The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $25,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered mutually by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been Eamon Grennan (2003), Madeline DeFrees (2002), Fanny Howe (2001), David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996), Marilyn Hacker (1995), W.S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993) and Adrienne Rich (1992). This year the award goes to Donald Revell for his My Mojave (Alice James). Jurors were Forrest Gander, Harryette Mullen and Brenda Hillman, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Blue Hour, by Carolyn Forché (HarperCollins); The Blaze of the Poui, by Mark McMorris (Georgia); Otherhood, by Reginald Shepherd (Pittsburgh); and Blindsight, by Rosmarie Waldrop (New Directions).
The tasks of poetry have never been more important or more difficult than they are now. Recently I heard a well-known poet tell an audience that there aren’t more readers for contemporary poetry because early-twentieth-century Modernist poets ruined it for us. That included, he said, Eliot, Stevens, Pound and Stein. I felt sorry for that poet. Poetry is an art that has always rendered mysterious matters in powerfully compressed ways (he could have told the audience) and even though readers of poetry are fewer relative to those of fiction and nonfiction, they are growing steadily in number. The number of fine independent presses–Apogee, Flood Editions, Omnidawn and Tender Buttons, to name just a few–is growing healthily as well. It is not the fault of poetry that reading the work of our finest poets takes patience; poets tell of the mind in time, and our culture privileges speedy activities. We are reminded by Shelley that poets are supposed to be radically aware of their duty as the nerves of cultures, that poetry is peculiarly equipped to bring the inner and outer worlds together, to rehabilitate modes of perception that have been undermined by an aggressively noncontemplative society. We need poetry more than ever.
Here is a poem by Donald Revell, called “To the Destroyers of Ballots”:
For his cancer
My dog drinks
A wild tea
Of fallen leaves
In standing water
But this morning
We found ice
And underneath it
Nothing to drink
Only brittle leaves
No birds today
Except hawks keeping
A brown watch
Over no prey
Man and dog
The piece is from his extraordinary book My Mojave, the selection for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize by the 2004 panel. In lines that are spare and strange, elegant and sorrowing, witty and linguistically innovative, My Mojave combines an Emersonian sweetness with postmodern practice. As part of a lyric experimental tradition, My Mojave is also balkily anti-lyric, interrupting its most flowing effects on purpose. Drawing on the terms of late Modernist enterprise (the kind despised by the poet in the first paragraph) to reinvent and re-use poetic form as an indicator of consciousness, Revell brings to us descriptions of the natural world, songlike fragments, declarations that resemble riddles and musings on poetry and the soul.
The other finalists for this prize–Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché, The Blaze of the Poui by Mark McMorris, Otherhood by Reginald Shepherd, and Blindsight by Rosmarie Waldrop–do these things as well. These brilliant books jostle conventions, inviting us to imagine the world more fully by reflecting the unfathomable variety of human experience in complex ways. Like Revell’s work, they use diverse styles from many poetic traditions to make powerful reports about cultural, spiritual and linguistic dilemmas in which we find ourselves in a country that seems increasingly numb and unconscious.
At the heart of My Mojave there is an ethical proposition that it is possible to be simultaneously contemporary and radically innocent. In part, Revell does this with a layering of subject matter. Some of the poems address the dire happenings of the years 1999-2002, some reflect on personal daily life and some do both. Sometimes Revell uses metaphorical and actual displacement as a subject. The engaged thinker in these poems isn’t quite sure how to go about this radical innocence but he knows it exists. Here is “Moving Day”:
My bed abandoned
On a ranch road
Waits for anyone,
And they should hurry.
It’s a good bed.
If the roads were level
I’d have it still.
Not half so lucky,
The teapot’s in pieces
In a trash barrel.
It was white white
When I bought it
And I was new to poetry
Twenty years ago.
We’re not home yet.
And I’m still new
To my callings:
Teacher, drunkard, absent minister.
I was in Carcassonne once.
I saw two horses there
And God who invented them.
Here, the poet asks for a calling; in the last stanza, it’s possible to hear several tonal registers: the flat, almost homespun tone of “We’re not home yet,” the tentative irony of the next three lines and a tone that is earnest and solemn in the report of the meeting with God. To reside in a flexible sense both of tone and of home is part of the project of the innocent and aware poet. This is reflected in the titles of the book’s two sections, “Here” and “There”–one word safely tucked into the other. “There” holds “here”; “here” is “there” with something added. Sounds, abstract and resonant, call between these varying senses of home and homelessness throughout the text. The “Mojave” of the title–with its “j” as a “ha” sound–is not only a place name but also the name of a native population in Western America, troubled by invaders. The book asks us to hold the questions of responsibility to place as part of its quest for a practical ethics.
