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.