Editor's Note: This essay is the first in a series we will be publishing from a critical anthology focused on the writings of Donald Revell, Till One Day the Sun Shall Shine More Brightly: The Poetry and Prose of Donald Revell, for which Derek Pollard is serving as editor. Kathryn Cowles’s essay was one of several texts commissioned for the project, which also features previously published critical articles, reviews, and interviews spanning Revell’s distinguished career.
Recuperating the Brilliant Picture
Language as Transubstantiation in Revell's Later Poems
In “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Every word was once a poem.” Poets, he argues, named the stuff of the world, and the names were initially fresh and full of the essence of their subject matter; indeed, as he writes, “The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture.” But over time, words lose their luster and clarity. Now, “Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.” Language is full of the dead junk left behind by old generations of long-dead Namers. “But the poet,” Emerson continues, talking about the best writers writing now (or in the now of his essay), “names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other.” True poets can make words back into the brilliant pictures of their origins. True poets can revivify the fossils, can raise the dead.
Every so often in my reading life, I have encountered a writer who is a true poet, according to this definition, who causes a profound shift in my understanding of what language can do, a poet who makes words meaningful again. Donald Revell’s poems have done this for me—have re-inscribed language with long-dead capacities in a way I had thought was impossible.
Revell’s poems are alchemical. They take little strange ingredients, sometimes the most everyday things you could imagine, and mix them together, and then a kind of chemical reaction occurs, and suddenly, miraculously, the language lifts up off the page. Dead words resuscitate. They transubstantiate. They somehow say things, deeply human things, that aren’t actually possible to say, at least not directly. They help words regain their mystery, their gravity, their grace. They rescue language from the grim lonesomeness of Structuralism.
Lately, I’ve been rereading, side-by-side, Donald Revell’s three most recent books of poems—The Bitter Withy (2009), Tantivy (2012), and Drought-Adapted Vine (2015)—paying special attention to these moments of transubstantiation the way one might look at the insides of a time piece, prodding little gears and levers and hammer springs and pinions trying to intuit how the whole thing moves, why it moves me, what causes each part to tick. I don’t want to explain craft here so much as to witness and name moments of this process of word-revivification. This is a pointer-finger essay. In tracking some of these moments, I hope to make it so I can feel my way through the poems in the future with an eye on more of their parts at once, so I can sense their little tickings more clearly, so I can teach myself how to take in and hold what is miraculous about them.
“God is in the kitchen drawer, / And His love is infinite" (“Alphabet City: An Autobiography,” Drought-Adapted Vine 5)
Sometimes reading a Revell poem involves a dizzying shift in scale, like looking through a microscope, then binoculars, then a telescope, all in the course of a line or two. In these particular lines, the shift in scale overlaps the quotidian with the infinite. God in the kitchen drawer can be intimate and everyday and endlessly huge at once. This vacillation between macro and micro, between universe and kitchen drawer, somehow, for me, almost counterintuitively reinvests the concept of God with mystery, with miraculousness. The kitchen drawer somehow brings me inexplicably closer to the infinite and somehow makes it seem bigger.
“The fossil record quietly accounts for me . . ." (“Victorians (5),” Tantivy 7)
“Whichever way I go was once an ocean."(“Victorians (10),” Tantivy 12)
“God counts only up to one / His hands are small / And in God’s hands even / Mountains are sparrow-sized” (“Tithon,” Tantivy 43)
Days of Illness
I can hear the rain 900 miles from here.
Nearer, two eyes open, vacant and pure,
Timelessness . . . there’s no such thing. It would kill me.
I think of two small children, brother and sister.
They shelter small together beneath one tree.
Behind them, motionless in a rain-swept field,
Women in stiff, outdated clothing stand
Waist deep in the blowing grass. I would choose
To be the grass, to be moving, hoping
Somehow to draw the children’s attention
And to draw them into the field. The women are dead
Long since. The children are old. The rain
900 miles from here is speaking through the grass,
From field to field in me so I might live.
