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Denise Levertov’s “The Mutes”(1) is a poem about sounds that lack sound source. A poem of impulse and pulse that implodes before meeting its marriageable music. 

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 . . .

The groans are “used” by the men, but there’s a suggestion that the men are being used by their flesh. As the flesh-knowledge is sounded by the “groans,” we are in a loop with the groans sounding right through. The groans are instruments but so are the men.

. . . the world is revealed to me as objectively articulated; it never refers to a creative subjectivity but to an infinity of instrumental complexes.

– Jean-Paul Sartre(2)

For Sartre the body is lived and not known. It is the “instrument that I am.”(3) Perceptions of groans on the street may have changed, but there is still a huge element of unknown instrumentality. I’m not inclined here to discuss the cultural-political conditions in which a woman’s appearance can elicit a spectrum of reactions from groans to blows—that’s being done elsewhere. I’m interested in the way this poem proceeds through its scene.

The poet asks whether these groans are a “sort of tune.” Not melody. A tune is more accessible. One whistles a tune, one doesn’t whistle a melody. This tune might be “an ugly enough song” by a “bird with a slit tongue,” but meant for music. In this case the men would be wounded birds and the groans a bad representation of what they could do if their tongues were healthy.

Or are they, she asks, the “muffled roaring” of “deafmutes” in a "building / that is slowly filling with smoke?" The expression of desperation. Whether they are both or either one, the men are not in control. Perhaps groan is “all they can do” but the woman “in spite of herself, // knows it’s a tribute: / If she were lacking in all grace / they’d pass her in silence.”

Thus as beauty is the adequate representation of will generally, through its merely spatial manifestation; grace is the adequate representation of will through its temporal manifestation, that is to say, the perfectly accurate and fitting expression of each act of will, through the movement and position which objectify it.

– Arthur Schopenhauer(4)

In the same text, Schopenhauer quotes Goethe: “No evil can touch him who looks on human beauty; he feels himself at one with himself and with the world.”
This is certainly not the case here. The men looking on beauty (we assume it if there’s grace?) are disabled and their groans are a kind of aggressive defence. The poet's choice of the word “grace” instead of “beauty” suggests that it’s the movement of the woman that attracts. Grace is beauty in motion.

In grace the body is the instrument which manifests freedom.

– Jean-Paul Sartre(5)

The woman’s freedom is arrested by the groans. The men emit the groans because they are not equipped to pay her a proper tribute. They don't have the language, but they have to do or say something. “It’s a word // in grief language . . . language stricken, sickened . . .”

The groans rearrange the environment. The woman can’t “throw the tribute away, disgusted . . .” The "tribute" “changes the pace of her walk, / the torn posters in echoing corridors // spell it out, it / quakes and gnashes as the train comes in.” I’m reminded of the scene in Andrzej Żuławski’s film, Possession (1981), where Isabelle Adjani launches into a frenzied compelled “dance” in an underground station.

The cars, however, “slow down and / jar to a stop” (note the musical implication). Internally, gerund and present participle join forces to keep the woman moving and thinking, internalising the message:

. . . . . . . . . . while her understanding

keeps on translating:
‘Life after life after life goes by

without poetry,
without seemliness,
without love.’

The word “seemliness” was probably more commonly used in 1963 when the poem was written, but its placing between “poetry” and “love” here seems odd to me. Poetry and love are in the nature of large ideas, whereas “seemliness” is a demeanour, a conformation. Maybe it’s an accommodation in lieu of the other two where they’re lacking, and inclusive of the various lives that seem to be passing by, generations even. Or it might have Schopenhauer’s “fitting expression” as part of its meaning, and so refer to "grace."

What instrument plays the groans that empty lives of these desirable things?

Pan spies [Syrinx] as she is returning from the hill of Lycæus . . . the Nymph, slighting his suit, fled through pathless spots, until she came to the gentle stream of sandy Ladon . . . the waters stopping her course, she prayed to her watery sisters, that they would change her . . . Pan, when he was thinking that Syrinx was now caught by him, had seized hold of some reeds of the marsh, instead of the body of the Nymph . . . while he was sighing there, the winds moving amid the reeds had made a murmuring noise, and like one complaining . . . charmed by this new discovery and the sweetness of the sound, he . . . said, “This mode of converse with thee shall ever remain with me” . . . accordingly, unequal reeds being stuck together among themselves by a cement of wax . . . since retained the name of the damsel.

– Ovid(6)

Das Ding, the dreaded emptiness, is embodied in the panpipes, whose hollowness enables music. The music of the pipes is tuned by their origin—chase and loss. Desire for the possession of grace. Or the expressions of maleness and femaleness unmarriageable to each other.

Very few woman don’t know this scenario—the tune, the emptiness, the range of effects it induces, from aporia to rage. Here’s a snatch of something that’s part of something in process:

I travel to work and home and if anyone sees me it's a speed camera
or a far satellite mapping the road for Google.

I was engaged when young by the battle to walk past
working men and fellows at street corners. I thought then

even the granite knew I was there. Absolutely the pavement,
taking my measure by the square unit, retentive

as gossip. A pretty one, whose anger meant a noble battle,
won by the gesture of a tossed head. Bastard, go ogle

your damned trowel.


(1) In The Sorrow Dance. New York: New Directions, 1966, 46/7.
Full text at 
(2) Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Introduction by Mary Warnock. London: Routledge, 1996, 322/3.
(3) ibid. 324.
(4) The World as Will & Idea, Vol. 1, p. 267, par 261.
(5) Being and Nothingness, cit., 400.
(6) Metamorphoses, Fable XV.

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