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Primary Wonder
By Denise Levertov
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
                                                                        And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void; and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

Commentary by Corinna Laughlin
Denise Levertov was one of the most significant American poets of the twentieth century, and one with a local connection: she moved to Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood in 1989 and entered the Catholic Church at St. Edward’s Parish in Seattle. She died in 1997 and is buried at Lake View Cemetery. 
In this poem, Levertov describes a condition that most of us can probably identify with: that sense of being too busy, too distracted, having too much going on to be mindful of God. “Days pass when I forget the mystery.” What fills these days? “Problems insoluble and problems offering /their own ignored solutions.” There is some humor here: the problems either have no solutions, or their solutions are ignored—in either event, these unsolved problems take up a lot of space. They “jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber / along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing /their colored clothes; cap and bells.” Attention is like royalty, a king or a queen; and all these things—these problems and diversions—are like the courtiers—or rather, jesters, “cap and bells,” mere distractions.
Whole days pass in this jostling bustle, but then, at times, “once more the quiet mystery / is present to me, the throng’s clamor / recedes.” In these moments, the problems and distractions that command so much attention move into the background, and the poet’s focus can be given to the mystery.
What is the mystery?  It is simple – “the mystery / that there is anything, anything at all.” That anything at all exists is wonderful, but we don’t have just anything—we have “cosmos, joy, memory, everything, / rather than void.” Creation isn’t just something rather than nothing; creation is marvelous. At the end of the poem, we come to the source of all of this. This is the most primary wonder of all: the presence of God: “Lord, / Creator, Hallowed One.” Levertov addresses God directly, and gives to the triune God a trinity of names.
For me, Levertov’s poem evokes the poetry of the Old Testament book of Wisdom, where we read this ancient poetry:

you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.
How could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Ruler and Lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things! (Wisdom 11:24-12:1)

 In the passage from Wisdom, God is praised as the creator, the source of everything. But that is not all. Here, as in Levertov’s poem, God is both creator and sustainer. The ancient poet asks, “How could a thing remain, unless you willed it?” And Levertov says, “You still, hour by hour, sustain” creation. All that surrounds us, great and small, is a testament not only to God’s creative hand, but to God’s abiding presence. The mystery we so often forget is always with us.
I love the way Levertov uses language in this poem. In the first lines, we get a quite comical image of all the distractions and problems that beset her—they are court jesters, vying for attention. But by the end of the poem, Levertov has moved from talking about the mystery, to naming it, to addressing God directly. To be aware, even in fleeting moments, of this mystery, is not an intellectual exercise, but an encounter with God—a prayer.
This is our last poem for the summer. Hopefully the days ahead will offer you some space for a few moments of “primary wonder.”  Have a great summer!





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