This post is a continuation of a series; read the introduction here.
The first object is a faded, sky-blue paper card on which a paragraph has been written in pencil. I flip it over; a single word has been written on the other side:
Odd that this side, the side with hardly any text, would be the lined side, while the unlined side was filled with text. Or perhaps not odd at all—who pays attention to those things when writing on an index card? But these are the sorts of choices we make; and the handwriting on the card isn’t perfect, isn’t meticulous, but is well-formed nonetheless, as if it were going to serve some special purpose. The other side of the card makes clear just what that purpose is.
The departed whom we now remember have entered into the peace of life eternal. They still live on earth [with? indecipherable] acts of goodness they performed and in the hearts of those who cherish their memory. May the beauty of their life abide among us as a loving benediction
On first read, I thought this text had been cribbed from a devotional, a prayer, a chant, an invocation. I searched it online in its entirety and found nothing. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, long enough, but part of me wants to believe that this card bears a personal prayer, something written on a whim. Not that a prayer borrowed, as so many prayers are, from another voice or hand would be worth less—but this makes the discovery, this unintentional disclosure, all the more pointed and private. Who owned this book before me? Did they pass away; is that why the card remains in the book, sold to my local bookstore in Berkeley by someone in charge of the estate, not thinking that there might be things of value, things traceable to a single person, inside? Or was it on purpose, maybe: a gesture of grace, a sending-out of goodwill into the world?
I’m a pessimist about such things until I hold them in my hands; then they seem to at least merit pausing over—not in adoration, perhaps, but in mystery, just as it is mysterious, when I think about it, that the pages in which this benediction was tucked also carry the prayers of sorts of another person. Though I have found them, or they have found me, by chance, just as they might have found anyone else, it is still somewhat marvelous to me how thin a thread this is, the blind beginning of a connection over space and time. It feels through noise and static to arrive.
The card is sandwiched between Levertov’s “The Elves” and “The Ache of Marriage.” I haven’t read them. Neither title sounds particularly promising. But “The Elves” talks of a connection that the writer of this prayer might also be preoccupied with—maybe it was the reason why she or he wrote it in the first place. The poem, just thirteen lines long, is worth quoting in full; any paraphrase would fail to grasp its precision.
Elves are no smaller
than men, and walk
as men do, in this world,
but with more grace than most,
and are not immortal.
Their beauty sets them aside
from other men and from women
unless a woman has that cold fire in her
called poet: with that
she may see them and by its light
they know her and are not afraid
and silver tongues of love
flicker between them.
Perhaps Levertov really is talking about some mythical creature here, but I somewhat doubt it: what comes to the forefront of my imagination is some notion of otherness, some distinctive feature about other humans, other beings, that causes them to discomfortingly seem mythical—which for all intents and purposes might as well be equivalent to causing them to be mythical. But the prayer I’ve found has me thinking about the dead, too: why couldn’t this poem be talking about them? My anonymous writer says they “still live on earth” in a sense, an interesting formulation—why didn’t she or he just write “they live on in acts of kindness,” or “they live on through us”? Instead, we’re told they “still live on earth,” as though they haven’t left.
The woman in this poem is not afraid of the elves, whoever they are; the elves are afraid of her. They recognize in her the “cold fire… called poet” and for this reason “are not afraid”—afraid of what? Being found out? The living? In the end the difference between them seems to make no difference. Neither is immortal, anyway; Levertov makes sure to point this out early. What does it matter, then, that they are elves? Perhaps the point is that it hardly does, so long as “tongues of love / flicker between them,” just as in “The Ache of Marriage” what follows is a definition of a bond in which two people remain because they are “two by two in the ark of / the ache of it”—a fitting-enough description of writer and, one hopes, reader.