When It Feels Like a Dream: Two Poems by Denise Levertov

With Eyes at the Backs of Our Heads

With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads
BY Denise Levertov
(New Directions, 1959)

I can’t remember my first encounter with poetry, but by the time I was ten years old, Denise Levertov’s With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads had become a favorite book. I don’t pretend that at such an early age I even approached an understanding of Levertov’s poems, which are filled with religious and spiritual references, literary allusions, and in her later work, strongly political themes. What captured me were the mysterious illuminations of ordinary life that I found in the book. Two poems, “With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads” and “Girlhood of Jane Harrison,” with their dream-like qualities, appealed greatly to me as a young reader.

“With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads” begins “With eyes at the back of our heads / we see a mountain” (p. 9). This intriguing sentence satisfied me as a young reader for a long time. “With eyes at the back of our heads” was enough to seed my imagination: the view from the back of one’s head would certainly be more wonderful and mysterious than the familiar one, from the front. For many months, years perhaps, I did not feel the need to finish the poem, for the first lines were magical enough. I drew pictures of eyes peering out from back-of-head hair, of people with their glasses on backwards, and other fanciful embodiments of a reversed world. I thought of what was going on behind me, and sometimes swung around quickly to catch a glimpse of it: in order to come closer to something, one would have to walk backwards towards it. The poem gave me hope that a parallel and more interesting universe existed, while the simple idea of being able to see behind oneself made me view the ordinary world in a new, electrically charged way.

…what fascinated me about this poem is its reversal of the ordinary. Levertov has the ability to render the mundane miraculous, but she is never overt. Her clean, spare lines give the imagination full rein.

Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, what fascinated me about this poem is its reversal of the ordinary. Levertov has the ability to render the mundane miraculous, but she is never overt. Her clean, spare lines give the imagination full rein. As a child reading her poetry, I sensed, albeit dimly, the skill with which she coaxed images from the recesses of my brain, how the line “With eyes at the back of our heads” began for me what was to become a lifelong poetic practice.

After I got a little older, I tried the rest of the poem. I went as far as the first line of the second stanza: “The doors before us in a façade” (p. 9). I had to look up the word “façade,” and reasoned the meaning to be somewhere between “the front of a building” and “superficiality,” the two given in my Webster’s dictionary. I came away with a picture of doors placed in a false front. I understood that the doors had something to do with simultaneously blocking and giving access to the mountain, the one that could be seen from “the back of our heads.” For children, doors often indicate a place between reality and imagination, a place where magical things can happen. The stanza reads:

The doors before us in a façade
that perhaps has no house in back of it
are too narrow, and one is set high
with no doorsill…

— p. 9

As a slightly older child, I found the possibilities of the doors, like the idea of eyes at the back of my head, enough to ponder for some time. Eager for more mysteries, however, I tried to understand the rest of the poem, but it was still a slow process. The poem revealed itself to me bit by bit, over the years of reading. Never did I receive an easy answer, even after the most persistent gleaning; much hard work lay ahead of me. The more I read, the more I understood, and began to appreciate a type of poetry that does not give up all of its secrets too soon.

In “Whose Tradition?” William Stafford writes, “there is a dream going on while I am awake.” The image of doors set unevenly in an unreliable structure leads to a feeling of possibility, a sense of waking into a dream. Further on the poem states

…we want
to enter the house, if there is a house
to pass through the doors at least
into whatever lies beyond them…

— p. 9

In order to reach the mountain, the poem instructs us to move through the doors that may or may not lead to a house. This makes sense the way things in dreams make sense: every dream has its own peculiar logic that evaporates upon waking. What is left are a few clues perhaps, maybe a tenuous link to the rapidly fading dream. The doors link the reader to the behind-the-head view of the mountain; when the imperfect façade is corrected (“Set it to rights! / The knitter begins to knit”) Levertov writes, “the way to the mountain will clear, / the mountain we see with / eyes at the back of our heads…” (pp. 9-10).

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