Annunciation, Denise Levertov

by maggi dawn

Here is a poem for the Feast of the Annunciation. Those of you who know me will know that I work a lot with poetry and visual art around the Annunciation. The beauty of poetry is that, rather than analysing the mysterious moment of annunciation with a logical, systematising approach, it can walk in sideways to just one small question. And one of the questions that has washed around the Annunciation since #MeToo is whether Mary had a choice. There are several poems that deal with this–Noel Rowe’s Magnificat is one, another is Edwin Muir’s The Angel and the Girl are Met. But today, for the Feast of the Annunciation, I am reading Denise Levertov.

I love this grand, bold statement that Mary was not fearful, not coerced, not a slender little pushover of a woman, not a mere ‘vessel’, but a strong, courageous woman whose power to make decisions and set the tone changed the world.

Annunciation
‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn,
Greece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.

The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
____________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?

Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.

More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
____________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,

Spirit,

suspended,

waiting.
____________________

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.

Denise Levertov
from A Door in the Hive [New Directions, 1989]