces of glass or stone that make up a mosaic, is an apt title for this series of memoirs by Denise Levertov.Rather than a completed autobiography, these collected memoirs are, for the author, fragments "composed from time to time between poems." Each of the twenty-seven pieces of Tesserae explores a memory vital to Levertov's life; each is complete in itself and set here chronologically. And, as in any good mosaic, every piece reflects light at different angles, giving this self-portrait its living complexity. Tesserae differs for the first time the unique memoirs or "a poet who may just be the finest writing in English today" (Kirkus Reviews)....
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Tesserae: MemoriesSuppositions Reviews
Tesserae is a collection of twenty-seven memoirs by poet Denise Levertov. Coming to these prose writings after reading her poetry, I had high expectations and I was not disappointed. These memoirs are as beautiful as her poetry. Although published when Levertov was in her 70s, about half of these memoirs are scenes from her childhood. I like that. Childhood memories have a magic rarely present in adult memories. My favorite is “By the Seaside.” Here she describes the beach at Clacton where she would walk along the dunes, which she imagined to be cliffs, and investigate the caves, which were probably just some enlarged rabbit holes: “I considered them genuine and romantic caves, and planned to conceal some necessities of adventure in the deepest one: supplies, such as a tin of biscuits, my pocket compass, a treasure map; and to make it my own secret camp. The pleasure was to imagine myself sitting in it, scanning the ocean with a spyglass; it was not necessary to do it” (33).This is the sort of memory, where the world of imagination and the real world meet, that I most enjoy reading, or rather—experiencing, for Levertov doesn’t just tell stories. She recreates her memories in the reader’s mind.There are other examples of her vivid childhood imagination (she could transform the task of carrying freshly ironed handkerchiefs upstairs into a dangerous mission out of an Arabian Nights fantasy), but this one stands out because it is something she could actually do. Yet, she says, “it was not necessary to do it.” Imagining it was enough. Perhaps a child’s imagination makes less distinctions between real and unreal, so that to do something and to imagine doing it are not all that different. Thus the act of pretending is a creative act. Perhaps imagining it was more pleasant, for had she actually set up her secret camp, she might have become bored quickly, whereas the scene in her imagination was always fresh and exciting. Later in “By the Seaside,” she follows the lamplighter far from her lodging house. Night falls and she must hurry home along unfamiliar streets:“It was probably not very long at all in clock time, although it seemed to me that I was returning from a far place. I had witnessed, in conscious solitude, that magical transformation, entre chien et loup, which Magritte has evoked in certain paintings. The lamplighter, invested with mythic power, had with his wand performed an alchemy upon both light and darkness” (37).Perhaps “is” and “seems to be” are one and the same in the dreamlike state that children can still access while awake. Other memoirs have scenes that display this quality of the child’s imagination. In “A Dance,” Levertov and her friend take turns dancing to a player piano. As she loses herself in her dance, she experiences a powerful rush of feeling, of sehnsucht. Later she recognizes this feeling when she sees the landscapes of Salvadore Rosa. In “Janus,” she has an epiphany as she and her friends steal a look at a secret garden and see its hidden beauty: a magnificent magnolia tree. It was, she says, an “ecstatic vision” (54-55).Later memoirs describe adolescence and adulthood. Levertov continues to pursue painting and dance, but it is ultimately poetry that she discovers to be her calling. And so she is particularly qualified to answer the question she poses at the beginning of “Janus”:“Moments of childhood lodge in one’s memory sometimes for reasons—their beauty, drama, or comedy; others equally tenacious are unaccountable: why that instant rather than a million others” (52)?Poets may share some of the child’s uncanny ability to slip out of the real world into the world of imagination, and while poets, as adults, may never lose themselves so completely in fantasy as the child, they make up for it with the ability to translate what they see into language. And this is just what Levertov has done in this beautiful collection of memories.
I'd read a few books of Denise Levertov's poetry and have admired it. The details of her life were vague to me, mostly because her poetry doesn't narrate that and focuses on distinct subjects. Terrerae did much more than to increase my acquaintaceship with this major poet. She took vignettes from her life, each with events that told, odd events too, and they were fascinating. These extend from her childhood in Wales and London where her Jewish father was a Christian clergyman, converted, and where her Welsh mother figured a great deal. She thought herself a painter at first and has some remarkable memoirs about an attempted bohemian lifestyle and about her friendships. A nurse during the London bombings, she concentrates on individuals she knew then. This is all written with a poet's eye for images so that reading it, I felt the setting constantly. It was very enjoyable, especially her profiles of people that had an effect her life or were stuck in her memory.
This was an incredibly lovely little glimpse into the life of Denise Levertov. Each autobiographical vignette (tessera) felt poetic in its own way, and filled me with crisp English air. It was wonderful to be shown the world from which Levertov pulled some of my favorite poetry. Perfect light reading for a sunny day in the park.
This memoir is the fist writing I've read by Denise Levertov and I loved the flow of her words. She tells her personal story in a series of short essays, all of which I found interesting. Have ordered much of her many poetry books and look forward to reading them next.
Short volume written when Levertov was old, short prose recollections of her childhood & early life,
Known as a 20th century poet, these essays also prove her to be an insightful, resourceful essayist.