Online Edition: Summer 2003

My Mojave

My Mojave

Donald Revell

Alice James Books ($13.95)

by Hank Lazer

George Oppen, a poet much admired by Donald Revell, concludes in "Route": "I have not and never did have any motive of poetry / But to achieve clarity." In My Mojave as well as in his previous books, Revell has idiosyncratically pursued a moving and beautiful mode of clarity. As a reader, Revell has been drawn to two seemingly disparate types of clarity: that found in spiritual journals and that found in the nature writing (journals, letters, notes) of Henry David Thoreau. Thus informed, Revell's search for clarity begins to reveal itself as a phenomenology of spirit--a reporting on the movements, lurches, vicissitudes, pain, grief, and sudden blessings of a soulmaking-in-progress.

Oppen's remarks on his motive of poetry are preceded by these two lines: "Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world, / A limited, limiting clarity." For Revell, that search for beautiful construction and for the marvel of the specific involves precision of historical and physical detail: "A stone's throw west of Melville's tomb, my father's / Headstone tilts under one spruce kept alive / By sprinklerheads and a Puerto Rican gardener." Likewise, it involves the kind of historical detail and juxtaposition that in the present becomes exactingly ironic: "And as Charles Darwin good man/ Born the very same day as Abraham Lincoln / Wrote 'three species of tyrant-flycatchers / (Are) a form strictly American'."

In "Arcady Again," the opening poem of My Mojave and an explicit link to Revell's previous book Arcady, Revell writes,

God help the man who breathes
With nothing leading him
Here or someplace like it
Inside him which he opens
Wide enough to walk through
And walks through

Note the perfection, paradox, and beauty of Revell's line breaks--how they open up multiple syntaxes and productively different paths of reading/thinking--as well as Revell's determination throughout My Mojave to find such places, such openings in breathing and thinking, as described in "Arcady Again." These places turn out to be sites of wonder, but also often sites of memory and grief--the place to exercise what Charles Darwin, in an odd phrase I recently came across in Rosmarie Waldrop's marvelous writing on Edmond Jab?s, calls "grief-muscles."

Though Revell is definitely one of those poets representative of and crucial to the development of a new (or renewed) poetry of spirit, the core writer for his recent work--Henry David Thoreau--points toward an equally strong attachment to glorious specifics of the world of nature and fact. In My Mojave, a book divided into two sections, "Here" and "There," the epigraphs for both sections come from Thoreau: "Heaven might be defined as the place which men avoid" and "The knife which slices the bread of Jove ceases to be a knife when this service is rendered." Revell orients us to the "casual" writings of Thoreau, his Journal and his correspondence, more than to the "finished" writing (such as Walden). It is the epiphanic sentence that most attracts Revell, the Thoreau-sentence that becomes like the renewing and mystifying "someplace" in "Arcady Again," the sentence-as-site that reorients and renews our thinking and that educates the making of our (in-progress) souls. Revell's Thoreau at once intensifies our moments of perception and also places us in proximity to a self-annihilating or apocalyptic quality of awareness, the kind of enlightened ending that Thoreau points toward at the end of the second chapter of Walden: "If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career."

With his generosity of use and attachment to other writers, Revell practices the kind of original unoriginality that Robert Duncan insisted upon: an acknowledgement of the communal nature of poetry; a giving thanks for the words of others that inspire and enable present writing. Revell's poems, particularly extended poems such as "Given Days," demonstrate an admirable stitching together of "his" words and the words of others--a process that makes Revell's poems a verbal quilt composed of treasured scraps reassembled into a new design. As John Cage would have it, Revell's submission to the writing of others--his writing through their words--gives proper priority to self-alteration (rather than the more common emphasis of mainstream poets on self-expression).

While Revell's poems often do point toward his dialogues with other writers, the poem is just as likely to be initiated by an accidental or fortuitous encounter with an odd object or an unusual set of details. In this respect, "My Trip" is an archetypal Revell poem. The key moment of the poem occurs at the midway point:

Next day is no way of knowing,
And the day after is my favorite,
A small museum really perfect
And a good meal in the middle of it.
As I'm leaving,
I notice a donkey on a vase
Biting the arm of a young girl,
And outside on the steps
A silver fish head glistens beside a bottlecap.
Plenty remains.

