How much, in just twenty years, Donald Revell has changed! From the Abandoned Cities (1983), his debut volume, included a villanelle, a sestina, rhymed sonnets and meditative terza rima. The book evoked bleak cityscapes from the Bronx to Belfast, where “sadness clings to the round/like fog.” Revell’s grim descriptions both depicted and feared “the collapse of life/into signs and tokens.” By New Dark Ages (1990) that collapse had taken place, and Revell’s landscapes had become wistful allegories or bitter, almost solipsistic dreamscapes. “All are private and seek even more privacy,” Revell decided, writing elsewhere:
The stores will never open again. For the rest of our lives
we shall make constellations and gods
out of the guts of buildings and the stale damp.
Erasures (1992) and Beautiful Shirt (1994) moved even further from specifics, describing erotic, political and intellectual frustration, and mingling plangency, difficulty and self-pity:
Why have I chosen privacy over fullness?
Why have I chosen the strait, unmutual
loving of a small man whose heart is secrecy
and whose citizenship only that of the
reformed transient in the waste places
he fills from himself alone?
There Are Three (1998) showed Revell at his most austere. In poems like “Elegy,” even syntax became a human connection Revell refused:
myself the other
winter even more
myself the other
still as obscure
a milk white one
a coal black one
winter even more
For all his stylistic shifts, however, Revell’s moods and properties had not altered, nor had his limited palette of diction, all gray and restrained blue-gray. When regions or landscapes appeared, they evoked, as one title put it, “The Memory of New England.” When the poetic “I” acted, it acted alone.
Arcady (2002) grew entirely (its preface said) from Revell’s grief for his lately dead sister. A book-length pastoral elegy, achingly conscious of Renaissance precedents, the volume made the terseness and the brief nonstatements Revell tried out in Three into visionary vehicles, opening up spaces where Revell could demonstrate, haltingly, just how he felt:
In the country in dream in Arcady
One sentenced to death was given wings
I do not want to die
Arcady pursued attempts at otherworldliness, some of them bordering on religious faith. It hoped, or tried, to believe in another world, one in which his late sister might remain:
To dream like this
Was worth the trouble
My other ideas
Like ghosts now
The most beautiful star
Is crossing me
These thin lines and cryptic inscriptions owed something, perhaps, to Revell’s translations of Apollinaire, and something to the younger poets he encountered as an editor and a teacher (at the University of Denver and at Utah, where he teaches now). Interviewed about Arcady, Revell said disarmingly that in his “earlier work I wanted to win an audience and an audience’s approval, its admiration. And I did my circus tricks accordingly.” In his pastoral elegy, by contrast, he had tried to “go alone to the alone.” Yet Arcady resembled his first books in its depiction of a difficult solitude: The pastoral postmodern swain, exploring his American visions, remained bereft in a limited landscape of symbolic nouns–wind, river, grass, shadow, ax, grave.
By contrast with Arcady, My Mojave appears expansive, welcoming, easily grasped. By contrast with Three or Erasures, it sounds, at first, like the work of an entirely different man. Revell now seeks a poetry appropriate not only to loneliness but to anger and happiness, not only to freighted symbols but to facts, not only to doubt but to faith. What’s more, he seems to have found what he seeks. For the first time since the 1980s, Revell organizes poems around proper nouns–Andrew Marvell, Christmas, the Fourth of July, his wife (the poet Claudia Keelan), his playful young son and their new Nevada home (“the 900 block of Fairchild”), and even the 2000 presidential election. Here, entire, is “To the Destroyers of Ballots,” perhaps the first good poem about that bad day:
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
Revell has not lost his attraction to modes of austerity, of meaning as much while stating as little as possible. Yet readers of Revell’s past books will notice not this political lyric’s anxiety, nor its careful allegory (dog=voters, tea=imperfect democracy, no tea=stolen election) but instead its stark lucidity, its openness to purely observed detail.
