Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Donald Revell, White Campion
Alice James Books, 2021, $17.95

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me note that Donald Revell is one of my oldest and closest friends. I have written about his work on a number of previous occasions, including an essay about the early years of our friendship at Binghamton University. He is the closest thing I have to what we may call a brother in poetry, and though for the remainder of this review, I will refer to him conventionally as “Revell,” in my mind and heart he is always “Don.” There have been times over the years when we have not been in close touch, but since the start of the pandemic we have visited via Zoom almost weekly. In late May, my wife and I stayed with Don and his wife, the poet Claudia Keelan, in their home in Las Vegas; it was a joyous reunion.

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Donald Revell’s White Campion is his sixteenth or seventeenth book of poetry, depending on if you start counting officially from From the Abandoned Cities (a National Poetry Series winner in 1983), or unofficially from The Broken Juke (1975), his jazzy undergraduate work, which has never been reprinted. He has also published translations of Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire, and Laforgue, as well as memoir and literary criticism. Revell is a poet whose style and subject are continually evolving, as can been in his new and selected poems, Pennyweight Windows (2005) and the five collections he has published since. The relatively strict formalism of From the Abandoned Cities (which he explicitly rejected in his volume of selected prose, Invisible Green [2005]) gave way to dense, probing meditations on modern history; fragmented, gnomic sequences taking us further back in time; surprisingly scintillating elegies; and, increasingly, enigmatic prayers celebrating his rather idiosyncratic Christianity (he has been a lifelong Episcopalian). His influences and precursors are equally complex: the English Metaphysicals, Blake, Thoreau, Eliot, the French modernists, Creeley, and Ashbery, about whom he wrote his doctoral dissertation. At sixty-seven, he has emerged as a startlingly difficult but intensely lyrical devotional poet, a full-blown Christian visionary always seeking, to use the title of his recent book of essays, the “sudden Eden” to be perceived in the most mundane of lived moments.

“I know that there are atheists,” writes Revell in Essay: A Critical Memoir (2015), “but I cannot for the life of me find them, not even one.” Revell sees angels everywhere (and contrary to Rilke, in Revell’s work every angel is not terrible), and if he can manage to share that vision with us, even to the slightest extent, then he is confident that we too will believe. His spiritual generosity is immense, expansive, but his revelatory moments are intimate, fleeting, and meant to be cherished: “I step into the crook of the wing of my / Steadfast angel. I catch the scent / Of newly washed hair, and she says to me / ‘Shelter here’...” (“Senesco Sed Amo,” 6-7). The title, per Revell’s note, comes from Menippus, the third-century BCE satirist from whom Menippean Satire takes its name; it means “I age, but I love” (or “I am an old man but I love”). It is a poem, as I read it, about aging into faith (and this may well be true for the entire collection). Human life becomes more tenuous as the poet describes how “I / Feel my way among / Misted pillars and ghosts / Of breath on upper Broadway. / A quick kiss in the crosswalk is / More to me than mankind” (5). It is an angelic kiss, not a human one (though described in rather fleshly terms), and the poem ends on a sweetly unsettling note: “Let mankind sleep / Forever. Christ has suffered enough, / And my angel is clean enough to kiss. We kiss” (7).

If Christ has suffered enough, it could be (I am speculating here) because his task is accomplished, and it is up to us to take on the spiritual challenge. How are we doing? My sense, from White Campion, is that we’re okay but could probably put in more of an effort. Our efforts are hindered, in part, by the simple fact of our mortality. We suffer “the terrible exchange of love / For pathos” (12)—angelic love traded for human pathos. This is from “Omnia Quae Sunt, Lumina Sunt” (“All things that are are lights,” from the ninth-century Irish theologian and poet Duns Scotus Erigena). “There comes a time when zeal / Dissipates into a mist of the beautiful / And then into something like fleshly / Diamond” (12): a strange oxymoron indicating a loss of spiritual fervor in the face of our decidedly unangelic limitations. We love the fleetingly beautiful because we ourselves live only fleetingly. Mortality is relentless: “My own flesh is given to map-making, accumulating / Shapes in hapless preparation for nothing / Ever to happen...think of Auden’s later face” (13). The lined and wrinkled face of another Christian poet, another poet who rues and celebrates our fallen condition, becomes an exemplar of the struggle to create artistic beauty in the light of ultimately unknowable divine truth. Perhaps Rilke’s understanding of the conflicted relationship of humans and angels does obtain in Revell too: “Angel, make nonsense of geography. / Likewise, the topographical chaos / Of faces, hair, the foreshortened places / Behind our knees, confound the angels” (13). And yet, as the poem’s title indicates, both we and the angels are light.

Light floods Revell’s poems, especially desert light, since he has lived many years now in Las Vegas and before that, Salt Lake City. It often results in gorgeous lyricism, as in the book’s title poem, one of the two that anchor the collection (the other is the magnificent “American Sunlight,” which I will discuss below):

Just after dawn,
In the wren’s eye
There are no blossoms left in the trees
And yet the sunlight blazons white
New flowers onto every leaf.
The wren’s eye gorges itself,
Bursting the new life.
The memory of a tree is the tree. (39)

Note how the incorporeal is embodied in perception, in sight, just as the past is embodied in memory, the poet’s memory as much as the wren’s. The campion flower symbolizes youthful love, which relates not only to this poem, but to “American Sunlight” as well. Here, time, memory, the perception of the natural, and the intuition of the supernatural come together here, resulting in these delicate lines, knitted with remarkable, unassuming tensile strength. “White Campion” owes a great deal to Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Should the bird outlast the last blossom of the tree? / Keep faith, but keep it silently, / Starveling” (42). And as in Eliot, the experience of beauty in the human world partly compensates for our inability to comprehend divine mystery.