(“Days of Illness,” The Bitter Withy 45)
In “The Library” Revell writes, “Even as their shadows / Move, still leaves remain still. The passage / Of time is indescribable” (Drought-Adapted Vine 33). That's the trouble for many poets with too many things in the world: They’re indescribable. And yet I often find Revell describing the effects of time in a way that reminds me of time, in a way that feels like time feels. Describing the indescribable. He does this, for instance, with that description of the leaves. Something about shadows moving while their leaves stay still unhinges the time of the poem, makes it wobble, physicalizes its passing-ness for me, as if I’m seeing a few seconds of the leaves through stop-gap animation or a time-lapse film depicting a leaf budding and then opening out before it fades, all within seconds. I know what it means, even though it’s unparaphrasable. I know what its time looks like.
In “Days of Illness,” quoted in full above, Revell similarly describes an indescribable thing when he edges in on what I’ll call his concept of eternity, and one thing it’s not is timeless. Instead, its time is collapsible and expandable, like an umbrella, or like an accordion. The small children are simultaneously small together and old. The women are waist deep in grasses and long since dead. The here overlaps with eternity, with the hereafter. Time is simultaneously Now now, and Always now, and I really feel it when I read this poem.
I suspect that the rain 900 miles away is important to this felt time the way the shadows and still leaves were important to the passage from “The Library”—that distance is operating as a kind of metaphor for the simultaneous smallness and bigness of time, for its temporal vacillation between near and far. Everything can exist together in the now of the poem. And somehow, this conception of eternity circumvents the sorrow of decline or of death, if only for a moment.
“Low suns glow in the river. / I am losing my days to them. / I miss the days, but not too much. / Wherever they go, they make a meadow.” (“Little Bees,” The Bitter Withy 50)
The concept of days making a meadow here again intersects time with space to give the feel of days slipping. I think of Robert Duncan’s famous meadow as a “field folded.” I’ve heard Revell say before that a meadow is a place without a center, which fits with these lines.
“Eyesight is nobody. / Perspective dies before it lives, / And it lives a long time after death // Like birdsong. // When I die, I will begin to hear / The higher frequency, / A whine, as though the moment were a lathe. / It will be a true lathe, / All my life spinning off from it.” (“Drought,” The Bitter Withy 52)
“The actual past weeps from future wounds.” (“Lay of Waters,” The Bitter Withy 29)
“Tenderness has mass, and Cezanne knew it. / Substance of a moment makes for substance. / Whatever lives at all, lives a long time.” (“A Painting of Cezanne’s,” The Bitter Withy 36)
“My mother as a baby, my father a cowboy, / My sister, finally, after so much heartbreak, / A girl. / The body travels inside the soul. / The body’s a passenger.” (“Long-Legged Bird,” The Bitter Withy 58)
“And a child my child myself as a child waiting" (“Tithon,” Tantivy 43)
“Genesis / Makes nonsense of our Christmases." (“Graves Variations,” Drought-Adapted Vine 42)
“And poetry. Jesus please slow down. / The bad men are far behind us now. / Lunching among postcards of the Last Judgment, / We can breathe. We have time. We have plenty of it.” (75 - “Foxglove,” Drought-Adapted Vine 75)
These are the moving very last lines of Drought-Adapted Vine, a book mightily concerned with its own passing. “We have plenty of it.” is the only underlined text in all of Revell’s ouvre and seems to me to point clearly to a loosened and specifically Revellian conceptualization of eternity.
Metaphors via Big Time
“An epochal sun sees / Mountain ranges, and the mountains melt away.” (“Graves Variations,” Drought-Adapted Vine 42)
When William Blake compares two things using figurative language, they could be any two things. As he writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Everything that lives is holy”. It stands to reason, then, that if everything that lives is holy, if everything is touching the holy, everything is like everything else: All holy. Metaphors are easy in this world.