My Mojave presents itself as a book about that new openness, its clarity as a new, hopeful state of mind. “Pandemonium” opens by quoting Milton, thus painting two parents (perhaps Revell and Keelan, perhaps Keelan’s parents) as Adam and Eve:
Some natural tears they dropped,
Especially on the 900 block of Fairchild
Where a bicycle leans against a broken Aphrodite
Behind them it was a jumble
Coming into flower and brown fences
Breaking like waves at all angles
And rooftops at all angles.
A sustained applause, and heartfelt,
Began only when they had gone.
Revell depicts people and dwellings, but withholds their story: Do the parents enjoy their departure, or the neighbors applaud their leaving? He leaves us instead with a very broad range of language, from the Miltonic to the American-demotic; with a characteristic Revellian music (six of ten lines concluding on unstressed syllables, all line breaks coinciding with grammatical pauses, all except the last hesitant); and especially with a sense of mystery, one these departing parents might themselves feel.
In Revell’s new world, any experience–even at 900 Fairchild–could become hieratic at any time. “Pandemonium” therefore seems to him a surprisingly friendly place, inhabited by who knows how many spirits: the neighbors, or “a postman,” or “Reverend Fate,/Interim pastor of Main Street Congregational,” whose “sermons/Are shirts for my pillow, my dream sermons.” Any stone, shirt or scrap in Revell’s field of vision can prompt a laconic generality of its own: In “My Trip,” for example, “A silver fish head glistens beside a bottlecap./Plenty remains.” Here Revell sounds like James Wright, or like other poets from the 1960s and ’70s who told us to trust the luminous details that prove to us that “This is really the world.” When Revell’s 1990s poems failed, they didn’t make sense; when his new poems fail, they make too much sense, or rather avoid sense via hippie clichés: “Sometimes books/Are true because of rain.”
Mostly, though, Revell achieves all the originality, and all the obliquity, his lines need. Revell generalizes wherever he can, then pours in more information, taking (as he says) “instruction from accident”; poems interrupt themselves to give sights and dates (“October 20, 2000 Iowa City”), which then dissolve into Revell’s abstracting and attenuating temperament, like sugar into hot water. That temperament prompts, in his descriptive poems, an enticingly diffident self-subtraction: Revell attempts to describe, and to accept, a changeable world by never asking more from it than it can give. The attractively brief “Counsel” sketches a Buddha that “Floats in marigolds/Until the August heat/Kills them,” then decides that “True grief is endless/As happiness/Is unforgettable.” The much longer title poem also mixes description with abstraction, resignation with metaphysical delight:
…I could say
Shadows and mirage
Compensate the world,
Completing its changes
With no change.
Without caesuras, sometimes without punctuation, Revell’s lines (like W.S. Merwin’s, like Michael Palmer’s) try to sound effortless, and to leave readers breathless; Revell’s desire for open-endedness, and his attraction to grammatical ambiguities, play productively against his desire for poems with beautifully quotable parts. “Harvest” makes a good example; it ends:
Aversion then compulsion then
Children exchange childish blood
For coronets grown with God
It is cool enough to breathe now
It is autumn for the taking
Are the coronets (signs of martyrdom) grown with God, or does God make it cool enough to breathe? Who feels averse, then compelled–the children? Their parents? Revell wants to be sure we do not know, just as he wants, more generally, to demonstrate that propositional knowledge and logic, for him, will never suffice.
