By Donald Revell

Alice James Books
September 2012

Reviewed by Emilia Phillips


"The poem is a promised land, and poetry is what happens there," writes Donald Revell in The Art of Attention, his 2007 contribution to Graywolf's craft series, The Art of. Although the statement may seem an elevation of the poet's work, Revell's regard for poetic tradition, especially the French symbolists and imagists like Pound, as well as his meticulous rendering of a lyric now bless the spaces of Revell's poetry with such immediacy and relevance that they verge on the ecstatic, the holy sublime, even in their quietude. "Ecstasy proves the virtues of helplessness," he later writes in Attention, "Only efforts are obstacles… Poetry passes through us."

"Tantivy" refers to a horse's full gallop, and while Revell's sparse poems don't insist a similar pace, they do seem to suspend time and distill a greater movement into frames, the way Muybridge's time-lapse photographs capture the nuances of a racehorse's stride, transforming them into "A succession of creatures in mid-air."

A photograph of a horse—let's call it Horse—is not a horse: a living, sensing being whose actions and experiences are continuous and reciprocal. Horse is sovereign of and subject to its moment. A horse is its life's narrative; Horse is lyric. But what happens when we look at Horse, outside of its other distillations? We might begin to imagine, perhaps quite accurately, the slight variances of between moments, the just before and just after, in order to appropriate a narrative for Horse from what seemed most likely for a horse. Having seen a still of a horse with its hooves in mid-air, it's no big stretch to imagine the hooves hitting the ground. This expectation is a promise of logic.

We should approach Revell's Tantivy in this way, actively seeking beyond the lyric while also recognizing its sovereignty. These poems combine to form a great movement, one of the mind, one of the life. Within a single poem, however, the movement may be of disappearance, transience:

The world has a body and I have none
I go out walking and leave no mark
Out at twilight with the old moon
I leave no mark

A woman cannot know
The moment he is born
A man begins to disappear

The more one reads, however, the more apparent the speakers become within the lyrics, and those ineffable, seemingly small or empty spaces contain God, he claims: "God is the sound when there is none"; He "counts only up to one / His hands are small"; "Creation is a miniature of creation."

The moment we locate a Christian God here, we realize there's more lurking beneath the surface, informing it. Myth, art, science. "I am a restless ape," he writes, and earlier: "The fossil record quietly accounts for me . . ." Although there's a "familiar background of annihilation," the divine seems to be continually transformed—through the natural world, through thought and writing—and, because of the divine's protean ways, it asks Revell to continually, and enthusiastically, look for it.

Toward the end of "Tithon," the speaker asks:


Who in his right mind would burden
This wonderful creation with a consciousness?

Who is asking this? We know that Tennyson wrote a poem by the same name. Is it his voice or Revell's? Even to ask this question implies that the speaker believes the creator was not in his right mind at creation, and crisis of faith does not end here:

Dumb-shit Absolute sovereign I love without limit
As I plunged my hands into your fountain body
And the mountains flew away into the noise of the shadows of leaves
I bit down upon the unreal underground God

But as the poem approaches its close, the worshipper seems to be reconciled with the worship, gladly so:

And a prince beside himself with joy at the axle of sunlight
Knows that it is all hallucinations
And one of them is true

Above all, Donald Revell is devoted to life, in all of its incarnations—"Here we are. Lake Michigan is Lake Michigan"—even as "The fate of all beings is random and awful." Though he believes in transcendence beyond life, he still writes:

I shall miss you when I die
And the sum of wisdom
Of eight days' desert wind
It is better to be young
Mending old trees than to be dying
Striving to bind a whiplash sapling
To wooden stakes

It seems that Revell insists upon attention in order to make the self a temporary paradise, incorporeal, for "even one angel all alone is host and Eden" or, as he writes in Attention, "The opened eye consents to Heaven… Eden is already forever Eden when the attentive poet comes."

In his 2008 lecture at the University of Chicago, Revell describes an experience he had as a boy. Driving through the Catskills, he and his family entered a landscape that was entirely and suddenly white. It was not snow, it was summer, and no one else was there. At that moment and throughout, they all understood that they'd entered paradise.

In the lecture, Revell notes that he has been trying to recreate the moment throughout his writing, so much so that near verbatim passages appear in most of his collections. In Tantivy, we might find this experience alluded to in "Fedoras":

 Like the shadows beneath a stone bridge
Humans diminish towards mid-day. And then
We vanish. Fedoras. Polish sopranos.
The afterlife unravels before our eyes while angels
Cross the stone bridges back to Heaven.

I've been drunk ever since.

We might view Revell's poetry then as that of witness or testimony—"If I tell you that the bicycle belongs to God, / I've told you only God is alive"—but not only that, Revell's poetry attempts to transcend mere reportage in order to become the experience itself. Because of this, Tantivy's imagery plays to the eye.

I lift my eyes
And my eyes
Teach me to roost
A secular bird
Ages and ages of lives
Garmented by God with nets
Of frost in a dream really
And snow of every kind
The drums were slowly falling
Through the cold darkening air

Here in "Stag," we see how the act of looking is both the poet's and the reader's. We must follow and look deeply into his gaze to understand, to experience. Revell neither creates easy poems nor intentionally obscures their meaning. Instead, he simply attempts to do what he prays God does for him:

Beloved lost reciprocal
Restore to me
My infant eye

In every experience, Revell desires to see all things new again and in doing so, he hopes to achieve transcendence beyond the mundane. Small gestures sublime the ordinary into the extraordinary, such as in these three lines of "Stags":

Stags are small
By which I mean to say
Each is handful of snow

Revell begins with the real—the stags—and transforms the real into the miraculous—"Each is a handful of snow." Poetry then becomes the medium in which the miraculous can occur, in which there's a "sparrow becoming / The world's end" and where a speaker

Became an anthology piece
Translated along with many others
Out of the French into your small arms
Though I am a phantom

Are those your children on the stairs?

Yes, and they are angry with God
Who does not spare the finch but gives him eyes

Revell's faith in God and life inherently asserts a faith in poetry. (Is it too absurd a thought?) In a world of mass consumption, poetry that demands to be savored, to be aged in the cask of the brain, transfigures the reading of words into the reading of life. "To see the sovereignty of what is seen," Revell writes in Attention, "is, quietly, really to worship." If we love poetry then why would we ever insist on easy poetry? Easy poetry requires no devotion to it. Revell's Tantivy is certainly not poetry for the everyman but he's also not exactly a poet's poet. Neither term fits Revell because his poetry is not concerned with the designations outside of his own charge, his own faith. We need more poets with that belief, those who seek to elevate poetry to the level of worship, regardless of creed or non-creed, to make poetry both a promise as well as a sovereign, if not holy space, a site we come to, all of us as pilgrims.