I want to present Revell’s notion of eternity as parallel to Blake’s notion of “Everything that lives is holy.” Revell’s Everything can be compared to everything else via a kind of radical temporal contiguity: Everything is like everything else because it’s all touching time. Or, seen a different way, Everything is like everything else because even things that are on the opposite ends of eternity are still in eternity, and eternity is always happening now. As Revell writes in one of the splendid footnotes of “The Watteau Poem,” “The parts of the world are alone with God, crowded together” (Drought-Adapted Vine 53). I would go so far as to say the times of the world are also alone with God, crowded together.
And so “An epochal sun sees / Mountain ranges, and the mountains melt away.” Mountains are not-mountains if you just wait long enough. And the wait can collapse time into a single present tense. All of time can take place now in the space of the poem. A speaker can be a young boy and an old man. Multiple Christmases can happen at once.
Furthermore, time is never done. In “A Shepherd’s Calendar,” Revell writes, “Out of marred and moving whiteness / Wisdom consists entirely / Of afterward, of far ahead / Where time is finished with itself / Just as the mountains over there / Are finished with the sun. For now / Joy. For an hour at least” (Drought-Adapted Vine 4). The mountains of course are not finished with the sun at all—just finished for now (the line break helps us read over the punctuation and see “are finished with the sun for now”). Likewise, joy is temporary, but hey, we’ve got it for an hour, and that means we’ve got it now. That means we’ve got plenty of it.
Even language is never finished with itself; later in “A Shepherd’s Calendar,” Revell revisits the word “marred” when he writes, “Boy, to mar is to marvel” (4). If we wait long enough in the time of the poem, the marred whiteness from early on shifts from mar to marvel. There is always the possibility of a complete turnaround, even at the level of the word. Sometimes all we need is the patience to wait for a few more letters. Or for a cycle to begin again, as with “West Agate”: “Winter really is the end, but only one at a time. / And then the summer rushes in, lauding / The life’s work, the legacy only now / Bursting into flower and flame.” (The Bitter Withy 24). Yes, sure, winter is the end. And then comes summer!
“Creation’s a funny word. / I think of noises rounding a corner / Becoming names, and then a child for each / Of the names climbs down the sun. Creation’s the soul of haphazard. / I was old. I was young. I was old again. / Anymore Johnny, all I feel is fine.” (“Homage to John Frederick Peto,” Tantivy 16)
“Go apple, apfel, apples fall in parallel, / Each alone. Likeness is no likeness nor / Contrast a divide.” (“For John Riley,” Drought-Adapted Vine 67).
Here, as with mar/marvel, “apfel” is a kind of shorthand word that accordians out into “apples fall” and then “apples fall in parallel.” The word is a squeezing together of these things. In “Some Notes on Organic Form,” Denise Levertov writes, “there must be a place in the poem for rifts too—(never to be stuffed with imported ore). Great gaps between perception and perception which must be leapt across if they are to be crossed at all.” And then, “The X-factor, the magic, is when we come to those rifts and make those leaps. A religious devotion to the truth, to the splendor of the authentic, involves the writer in a process rewarding in itself; but when that devotion brings us to undreamed abysses and we find ourselves sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side—that's ecstasy.” It seems counterintuitive, but Revell’s compression actually creates the gaps that lead to my ecstatic leaping. This space for leaping is, I think, characteristic of his work. The particular ways in which leaps take place across time are uniquely his.
“Vision runs up a hill called Vision. It never / Comes down.” (“Foxglove,” Drought-Adapted Vine 75)
Paradox is at the heart of some of Revell’s most visionary metaphors. In them, a thing acquires a metaphorical relationship with itself. So Vision can be part and whole of itself. This slippage between part and whole makes a word difficult to conceive. And this difficulty sharpens my attention, activates the terms of the metaphor, creates a charge. A concept that seemed stable or contained (“Vision”) is revealed to be uncontainable (Vision becomes a hill Vision can run up). A thing throws itself outside of itself, breaks out of its container, and this breaking has the capacity to remystify this thing that has otherwise been run down by the everyday nature of language. A word finds a way to be magical again.