This leads us to what may be called the problem of beauty in Revell’s poetry. In “Saved for Later,” with its Ashberian title, the poet declares that “We live in a time of relentless / Sensual negations” (34). The experience of beauty, which is bound up in sensuality, negates, or at least, distracts us from religious truth. Yet beauty—and this is a fundamental, immensely fruitful contradiction in this poem and in much of Revell’s poetry—is also that which can inspire us to move toward the truth. Our encounter with beauty, whether in nature or in art, “Falls at a steep angle, frei aber einsam, / Sparkling like a snow of trouble untroubled” (34). According to Revell’s note, the German phrase, “free but lonely,” is “the motto of violinist Joseph Joachim, close friend and collaborator of Johannes Brahms. Brahms used the motto (F-A-E) as a motif for his first symphony.” To be an artist is to be free but lonely, and the work which such an artist brings into being is “trouble untroubled,” itself the perfect motto for Revell’s poetry. With its remarkable equanimity and calm tone, frequently combined with strange and frustrating ellipses and pseudo-logical statements (again one is reminded of Ashbery), Revell’s poems in their beauty present themselves as quite untroubled, but deeply troubling to their readers.

“What is beauty if not the extreme / Of pathos turned inward upon itself / There to incandesce in agony // Of self-love...” (8-9). These lines from “Ingenium Nobis Ipsa Puella Facit” (“My genius is no more than a girl,” as loosely but brilliantly translated by Pound in Homage to Sextus Propertius), sum up the problem. The Christian God and His angels are not subject to pathos (and I cannot resist pointing out how different this is from the Jewish God, especially in Kabbalah). Only mortals long for beauty because, in effect, it flatters our narcissism, which is an even surer sign of our mortality. To finish the stanza, this self-love is “anguish indistinguishable / From God’s first touch upon Adam / Who loved his life, who loved his life.” Indeed he did, and we are all his children. In a weird permutation of Adam’s curse (and I am thinking here of Yeats’ poem), we must not only labor, we must also “labour to be beautiful.” As Revell concludes this extraordinary poem, “All my life, I’ve famished one idea after another. / Live for beauty or do not live at all” (9). We are fated to be aesthetes.

“All my life...”: I said above that White Campion is a book about aging into faith. If such is the case, then memory plays a fundamental role. At the center of the book is “American Sunlight,” a long memory poem which I do not hesitate to call one of Revell’s very best. The epigraph from George Santayana—“Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves”—prepares us for what lies ahead. Here are the opening lines:

Young people together—there never was
An image more pressing. In the ebon lapse
Of time, our slow damnation to continuities,
A pigeon loves hopelessly the cold, clay owl
Meant only to frighten her. Likewise,
Young people pause in a doorway fifty
and more years ago. I am one of them.
I am also here to one side, desperate
To image their youth-time to myself
Just once: clay to clay, owl to stone-cold owl. (26)

Revell generally is not a poet of the uncanny, but the doubleness introduced here of past and present, the haunting vision of the younger self, marks this poem as a powerful exception. Even more uncanny is the fact that this is not a poem of shadow or darkness; as the title indicates, it is a poem of sunlight, as memory comes to the poet by day and not by night. Nevertheless, mortality looms: the pigeon in love with the owl statue meant to frighten her away quaintly symbolizes the poet’s situation, his mortal clay in love with stony immortal wisdom. He feels as foolish as his heedless younger self, but now he has also learned the truth of “our slow damnation to continuities.”

I cannot possibly do a full reading of the poem here, but I will venture just a few remarks, noting how “memory and expectation / Join in a rhythm” (26), producing in turn, with great tenderness and sorrow, “a Sheol of continuities” (27). It is the experience of continuities in consciousness as one ages that amazes the poet and leads him into song. Moments from the past—a girl slips her hand in the young poet’s pocket, looks into his eyes, and then looks away—are intertwined with allusions to Blake, to Charles Olson, to Charles Ives, and especially to Virgil’s Georgics. “I would have liked / to write something like the Georgics, but / I haven’t the art or earth” (30). Instead, “This is a poem about dementia / Wandering a nation without memory, / America devoted now to abandoning / Its monuments and its younger me” (31). Revell’s task is thus to resist this dementia. “In my first youth I read / Signs in everything” (31-32); miraculously, that inclination has remained with him across a lifetime, making him the poet he is today. Memory, he realizes, belongs to the old; “The young will not feel the burden of it” (32). The poem winds down almost whimsically, with Revell as absentminded professor:

My lecture notes are running away from me.
There was something very important
About Dante and a dream surfacing
in Ravenna. It doesn’t matter now.
What eludes me has dearly become myself
As I appear to others unknown to me. (32-33)

What seems lost, like an evanescent dream, is at least partly found again in the poem. The poet as teacher seeks to impart “something very important,” finds that he has lost it, and then discovers that it “has dearly become myself.” Dearly: cherished, but also expensive, as in costing him dearly. Such is the price we pay to time, in time. And yet the poet in his poem “will appear to others unknown to me,” perhaps echoing the vision of futurity Whitman experiences in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” And so Revell dares to guarantee to himself the immortality of his art.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 7/3/2021 at 12:00 PM