Let the Revells begin!

PENNYWEIGHT WINDOWS: New and Selected Poems by Donald Revell, 220pp, $18.95,  Alice James Books, Framlington, Maine, USA
by Donald Revell, 192pp, $14.95, Omnidawn Publishing, Richmond, California, USA

'Our art is simply one form of attention' Revell says in 'Dear Reader', the coda with which Invisible Green
concludes. 'Leave the window open. Answer the door.' He's talking about being open and aware. Nothing, I would have thought, particularly startling about this - though he goes on to re-state the idea in such a way as to draw Marjorie Perloff's praise in the cover blurb: 'A poet ... is not a creative writer ... the world creates itself, and poetry is pleased to show its new creation to our words.' (The example close to his heart, literally so, in his pocket, is a late poem by William Carlos Williams, 'Iris'.)

But the poetry of Pennyweight Windows
isn't the poetry this sort of comment leads me to expect, a 'going out to meet the world that comes so freely, so effortlessly to us and to our senses.' The poetry flows much less with mindful attention to the things out there than it swirls with introspection and speculation. 'Our art is simply one form of rumination' he could have said of many of his own works. But in one poem near the end of the book he places the act of attending in a context which  more nearly states his purposes:

     To observe and reflect
     Simultaneously, that
     Would be godly.
          [from 'Landscape with  Free Will and Predestination']

I'm a new reader of Revell's poems, and it's taken me a long time to read Pennyweight Windows
. It's a heavy book, including as it does selections from eight books of poems as well new poems. Much of it is heavy in other senses of the word: the spiritual and philosophical speculation can be heavy going at times. Not that I mind that. But I often find after an hour or so with the book that what I'm reading leaves me emotionally depressed; I return to it (parts of it at least) with a heavy heart.

From Revell's second book The Gaza of Winter
come two poems about childhood. In 'Birthplace', he revisits as a seeker, but finds only 'A place to be used, impossible really to love / Except as a place survived.' The poem shows that the people who lived there were simply buried by the place; they didn't imagine being able to alter it in any way - its last line is 'they are proved right, and I do not exist.' The poem which follows this, 'The Children's Undercroft' moves on to Sunday School and this evaluation of the experience

     as stained and usual as our own lives,
     was an impoverishment we could not imagine
     and had to live with anyway. It would drag
     through unremarkable events towards nothing


Just look at the negative load carried by the  vocabulary alone: stained / usual / impoverishment / drag / unremarkable / nothing - a vocabulary which prepares us for the real downer of the ending

     Every Sunday, the spinet would sound more
     cast-off. Our easy hymns would become dull
     or silly. Over-rehearsed, we would at last
     enter the real kingdom unmoved and not sing.

'The New World', a poem from Revell's third book, moves into 'bad museums where I spend time' and here again the mood of the poem is determined by its vocabulary - emptiness / nothing / remote / exhausted.
Some of these words are used more than once: Revell has an interesting way of repeating phrases or constructions to shape his poems. This poem opens with the line 'A little emptiness beforehand'. The third stanza opens with this echo: 'In the next room, a handful of religious paintings. / A little emptiness in the faces'. 'The remote handiwork of the ironmonger' in the first stanza  has its echo in the poem's final line: 'Outside, the remote handiwork of traffic makes no sound.'

A few pages later 'Against Pluralism' offers this view of existence:

     It is a wise child who knows he is no angel.
     The rest of us grow up hovering, visiting
     our lives in the moment of pain or orgasm
     or when the little fingers of pity push
     inside us and we feel loved. Our suffering
     gales beneath our wings like applause.

I'm not intending to imply that the writing is other than densely packed with interest, as it is here with the idea of 'angel' taken up again in 'hovering' and 'wings', but it can be deeply sombre even negative at times. A selected poems points up this sort of load.

Now one reason for this may be that over the years Revell seems to have written quite a few poems while staying in hotels or in the 'bar in the commuter station.' 'They have given me a room near the power station' is how he opens 'The Night Orchard' and you're not at all surprised that the sleeplessness of being in that room leads to this sort of thing:

     The questions that we ask of the civil world
     leave us one choice: either freedom

     is identical with happiness or we are all
     on islands in the middle of flat continents
     jolted by the stammer of sleepless dreaming.