Sometimes in the paradoxical turn of a part-and-whole metaphor, a seemingly literal thing (“Angels”) becomes figurative, as with “Let all / Angels become the angels of themselves” (“The Creation of the Stag,” Drought-Adapted Vine 22). The tenor of the metaphor becomes its own vehicle, and it drives itself out of the confines of the metaphor, remystifying the relationship between signifier and signified.
“Creation is the miniature of creation.” (“Tithon,” Tantivy 44)
This line has the effect of infinitizing creation—insisting that it’s much bigger than one originally thought.
“HEART / Is a hollow island / With hands of its own. / Those hands crush the heart.” (“Alphabet City: An Autobiography,” Drought-Adapted Vine 6)
Heart is conceptual before it is physical. It vacillates between the conceptual and the physical. It’s on the move, so it breaks free of the clichés that often cling to the word “heart.”
“If she ever steps out of that entryway / Into the full sunlight, my heart / Will leave my heart, / What happens then?” (“Crickets,” The Bitter Withy 15)
The paradox here, the part shifting out of its whole, is necessary to the saying of this concept; it has the dizzying effect of a heart skipping a beat.
“I am only the music that I am, and always / It leaves me.” and later “When I walk on ground / I walk on my bones, making music, / Or, rather, feeling the music / Making me.” (“Long-Legged Bird,” The Bitter Withy 56).
Vehicles on the Move
My Name is Donald
Like a fish on a hedge, the horsefly
Lands on my wife’s lipstick.
That is sobriety.
That is the end of my hayride with oblivion.
I wonder: how long will it be until no one
Knows what a hayride is,
Or was? I’ve never been,
But the happiness I’ve seen in movies—
All the kids piled up in hay & a fiddler driving—
Is very real. It was real for a while.
Only a child can watch a movie sober.
He is younger than the mule pulling the wagon.
He is unshamed by the fiddler’s expertise.
His birth trumps all, which is to say he’s flying.
(“My Name Is Donald,” The Bitter Withy 10)
Although I just used them myself in the previous section, I want to say that I’ve always found the terms vehicle and tenor not terribly useful when discussing figurative language. For I. A. Richards, the tenor, the thing the metaphor’s supposed to be talking about, the original thing to which some other thing is being compared in order to teach us something about that original thing, is fairly distinct from the vehicle, the thing from which one is stealing terms of comparison. Me, I like a blurring between literal and figurative stuff. I like, as with a Homeric epic simile, to forget the tenor in light of the fascinating thing to which it is being compared. I like a vehicle that drives away.
In Revell’s “My Name Is Donald,” the comparison of a fish so deeply out of place on a hedge to a horsefly on lipstick—the weird bold attractiveness of the nouns, the attachment of them all via a gestural “that” to sobriety, to “the end of my hayride with oblivion”—draws all the attention in the first lines of this poem. But it’s that damned hayride that won’t sit still in its vehicular positioning. The poem starts to think about hayrides, and the vehicle gets going, gets driving away. The poem is Rimbaud’s drunken boat, oars thrown overboard. The poem takes a hayride.
And so the completely figurative “hayride with oblivion” becomes a specific kind of hayride—a movied, moving-picture of a hayride. The perfect-looking kind. And that might make for a mildly interesting metaphor. But then the vehicle takes a detour. It feels a bit like being on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, with quick turns and reversals and secret doors that throw themselves open to reveal new ways to go. It distracts itself from its own sobriety with a vehicular kind of oblivion.
The poem repaints the tone of the hayride with temporariness: “It was real for a while.” And then “Only a child can watch a movie sober.” So we’re back to our original term of comparison, our sobriety, our tenor, as it were, but it’s a changed thing. Its bags are packed with new and different connotations. Drunkenness seems suddenly to be the only rational response to a world stricken with perfect pictures no one ever lives in, the world that differs so much from the world of ideal hayrides.
And then the child climbs in the vehicle. He becomes specific; he becomes real, takes on qualities of his own that feel resonantly figurative, even though they’re readable as literal. “He is younger than the mule” and “He is unshamed by the fiddler’s expertise.” Something is being said here that’s other than what is literally being said. And so the last line, “His birth trumps all, which is to say he’s flying.”, which feels suddenly like a second coming, and which shoots us out of the poem going a completely different direction than we came in, also follows what came before, according to the drunken logic. The vehicle’s take-over of the tenor gets us to the poem’s second coming.