Ethical concerns such as these are nothing new in Revell’s work. This sort of tensile, unsentimental questioning can be found in earlier books as well. His style was not always so plain as it is now, but he has always juxtaposed investigations of inwardness and social-historical matters, trying to figure out existence from relationships among events. A scholar of Ashbery, Revell learned from that writer to offer a propitiatory paradox or a bemused riddle, and Ashbery’s work–especially the uncanny mixes of diction, the playfulness of forms, the meditative freshness– has continued to feed him. New Dark Ages (1990)–perhaps a play on the title of Thoreau’s ironic essay “Dark Ages”–is an intensely apocalyptic read; both Erasures (1992) and Beautiful Shirt (1994) are full of a posthistorical hauntedness that now seems common in work by younger poets.
More recently in Arcady and There Are Three, Revell began more directly to converse with Blake, Emerson, Thoreau and Dorothy Wordsworth; and now, in My Mojave, he continues this, as if he were amiably walking along beside them. The salient features of this writing are (1) a forceful but plain lexicon (a single word can become an echo chamber); (2) the use of spare, unadorned lines, often raggedly enjambed; and (3) frequent disjunctive shifts in levels of diction, creating a tonal democracy that ranges from fierce to tender. The poems’ forms are often familiar–stanzas of quatrains tend to be prevalent– but the broken quiet, declarative, often unpunctuated sentences are often quirky. The simplicity of style nods to a proto-lushness that might break forth in a psalm. We need such psalms. As this is being written, America is still stumbling through the mistaken empire-building in Iraq, supposedly for the sake of national security and in the name of Christian ideals.
Revell’s baffled relationship to Christian belief is of the opposite kind. Standing outside a church, the observer in the poem notes:
Where boys throw stones today
And a sparkle rises to each stone
The river is among itself
Like some creature
With a pure empty power
To sleep sometimes even
As it moves or as it hunts.
(“Church and State”)
As the book works toward side-seams of a contemplative nature-poetry, it is woven of familiar cloth, fervently employing at least three formidable strands of American thought and poetic history–not just American Transcendentalist thought but also the William Carlos Williams/George Oppen strain of Modernism and postmodernist meditative styles. One might say it is, despite Revell’s French roots, an all-American mix. Homages and lineages here can grow on the same tree. Here is “Mechanics,” a piece “about” trees and forests in which these shifts and strands are evident:
What neighborhood? Only death and trees, or one
Tree. Someone explained to me the difference
East from West is the imagination
Of a single tree as against a forest.
Was he smiling? The Californians settle
Like gold ash upon their pine woods.
A stone’s throw west of Melville’s tomb, my father’s
Headstone tilts under one spruce kept alive
By sprinklerheads and a Puerto Rican gardener.
The gardener sings in the accent of his ocean.
At Big Sur, there are too many sounds to count one.
The forest is countless. A tree is almost none.
This is the house that Jack built East to West.
He was smiling, and his teeth were planted in rows.
A five-line core of five-stress lines–at times a spooky pentameter, at times a hexameter in a corset–of realist narrative, in which the speaker’s father’s grave is tended by a singing stranger, is banded on either side by slightly ironic musings about Manifest Destiny. Romantic ideas of home are undercut by the play on words: The forest is countless (too many trees to count them, too many times trying to count, without a count); the difference between east and west is explored but any false comparisons are dismissed. Whoever Jack is–there are many ur-Jacks–his smile presides over the last line like a fertility god. There are subthemes of nature gone awry, and being aligned with “too much energy,” perhaps a beast that is, as in Yeats, part of a cycle. In “New Year” Revell confronts the idea of impassioned wildness:
Disappearance equals increase, and emptiness
Rises or falls according to no pattern
Because there isn’t any pattern yet.
Etc. Etc. Bring out the mustangs now,
And memory, and terror. A birth
Yesterday so near, today seems far.
This work joins an intense conversation about nature and the spirit that has been going on for quite some time. Revell’s New England candle, carried out West, has a wick of an antinomian Protestantism and the wax of much reading, including–but not limited to–the cheerfully skeptical, moody journals of Thoreau and the batty-genius notes of Dorothy Wordsworth. The candle burns strongly. The terms of Revell’s investigations of nature are simultaneously democratic and secret and, like those of Pound and Eliot, recall the vegetation rituals in ancient Greece, asking What is nature? What are we? Where do we go within it? My Mojave has the feeling of an ancient text, a holy one; it bears reading, re-reading and re-re-reading.