What will suffice? Apparently, Christian belief. “This is the miracle of Christmas,” Revell wrote in New Dark Ages: “for one day, everyone in the world is a puppet.” That ambivalence, and that remove, give way here to ingenuous declarations like “I’m not needed/Like wings in a storm/And God is the storm,” or “It’s no effort/To sing the hymns ourselves, and we do that.” “In Christmas,” opens with a vision of socioeconomic apocalypse: “I saw the mountains burning up and the rubbish/And the people trampling over their own food.” Where his early political poetry was vaguely Marxist in inspiration, with echoes of Adorno, Revell now writes what we might call (in praise or blame) a poetry of mystical Christian socialism, in which even the least specific political statements find transcendental sanction if and only if they prove unselfishly “accurate” as art:
Start right now
If you are a twig
Skins and skins of death
Our life it is what we fight for
The only stain in it
Taking out pain which was not accurate…
We are a protest
Raised against ourselves
And God comes now
And God is alone in a leaf
And we are snow in the desert
Making a new sound
Revell’s early books sent us hunting for parallels in John Ashbery; these passages send us instead to the Psalms, to Isaiah (“Sing unto the Lord a new song”) and to Romans 7: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
It may be that much of My Mojave reacts covertly to September 11, though the book as a whole seems more informed by the political deadlock that preceded it, and by Revell’s family life. Revell reacts to 9/11 explicitly in the verse-diary “Given Days,” which deflects or displaces the statements we might expect:
The attacks were tall, and then they burned.
I’d been reading, and then it was time
To take my son to school before the mustangs
As they do every day, fled
The schoolyard for quieter fields up high.
“Attacks…burned” (not buildings), mustangs fled (not shocked New Yorkers); implied or deleted words haunt these phrases, much as low-grade survivor’s guilt may haunt Revell’s everyday acts. Yet this guilt seems to him only a special case of the guilt he experiences, all the time, anyway: “I go out and I feel that every step of mine/Spoils the rime across the grass.” Revell believes (as he always has) that to be merely one person, in one place at one historical moment, is to be deeply unsatisfied, but he can now imagine, for the first time, sources of satisfaction–some domestic, others explicitly religious:
Lord dear Governor God
The elections come very near now
And still in the heavy leaf fall
And on all the pretty young people
Walking avenues of the deep color
I conjure more precise obscenities
Cruelties really sad as all liberty
Is sad without worship
Such lines face–even celebrate–the apparent conflict between Revell’s new interest in things he can see, and his longtime drive toward subjects abstract, transcendental or invisible. “Halfway to Jehovah,” Revell wants to convince us, or to convince himself, that “reality” (his word) is neither inherently cruel, nor hard to understand, nor socially molded, but capable of direct apprehension, if we only open our eyes. Yet that apprehension requires us to forswear some other (more ambitious, more worldly or more sociable) way of life. “The beauties of the world advertise its poisons,” and any beauty becomes, for Revell, a poison if we subject it too closely to reason: “Telling is selling,/Even just two letters,/Very different from two birds.”
But if Revell now dislikes discursive explanations, he also dislikes poems that ignore the problems human beings have tried to explain–especially the problem of evil:
Who am I to be seen without shouting?
What use is knowledge disappearing down a hole?
Come out and be killed, poem says.
You’ll find company. Three ash trees
I saw beside a lake in late October.
One was bare. One was flame-red. The third
Smoldered still in summer green, and it was screaming.
The trio of trees gives Revell a Nevada Golgotha: For all their moments of confidence, the strongest of these new poems come not to send peace, but a sword.
Readers who miss his earlier, slippery work–or who object to Revell’s suspicion of the intellect–remain free to take up their own swords against his new style. They might do better to ask what states of mind its vaunting transparencies, and those alone, can describe. Revell wrote in New Dark Ages: “How badly I would like to sleep now/in the shadows beside real things or beside/things that were real once.” Such stark, existential loneliness underlay the desolate tones of Revell’s early work, and impelled the thin, resolutely inward language of his 1990s books, each of which sought new forms for almost the same feelings.
Now, however, the feelings themselves have changed: The solipsism has gone, replaced by a confidence in domestic life, in “real things” outdoors and, at least sometimes, in a Christian God. America looks, to Revell, far worse, and Revell’s own private life far better, than either did when Revell began to write; his new poetry of prophetic statement sounds just as strange, just as rich in implication, as anything he–or almost any other poet of his generation–has done.