“Antiquity shivers in the unbuilt tree. / She laments (antiquity is a widow, braided / Into the rained-upon color of desert trees / After a windstorm) her perfected dead.” (“Debris,” Drought-Adapted Vine 32)
The parenthetical here whiplashes me out of the syntax of the sentence momentarily. And yet the imagery is continuous, even as the sentence is split apart.
“The dome of heaven is a nest / It trembles and the nestlings / Fall into this world their mouths / Agape their mother already gone / To God yet something / Is it death comes to gather them / Mends them and they arise /Singing their one note the green sounds / Shaped by the updraft” (“Tithon,” Tantivy 48)
Here, the nest outshines its heaven, distracts from it, gets in the car and drives.
“Violets are the anniversary of something / Youthful covers the next hill hurrying.” (“Tantivy,” Drought-Adapted Vine 10)
Sometimes in Revell’s poems, especially the later poems, individual words shake loose from their syntaxes. Often this means two sentences join together at the hip, sharing a word or phrase that is necessary to each. The loosened syntax holds together multiple grammars and possibilities.
For instance, the line breaks in the poem “Tantivy” make it easy to read the words “Violets are the anniversary of something” as a single sentence. But the sentence doesn’t end there. Instead, it rushes into another seemingly self-contained sentence: “Something youthful covers the next hill hurrying.” The pivot on “something” enacts the hurrying. There are two gravitational pulls in the two lines—two sentences, each pulling “something” into the arms of their syntax. The two internal sentences cause a continual rereading, a vacillation, and there is life in vacillation.
In her “Two Stein Talks,” from The Language of Inquiry, Lyn Hejinian talks about how Stein’s work, which doesn’t resemble what we think of as Realism stylistically at all, is actually a modern kind of realism, perhaps a more realistic version, because it resembles the way life works—it acts like life. In this sense, Revell’s disrupted and dual syntax, his sentences that resist their lines, look like life to me. They feel alive.
“Life in heaven not alto, but the freight / Train’s higher register a shriek of couplings / In the February night are bedside / Table bedside telephone 1982 / Resembles her, resembles the two of us. / We are an old married couple in Corinth, // Tennessee. How is any child’s / Eyesight a heaven?” (“The Watteau Poem,” Drought-Adapted Vine 49)
The initial sentence here turns and turns on its syntax, allowing for a wrinkle in the time and space of the poem—allowing life in heaven to shift to a bedside table telephone in 1982, to an old married couple in Tennessee, then back to heaven. Perhaps this is what a child’s eyesight can encompass?
“The heaven-sent harries our evidence / Each sign each second of extremity / All rescued by the Lord gives freely / Unhappy we cannot say He” (“The Watteau Poem,” Drought-Adapted Vine 53)
Devices for Thinking
“Either everything is music or nothing is. / Either we live in the past or there are more birds / Than can be counted. / Everything is music.” (“Hunting,” Drought-Adapted Vine 70)
Revell frequently uses poems as devices for thinking with. While some poets begin their poems knowing in advance what their (therefore faked) revelations will be, Revell never knows his conclusions or resting points in advance. The poem is always an act of faith, a walking out into the darkness only to discover a path appearing under one’s foot. The poem makes its propositions or asks its questions, and then the task of the poem is to address these propositions and questions, to find out what it thinks.
“Only the one chair. / Is it because my dead are happy standing, / Perfectly at ease, each in his own flower? / Of course it is.” (“Pine Creek,” The Bitter Withy 46)
“No one knows. A moth knows” (“Long-Legged Bird,” The Bitter Withy 55)
The poem contradicts its conclusion immediately after making it. It tries again. Contradiction is a door, the “sudden portal” of the next line, toward some place of new revelation.