Revell’s dialectical relationship to a “nature tradition” can be seen as the first two poems set up these terms, opposing and complementing each other. The first, called “Arcady Again,” recalls pastorals, shepherds, simple fields of paradise; the second poem, called “Pandemonium,” is named after Milton’s capital of hell. Among other images of childhood in this poem, Revell writes of a child in a tree who doesn’t know he has already climbed it; the child is a Blakean figure for a pre-lapsarian radiance we don’t know we have. Re-reading “Arcady Again” with some fine close readers (a group investigating the use of “nature” in postmodern poetry), I was reminded of the way single words can carry the charge of whole ideas. Here is Revell’s “Arcady Again” in its entirety:
Beside the house a path
Green leaves as low
As my eyes and a low
Gate into the rainy yard
Opens and even the little
Grass is very wide
God help the man who breathes
With nothing leading him
Here or someplace like it
Inside him which he opens
Wide enough to walk through
And walks through
Surprised to find deer and turtles
Living so near his house
The group of readers discussed how the three-stress line in this faux-sonnet plays away from and into regular rhythms, bringing a waltz-trinity of spiritual familiarity, and how the single word “help”–“God help the man who breathes”–is puzzling. Does “God help the man” mean the same as “God bless the man” or the same as “God help the damned”? “God help us” is sometimes uttered at the threshold of disaster. After the first stanza, we thought we were entering a poem of praise. The unpunctuated style of the poem allows for the syntactic indeterminacy that recommends a slightly effortful detachment, an activity that has a lot to do with the word “help.” If he had written “God bless the man who breathes” we would have been in the territory of Emerson. This sort of minute argument occurs elsewhere in the book. In the long poem titled “The Government of Heaven” he writes:
One and soon
Alights very near
They do not stir
In the branches anymore
For a long time
This is really the world
In June 2000
Ours and mine
The poet contemplates bird-nature in its unapproachable otherness, aware that he is recapping a romantic dilemma. The teetering, two-beat unadorned line–“One and soon”–is odd and just at the edge of sense; it sends a call into its sister line, “Ours and mine”–the same number of beats and almost the same number of letters–at the end of the third stanza. And later: “Promises concealed/Are skin (this from Sir Walter Raleigh)/So full of rivers it carries sugar,” he writes in an unpunctuated stanza in this speculative, ode-like poem.
In thinking about Revell’s ethics of innocence and attention, it is also helpful to recall Blake’s vision of innocence, and before that, Thomas Traherne’s, to whom Revell pays homage in a poem. Both Traherne and Blake write about childhood and the radical innocence necessary to live an ethical life. One must break with expectation. Blake writes: “I must Create a System or be enslaved by another man’s.” Both Traherne and Blake ran barefoot all over the standard styles of their day, ignoring rules with a tossed-off-but-careful singing, using repetition, odd rhyme, incantatory measures, in part to bring us back to what our senses purely provide if, in Blake’s words, the “doors of perception” are open. Traherne and Blake, though critics of the way most people live in a shabby overlay, believe in the possibilities of leading a visionary life, despite the oppression of society’s rules and government’s laws. Revell ends his poem “For Thomas Traherne” with a reference to chthonic light:
A sight above all festivals or praise
Is earth everywhere
And all things here
In the dark weather now like winter
Candling underground as rain
Revell’s brand of American Transcendentalism embodies more of the skeptical side of the Romantic tradition–perhaps the branch received from Schiller and German Idealism. The American skeptical romantic, Thoreau, is often the main muse, and Thoreau is a very odd duck; Perry Miller, in The American Transcendentalist, quotes Thoreau’s journal from 1851: “The traveler’s whole employment is to calculate what cloud will obscure the moon and what she will triumph over.” This brand of idealism has a lining of unsolvable sorrow. Everything is both here and not. Revell acknowledges the eccentricity of living a life that is infused with Swedenborgian signs but regulated by habits of practical self-reliance. Like a candle carried underground, this life encompasses chthonic and shimmering states.
Finally, here is the title poem, an erotic, formally engaging, psalmlike piece addressing things that happen on the ground. It tears apart its first phrase while allowing the first stanza mostly to increase. In subsequent stanzas, it meditates on awareness. Finally, the narrative of the insect wings, a kind of allegorical, personal tale, gives way to a prayer and its codicil. The poem reflects on heaven and on earthly revelations:
Day: it goes
A perfect circle falls
Onto white imperfections.
(Consider the black road,
How it seems white the entire
Length of a sunshine day.)
Or I could say
Shadows and mirage
Compensate the world,
Completing its changes
with no change.
In the morning after a storm,
We used brooms. Out front,
There was broken glass to collect.
In the backyard, the sand
Was covered with transparent wings.
The insects could not use them in the wind
And so abandoned them. Why
hadn’t the wings scattered? Why
did they lie so stilly where they’d dropped?
It can only be the wind passed through them.
Passes the same way.
And jealous earth,
There is a shadow you cannot keep
To yourself alone.
My soul wants only to go
The black road which is the white road.
I’m not needed
Like wings in a storm
And God is the storm.