Skip to main content
By Denise Levertov

Though the road turn at last   

to death’s ordinary door,   

and we knock there, ready   

to enter and it opens

easily for us,

                     yet

all the long journey

we shall have gone in chains,   

fed on knowledge-apples   

acrid and riddled with grubs.


We taste other food that life,   

like a charitable farm-girl,   

holds out to us as we pass—

but our mouths are puckered,   

a taint of ash on the tongue.


It’s not joy that we’ve lost—

wildfire, it flares

in dark or shine as it will.

What’s gone

is common happiness,

plain bread we could eat

with the old apple of knowledge.


That old one—it griped us sometimes,   

but it was firm, tart,   

sometimes delectable …


The ashen apple of these days

grew from poisoned soil. We are prisoners   

and must eat

our ration. All the long road

in chains, even if, after all,

we come to

death’s ordinary door, with time

smiling its ordinary

long-ago smile.


Denise Levertov, “Prisoners” from Oblique Prayers. Copyright © 1984 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, www.wwnorton.com/nd/welcome.htm.

Source: Oblique Prayers (Bloodaxe Books, 1984)

  • Living

Poet Bio

Denise Levertov
Although born in England, Denise Levertov’s long residence in the United States and her allegiance to the nativist vision and organic, open-form procedures of William Carlos Williams make her a distinctly American writer. Levertov came here in 1948, and was soon associating with the Black Mountain poets Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. Her quietly passionate poems, attuned to mystic insights and mapping quests for harmony, became darker and more political in the 1960s as a result of personal loss and her outrage at the Vietnam War.

More By This Poet

More Poems about Living

Browse poems about Living