But by the time we come to 'The is the first of many hotels this trip' in the eighth book, My Mojave
, the mood is altogether lighter. 'My Trip' is no less speculative and philosophical, but it unites that attention to detail which Invisible Green led me to expect with wit and with a quite different attitude to the traffic. Leaving the hotel, '...outside on the steps / a silver fish head glistens beside a bottlecap. / Plenty remains.' Remains? - this is a writer enjoying himself:

     The work of poetry is trust,
     And under the aegis of trust
     Nothing could be more effortless.
     I find my eyes find
     Numberless good things
     and my ears hear plenty of good words
     Offered for nothing over the traffic noise
     As sharp as sparrows.

'Numberless good things' - what a relief. And the poem ends in what I've come to see as part of his style, with echoing phrases, but now positively:

     Plenty of words over traffic noise,
     And nothing could be more effortless.
     Catching a glimpse of eternity, even a poor one, says it all.

'The Gaza of Winter' (the title poem of his second collection) may look at first glance like a sestina with repeating end-words. But these are seven line stanzas. And the lines echo themselves, divide, marry half of another line and re-group. Wow, I want to say, some wizardry here. Actually, a bit too much - I'm completely distracted from what the poem might be saying by this counting and checking. The play with form and repeat is, like the mood, lighter in later work. Remember 'My Trip' 's bottlecap next to the fish head on the hotel steps'? 'I could be a bottlecap', he adds in a contented moment later in the poem.

Not only is the mood lighter, and the repeats, but also the syntax: the voice has become more innocent, almost wide-eyed. 'I like it best when poetry / Gleams, or shows its teeth to  girl / Forever at just the right moment' he writes just before that bottlecap gleams, in an easy shift between the particular and the general. Rather than operate the 'show not tell' routine, Revell frequently does tell, even starts out with a generalisation and only later adduces a piece of evidence, a particular, to support it - often a quite unexpected one. An early poem 'Here to There' works in this way, opening with a relaxed generalisation:

     The biggest part of any story is rooms
     and the things inside them. Everything else is too
     vague, too uncertain in the way it happens,
     changes or recites the lines it was
     created to recite to live on its own.

and then straight into his particular:  'I have a picture of an old friend naked.' The picture brings back the room in which it was taken, and then in that context, the friend. That same movement happens in a short, later poem, 'Picnic', which appears straightforward until you look at the contradiction held in the opening line:

     The story of my life is untrue but not
     Thanksgiving Day when the bee fell into the bottle.

There's a great deal of delight being taken in the way words work and are bound into syntax. This is more sophisticated than 'simply one form of attention', but then Invisible Green does of course say go on to say much more than this. Revell has said elsewhere 'Theology is important to my writing as I rely on my poems to chart and charter my relationship to the divine and to eternity. Thus, everything I read by choice becomes theology...' [herecomeseverybody.blogspot]

The larger part of the prose book is a series of nine essays originally published in American Poetry Review
quite recently: this is the lighter (later) Revell speaking. He gives answers to the 'what is poetry' question that extend his 'one form of attention' answer with extensive references to favoured poets in his quest for the soul of poetry. (The phrase 'invisible green' is Thoreau's: 'I wonder if my own soul is not a bright invisible green. I would fain lay my eye side by side with its - and learn of it'. [Quoted IG, p93])

Here is a poet prepared to say that poetry is a delight: 'Poetry, the soul of poems, does not reside or rest in them. It goes. We follow. We read to go where poetry has gone and to preserve the possibility of a delightful contract.' [IG
, p.28] His examples - Emerson, Creeley, Pound. Pound features frequently in many of these nine essays, and in new ways: he devotes a whole essay to spiders, at least the way Pound wrote about them in his cell. Long sections of cited works are offered as illustrations of his insights. Ecstasy is the subject of the second essay. Bliss - or expansiveness - the subject of the third. Ashbery is the poet most quoted here. Essay VI refers to The Horizon, defining a poem as 'something to do in the meantime' - I love that. In the meantime, as a preparation, he says. Offering examples of poems that write towards eternity, again he gives us Pound. And Traherne. And Thoreau.

I'm interested that these essays, written in 2002 and 2003 are also able to open out their concerns and acknowledge the politics of their time as well. Essay IX takes as it subject The Pastoral, and offers its contemplation, its stillness as a route to peace in the face of the (then) possible Iraq war.

Some of the same writers appear in the second part of the book, in which he considers Reverdy, Thoreau, Merwin, Camus, and Ashbery. I'm going to re-read what he calls eight meditations on the enabling
qualities he finds in Ashbery's writing. 'Three Poems', he says, 'is nothing but influence; the poem happens in the moment when the reader turns away from the poem.' [IG p167] Revisiting the selected poems, I'll start at the end. (Depressives among you may prefer things the right way round.)

          Jane Routh 2006