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by Denise Levertov

The fire in leaf and grass

so green it seems

each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves

shivering in the sun,

each day the last day

A red salamander

so cold and so

easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet

and long tail. I hold

my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

The color green implies life, freshness, growth, nature. The moss growing on my car side-view mirror tenaciously and insistently imposing its existence on an alien surface. Fragile and yet relentless, it’s existence on the car impresses me, like persistent, engaged living despite all the threats that could dislodge our center.

Denise Levertov’s “Living” is a statement of wonder and joy in the small aspects of life: the color green when outdoors in spring and summer, a fragile creature allowing itself to be caught in hand, the sounds of cicadas, the wind in the grass. The poem acknowledges these small things and the music exults in them. Through it I realize all the times I was not aware of the many wonders around me, and that those wonders were nevertheless there, waiting for me to notice. For that I feel grateful.

In the song cycle LIVING by Nicole Portley our hero has come through the end of a relationship. By her words we know she is profoundly bruised and hurting. In this final song we can hear the surprised and grateful joy in realizing she is going to be fine. The opening measures are a moment of noticing the world around (I hear shimmering, summer heat in these chords), which suddenly shifts into a description of what she sees and her reaction of bounding joy. She is grateful to have come through a difficult time and is well enough and open and recovered enough to notice the salamander and the sun on the grass.

Most big life changes have a similar arch: They unnerve us and we are unhappy, we suffer and regret. We stew and mull and pout, soaking in the different color of the new facts defining us. Then, we get angry. Angry at the change, the loss and the disruption. That anger eventually turns inward as we lose patience with stewing. At that point we are able to mourn the change and all the loss associated with it and then, somehow, find meaning through it. Right then, when we find meaning and a new perspective, the world looks magical and affirming - can this lesson really be what I needed? Later, this new perspective might seem inevitable, but right at the moment when I comprehend the internal change I am able to rediscover the outside world which, on a beautiful day, seems to confirm balance and continued life. I am still aware of the loss, but now I am also aware of the lessons learned and the new depth in myself I have wrought through loss. I am also mysteriously grateful for the lesson. I feel grateful for the pain I went through, though I might never have chosen it.

Levertov and Portley explore that moment in “Living.” In reality, of course, the green grass, warm sun and cicadas were there before, always waiting to be noticed, waiting to confirm life is worth all its trouble. I particularly like the message in the salamander: the red amphibian is cold, slow and exotic. The singer catches that creature easily and marvels at its features and then decides to let it go slowly on its way. Is the poet using the salamander as a metaphor for herself once caught in a relationship that failed, and then slowly freeing herself? Is she letting go of the sadness and trauma that is now past and joining in the struggle here in the world?

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