In sentences that flirt with a deliberate flatness, Revell focuses on the moment when wonder and renewed (and renewing) attentiveness are activated. In this persistent and accurate recording of such moments of transformed attention, he reminds me a bit of David Wilson, the creator of The Museum of Jurassic Technology--a museum designed, as Wilson puts it, "to reintegrate people to wonder" and to celebrate the moments of "delicious confusion ... that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human." As well as their conviction of the fundamental importance of wonder, Revell and Wilson share a Socratic sense of the subversive and pedagogical nature of the experience of wonder. Again in "My Trip," Revell writes,

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

It is toward what Revell calls "catching a glimpse of eternity" or perhaps hearing a word or two of renewing mystery "over the traffic noise" that the poems direct our attention. And it is a poetry fully aware that "every blessed thing is elusive." To his credit, Revell resists a formulaic version of spiritual accounting, particularly the all too common contemporary poem dead set on achieving a "wow" ending that, repetitively and compulsively, puts the reader in a preordained hammock of dumb wonder.

Revell's poetry is an oblique and not so oblique struggle with the divine, in one moment "urging God to be God-like/ Earth to be worthy a grown man's living there"; in another, in lines that recall the tone and substance of James Wright's best poems, "We're not home yet. / And I'm still new / To my callings: / Teacher, drunkard, absent minister. / I was in Carcassonne once. / I saw two horses there / And God who invented them." But as the concluding lines of the book's title poem indicate, Revell's interactions with the divine are apt to be self-annihilating: "At midday, / My soul wants only to go / The black road which is the white road. / I'm not needed / Like wings in a storm, / And God is the storm." Revell's poetry--part journal, part spiritual autobiography, part day-book--increasingly lays bare the poet's spiritual desires:

Heavenly man
I am scarce to go
And well to stand
In a disused place.

Miserable cardinals comfort
The broken seesaws
And me who wants no comfort
Only to believe.

In Keats's sense, it is a poetry of soul-making, a writing intent on tracking the process of that schooling and that formation:

God eat our suffering
Out of which we churn butter
See
How troubles twin us
The white doe
Afraid
The National Bank
Afraid
Although the soul we have
Is love's doing.

The latter half of My Mojave, "There," features two gorgeous extended poems: "Prolegomena" and "Given Days," as well as the beautifully displayed "Heat Like Murder" (from the Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth), a poem that suggests the lyrical erasure and display of Ronald Johnson's RADI OS.

Revell's poetry embodies moments of wonder, reports in an honest phenomenology tenuous and erratic relations to the divine, and weds and welds such moments to the odd specificity of historical fact and suddenly appropriate (and appropriated) writings of predecessors, just as Revell seeks the precise names and descriptions for these moments in their exact present circumstance. He wants to find a music--a lyricism, a beauty of sound--that matches these moments. Increasingly, though, there is an ethical dimension to Revell's spiritual accounting, a desire to live up to his own observation that "in truth there can be no greater reward / For doing well than to be enabled to do well," an ethics tempered by the contingent observation that "all days take instruction from accident."

As in "Given Days," which begins with a poem on September 11, 2001, Revell tries to establish a set of coordinates and signposts--readings and beliefs that might sustain us in times of plagues and lamentation. Revell turns to essential reading: Whitman, the Psalms, the creature poems of D. H Lawrence. He creates a poetry that sounds like a jazz fugue, as key phrases recur, are recognized, reshaped, improvised upon, moderately transformed, all while they continue to echo with a pleasing familiarity. As Revell acknowledges earlier in My Mojave, "The plot is the stutter / Is why / The wild is why," and this latest book, beautiful as it is, may leave us and perhaps Revell too listening for a more stuttered music, a lyricism less driven by the sentence and more guided by the multiple music of poems such as "Arcady Again," which strains a bit more at the limits of an already known syntax and music.

With My Mojave, Revell demonstrates the great art of when to write and when not to, of what to read and when. He writes a spiritual poetry that feels utterly truthful, giving us a phenomenology of spirit remarkably free of institutions and mostly free of habit. My Mojave will leave both those who have long followed Revell's work and those new to the fold eager to read what's next.

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Summer 2003 Table of Contents