“The Mutes” by Denise Levertov

Note that the publication year for this poem is 1965. You’re hip to the brew of politics, art & culture that was boiling over then & that your humble correspondent was cooking in it. Feminism was setting in along with all of the “isms” that keep us motivated today, but there was still a lot of residue of male supremacism, much more vital & overt than now in the way of all of the other flip-side “isms” that we still endure. You know them; I won’t list them.

& so women heard rude cracks on the street whenever they went out. Denise Levertov calls them “groans” in this poem, “to tell her she is a female / and their flesh knows it,”. She wonders if the “groan” was intended as music, “ugly” tho it was? How should she take this gesture from men who “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…” 

Even knowing better, the poet is affected: “She wants to / throw the tribute away, dis/gusted, and can’t”.
The text of these “groans”  in “tribute’” splatters all over her environment as she walks, all the way to the subway, & the train & its passengers join the metaphor, “…her understanding//keeps on translating: / Life after life goes by // without poetry,/ without seemliness / without love.”

I knew Denise Levertov. As poetry editor of the Nation, she published a couple of mine. She was a nice, scholarly woman. To me, The Mutes describes a woman at a point where consciousness is clumsy, exploratory, in the process of accepting & rejecting. I do not write this to make any judgment of her reaction to these groaning men. I am only relating it to my own rambling consciousness during those years when ideas, ideologies & other mental reflexes, some sympathetic, others conflicting, all with real-world faces & names, all adducing real-world events as documentation of their probity, thrashed around in our heads. It took a lot of living to work all of this out, not with any coherent resolution, any harmonious blending of shades & colors, but with an acknowledgement that we make what sense of it as we can.

I wonder if Denise would have handled this material in this way today had she lived this long.


From the The Paris Review – Daily Poem:

“The Mutes”
by Denise Levertov
Issue no. 33 (Winter-Spring 1965)

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?

Perhaps both.

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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