Image as Metaphor
“Otherwise, / I am toys / Lost on the polar ice.” (“Crickets,” The Bitter Withy 17)
Sometimes Revell will put an image in place of a terrible fact. Or a true fact or a powerful fact. In such a case, merely saying the fact would lend it little of its gravity. Saying a fact is a newspaper lede. It is information without any feeling.
The right image, conversely, can come at something indirectly, can quote how it feels. An image can be a kind of telepathy. It can transmit a felt fact via the conduit of words on the page directly into my head without ever saying the fact. It can say one thing and point to something else entirely.
And thus “I am toys / Lost on the polar ice.” The toys carry with them so many other things. They carry children, obviously, but children in a place where no children would ever be. They are toys without any possibility of children. They are useless. They are more than abandoned. They are completely outside the possibility of use. And utterly alone. The extreme cold of polar ice is made colder by the grim thought of children there. In a poem with many Christmases, this is one where the toys didn’t make it to the children—became frozen out of time, almost, entering a new brutal reality outside the possibility of Christmases. In a poem with many whitenesses, this is the starkest kind. In a poem that invests whiteness and boyness and Christmas with the accumulated meaning of repetitions in new contexts, this image, which ends the poem, echoes and holds together all of those previous contexts. And the fact that the toys are being compared to an “I” matters. There’s a kind of implied, hollowed-out, lost childhood in it. Something more complicated than either “I am toys lost” or “I am polar ice.” There’s a pictureable absence with lost toys. I have a picture in my mind of an absent thing.
In truth, I can’t explain it, what’s happening in these seemingly simple lines. It is unparaphrasable, and yet feelable, tangible. I can’t explain what and how the lines mean, but I know what they mean, immediately, intuitively, as soon as I read them.
“Love never fails. / I met a woman in Kentucky. / There’s no going back. / If I am in a woodland, / She is the woodland, / The warm, soft hand extended on the leaves.” (“Lay of Waters,” The Bitter Withy 29)
“She was mast and sail. She was / A stillness pregnant with motion, / Adorable to me as, all my life, / I have hidden a cruel, secret ocean / In sinews and in sleep and cowardice. / She forgave me. Once, she wept for me. / Our child died then, and she is with him.” (“Odysseus Hears of the Death of Kalypso,” The Bitter Withy 53)
The rainbow seems to breathe
And so it breathes.
When it speaks it makes
The birds in our black trees
Glad and brave.
(“Between Storms,” The Bitter Withy 19)
In order for there to be the possibility of the miraculous, poems must be able to believe a miracle when they see one. Sometimes poems must talk their way into believing what they see. I love how Revell lets us in on the process, relinquishing the poet’s traditional infallibility and authority in order to give himself over to the greater authority of the miraculous. Thus, “The rainbow seems to breathe” leads to the conclusion “And so it breathes.” The poem teaches us to trust what we see, to believe our eyes’ miracles.
“A cloud is a cloud that looks like one.” (“Can’t Stand It,” The Bitter Withy 6)
Cello or clarinet, it was smoke, smoke,
Just as Paradise fading over time at the road’s
End is a black and white photograph
Of Paradise. Elementary schoolboy
Leaning into the hedgerow somehow still,
Such am I. A car passes. And then no
Traffic at all, for hours, for years it seems.
Make a little music, boy. Light a cigarette
Found in the roadway, a sign from God.
I remember the bitter taste of small berries
Before the summer began, and then
A bitter taste again in early autumn. Sweetness,
A little portion, like a wisp of smoke
Mistaken for music. A lonely car
Is all the traffic ever comes. Walk on.
I am entering a photograph fades with me
And no one else. Ahead, a derelict
Sound in the shape of cellos disappears
Into pale, gray foliage. Childhood’s
Amazon River hounded out of church,
Out of the painfully small portion
Of ripe berries any soul can find,
Empties into Paradise one white boy.
