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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Thomas Fink reviews

Arcady by Donald Revell

Wesleyan University Press, $26.00 cloth, $12.95 paper

This piece is 830 words or about two printed pages long.

In the ‘Prefatory’ of Arcady, his seventh book of poetry, Donald Revell sketches the situation out of which the poems grew. Following the sudden death of his ‘sister, [his] only sibling,’ Revell found that the sundering of their communication made his ‘native language lapse,’ only to be replaced by ‘vision,’ consolation in the ‘Arcadian’ ‘skies and treetops and distances’ of Poussin’s painting and their diminishment of narrative. He was also drawn to the notion of ‘vision’ of the natural world ‘without a task’ in Thoreau’s Walden. Indeed, narrative is secondary in the poems of Arcady — for example, in the opening poem, ‘Meant never to die,’ where a violent image of grief is placed against more hopeful and a few less determinate images:  

Meant never to die

Map and archive Arcady

Today there was a little heap of doves beside the children

Agony tree
As if a flood rose
From the earth below me
And not from any stream


It will be a sweet destruction
Moss wind
Blue cup

The wind on the north side of the tree
Grows in Paradise

In the uproar

Even when he makes the Dickinsonian claim, ‘Conforming to the fashions of eternity / I feel no conflict only one with prosperity,’ Revell is enthralled by the visionary potential of Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists and not by aspects of their work that lend themselves to social critique. If, for him, ‘Wild work / needs wilderness,’ this ‘wilderness’ is the often psychological effort to unify human beings and nature, to make the pathetic fallacy more than a fallacy: ‘From far away in the north / Uproar risings inseparable / Now from apple blossoms / Roar at my windows / And each is a real shrine. . . /  Wild work grows over humans real moss.’ These assertions are eloquently phrased, but how can they have the force for information-age readers that they did for nineteenth century followers of the Transcendentalists? From an exclusively post-structuralist or Cultural Studies perspective, Revell’s preoccupation with privileged moments, with ‘Arcady,’ and the effort to let eternity ‘speak’ can be read as an evasion of history’s often bitter actualities. However, such terms and themes in the work may be intended as tropes for psychological states and for the interplay of human desires and frustrations. In ‘July 4th Blue Diamond,’ the poet holds that, ‘It is impossible / Not to suffer agonies / Of attachment the world / Is so wonderful’; given the prevalence of such ‘attachment’ and such ‘agonies,’ perhaps a visionary poetics can have value as a thought-experiment probing how ‘the poem’ might or might not ‘refresh life,’ as Wallace Stevens put it.  

In ‘You Have Embarked,’ which presumably features an apostrophe to the poet’s late sister, the possibility of consolation may involve the ability to appreciate what ‘remains’ with the living — ‘You have embarked / And the ears of corn bending down / And the lion’s eyebrows / Remain with me,’ and yet the speaker may offer himself and others psychic sustenance in questioning the view that life is thoroughly desirable in its ‘solidity’ and that death is deprivation: ‘You have come to shore / To where the universe / Is all transformation / And life is opinion.’ We do not know whether death’s ‘shore’ is a safe haven, but ‘transformation’ surely lacks the negative connotation of ‘decay’ or ‘obsolescence.’

‘Elegy A Little’ is an especially intriguing and haunting poem because it leaves unresolved whether remembrance is a fundamental consolation or source of disillusionment, or whether it includes both in uncertain proportions. To be sure, Revell evokes the precarious status of ‘memory,’ which ‘distinguishes all things from / Only nothing.’ The retrospective interpretation of childhood relies on a relatively arbitrary, ‘instant’ collision of images and not on temporal sequence. Accumulation of data has an eerie inevitability, and seemingly trivial flashbacks acquire gravity in relation to later events:

I was born and grew
Rooms stacked up into houses
A few trees (maples) weltered in their seasons
Wildly like sea birds in crude oil
What amazes
Me now amazed me always but never
Often eyesight is prophetic instantly

Seeing broken eggs on the linoleum
In the kitchen 1960
I saw a broken lifetime further
On as I see now my happy sister

The ‘refreshment of life’ in Revell’s poetry has much to do, I believe, with what prophetic ‘eyesight’ cannot make transparent to us, with what resists the interpretation of whatever set of abstractions is present. Even more importantly, such refreshment involves the tense, bristling encounter between delightful assertions about ‘an instance of earth / Where earth is heavenly’ or, better yet, ‘a place. . . on /  The whole horizon  / Where it’s Heaven all the time,’ and the disruption of momentary credences in nature and ‘eternity,’ as in the long closing line of ‘Arcady (Added)’: ‘At morning at the Pyramids Paradise melts and pours into the air.’

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