Many of the poems in Revell’s later books, most especially the longer poems and series poems, have what I’m calling kaleidoscopic methodologies. This is one of the most difficult concepts in Revell’s poems for me to describe and yet one of the most pervasive, characteristic, original, and compelling. The pieces from one line or section, the images and bits of language, will undergo a spatial and temporal shift and appear again in another section, newly arranged like the pieces in a kaleidoscope, reconfigured with a twist of its top and echoed with mirrors and light. The relationships between these words, these pieces, changes with each reconfiguration, and the cumulative effect is such that by the end, the words have picked up shorthand associations and carried them through to the end, covering ground with great efficiency. They are resonant with new meanings, are more than the sum of their parts.
In “Chorister,” I’m focusing on the recurring words and concepts of music/cello, smoke/cigarettes, boy/childhood, something fading, berries with a little sweetness, and Paradise (though there are other little pieces in the poem’s shifting kaleidoscopic repertoire—the car, the traffic, or lack thereof, elements of time, lifespans, etc.). So the initial metaphor in the poem, “Cello or clarinet, it was smoke, smoke,” reappears a little later with “Make a little music, boy. Light a cigarette / Found in the roadway, a sign from God.” God is linked to the previous “Paradise fading over time” like “a black and white photograph” of itself. Then small berries are described as having “Sweetness, / A little portion, like a wisp of smoke / Mistaken for music,” and so back to the music and the smoke. The faded photograph of Paradise reappears with, “I am entering a photograph fades with me,” and then “a derelict / Sound in the shape of cellos disappears” or fades, smoke-like. Then, finally, the poem ends with “Childhood’s / Amazon River hounded out of church, / Out of the painfully small portion / Of ripe berries any soul can find, / Empties into Paradise one white boy.” By the end of the poem, each recurring word holds together a constellation of pieces, reflects what came before. And so the final incarnation of each word feels pregnant with meaning, feels like it’s holding together disparate elements. Each word regains its “brilliant picture” from Emerson’s essay. We’re closer to the unnameable origins of words, past the limiting and lonely restrictions of communication described in 20th century linguistic theory.
This effect is even more pronounced, and significantly more complicated, in the longest poems, such as “The Watteau Poem” in Drought-Adapted Vine and the “Tithon” section of Tantivy. In “The Watteau Poem,” footnotes further complicate the recurring words and images, sometimes coloring previous repeated words retroactively, sometimes shifting all the pieces of the kaleidoscope around to accommodate the new one. And, in fact, the magic of recurring images and phrases plays out across whole books and between books, with little beautiful threads of Revell’s lifelong concerns and interests and landscapes visible in the stitching of many books, holding together the body of work and adding the resonance of whole books’ worth of associations to later recurrences of a word or image. His whole ouvre is kaleidoscopic and readable as a singular entity. Continuous.
I could go on. There are as many ways to write a Donald Revell poem as there are Donald Revell poems. I have chosen here examples that resonate especially with me and that enact a miraculous transubstantiation of words, that make words meaningful to me again in the way Emerson describes.
I encounter words constantly in the quotidian world that are merely utilitarian devices for the most basic communications—words that are good enough to help me order food or ask directions, but that are remarkably imprecise or general. Using words this way can be lonesome. Communication becomes approximate, always halfway, or halfhearted. I feel the gap between me and others, between me and the world, when I use a word as “elegy to what it signifies,” as Robert Hass writes in “Meditation at Lagunitas.”
Revell’s words are not elegies to anything. They don’t point at absences; they are themselves presences, alive and mysterious, infinite and immediate. They throw me outside of myself and into the actual world. They hit the ground running. They are difficult to pin down, are unparaphraseable. I take them on faith. They pack their bags with cumulative meaning, take on new resonances, new layers. They feel to me like the world feels; they act like it acts. And so they restore for me its brilliant picture, its miraculousness, its grace.
Kathryn Cowles's first book of poems, Eleanor, Eleanor, not your real name, won the Brunsman Poetry Book Prize. She has recent and forthcoming poems and poem-photograph hybrids in Best American Experimental Writing, Georgia Review, New American Writing, DIAGRAM, Verse, Witness, Drunken Boat, Free Verse, Colorado Review, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day. She is Poetry and Hybrid Forms Co-editor for Seneca Review and teaches at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
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