Tantivy by Donald Revell
(Alice James Books, 2013)
reviewed by Andrew Haley
Over the last 15 years, as a professor at the Universities of Utah and Nevada, Donald Revell has been writing poems that have evolved to match his surroundings. It is a true trajectory for a poet whose own manifesto is titled The Art of Attention. There is little of the ivory tower in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas and there the attentive eye finds new contours and distinctions.
Revell’s acclaimed earlier books of poems, represented best by New Dark Ages and Erasures, have seemed to wear away into essentials in the desert. The long lines and uniform stanzas disappeared. Poems obsessed with the last European century and its ancient betrayals, and with the tropes of modernism Revell inherited from his native New York City—urban space, the crowd, chaos, and class—faded away. Imbued with an adaptive, transcendental, almost Cathar Christianity, the poems in There Are Three, Arcady, and My Mojave, turned instead to the individual and the individuating landscape of the West. Revell found anew the mysteries of geology and climate, aridity, uplift, desiccation, the struggle of plants in the desert weather and the long suffering gardeners who grow them, as well as the idylls and isolation of first Salt Lake City and then the Las Vegas suburbs.
Revell’s son Benjamin appears frequently in these poems in an idealized state of innocence that serves as the reliquary for Revell’s lost innocence. His paeans to Jesus and God may stem from Thoreau but take on the desert-struck solitude of Saint Jerome. The conflux of transcendentalism, Albigensian mysticism, and pre-Socratic thought in the brooding solitude of the Mojave created in the songs and meditations of Arcady and My Mojave a spare, free-from, personal but not confessionary lyric that surpasses Revell’s early work both in music and idea.
The Bitter Withy starts very much like a continuation of the style and sensibilities of My Mojave and Arcady, but with an unmistakable sorrow that is less present in his other desert books. “Long-legged Bird,” the penultimate poem, captures the long-lined clip and measure of poems in Erasures and the earlier books, and brings to us again Revell’s considerable anger and anxiety, his bitterness, though here it has nothing to do with the wars in Europe or the destruction of cities or peoples. Instead, his middle period is one of transcendence, wisdom, and religion. We have a poem tuned to the sound of Revell’s mortality and the decline of his desert arcadia:
[…] I want to explain—tremolos
And squealings and then a high sound
Sweeten the little halfway house
Forever. I mean it just goes on forever,
As through the little portals children pour
Arcady has become a halfway house. The decline ordains Revell’s own death with the transient and sacred essence that flits around and inside particulars but is apart from them, perhaps above them. It is a masterful poem, one of Revell’s finest.
Tantivy carries this matured, sorrowful new music even further. In the previous decade, Revell has translated Rimbaud, Apollinaire and LaForge. The French strain is strong here and more so than ever in his work, the poems in this book provide the rare sensation of true originality, of a poet past caring who has not shed influence but has moved past caring about it. They do not feel received but are new in the old way. Tantivy is one of those books that perfectly fits the occasion of its being, which is to say, it may well be a classic.
“The Last Men,” the first of four sections, opens with a suite of poems, titled “Victorians (1)–(11),” which play with form and rhyme in a manner reminiscent of Revell’s early work, but in a completely unstudied way. There is nothing inherited in their formality. They give you the sense of how it must have been to hear the first rondel sung in torchlight 800 years ago.
Motherless goddamn modernity never grew.
Here we are again at Christmas
On fire escapes without a fire in view.
The French poets have long provided their American counterparts an alternative approach to rhyme more suitable than that of the English Romantics. Though Tantivy is indebted to Alfred Tennyson, the play of rhyme in the book and the shaping of poems into resemblances of forms remind one less of that cardboard viceroy of old Britannia than of John Ashbery, whose poems Revell’s early work sometimes resembles. Revell’s poems have always been more somber, and that darkness is at its fullest in Tantivy. Consider the following lines from the first poem to follow the “Victorians” suite, titled “Homage to John Frederick Peto.”
All in green we went out rioting.
Lute music demasked the commercial radio,
And girls knew everything.
[…] Any ornaments for the poor man’s store?
Any moments of leisure at the fish-house door?
[…] Time will come again to talk perfection,
A succession of creatures in midair.
I won’t be there.
Hardly Victorian, rhyme serves less as deep architecture here than ornament, like bells on a jongleur’s hat. Tennyson serves as a kind of muse in Tantivy but more as motif than as influence. True there is a song quality to these poems rather than the terse and incised esthetic dear to the modernist strain Revell has long championed, but in its most self-conscious mock-medieval stylings it is closer to Bertran de Born. Revell is married to poet Claudia Keelan, whose translations of the trobairitz, the female troubadours, is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2015 under the title Truth of my Songs: The Poems of the Trobairitz. It seems that the music of 12th century Occitan poetry cross-pollinated Tantivy. The troubadours and trobairitz faced the quintessential poetic problem: the inheritors of a vast, rich, but obsolete cannon, they sought to make a new vernacular poetry that better matched the world at hand. Revell is on a likeminded quest in Tantivy—to make it new when “Make It New” is now a century old.
Tantivy’s third section, “Tithon,” is one of the most experimental poems in Revell’s catalog. Only a few times has he stepped so far from uniform surface textures and standardized syntactical patterns. Revell’s great little poem, “What Can Stop This,” first published in New American Writing and later included in Arcady (“The sympathy of friends is pleasant VIOLINS/But it makes no difference anymore TROMBONES”) indicates future directions. But “Tithon” is big, filling the middle 10 pages of the book. It is songlike and repetitive in passages but incorporates found materials (a letter reprinted in its entirety; quotes from Cézanne and Char, etc) affixed to the poem with the logic of collage, so that the poem does not feel like a whole smooth object, but rather as a series of coincident, but not necessarily subsequent, parts. While the lines and phrases are highly melodic, their sequencing is discordant, giving “Tithon” almost a simultaneous rather than linear composition:
Shadows of leaves
Shadows of leaves
Je suis le prince
D’un pays aboli
God counts only up to one
His hands are small
And in God’s hands even
Mountains are sparrow sized
Also the cloistered fountains, Lord,
My dearest, my estranged,
The fountains also
Shadows of leaves
Shadows of leaves
This friction between lyric and discord is one source of “Tithon’s” beauty, as is an overarching tension in the poem’s mood. For all of its optimistic intent and homilies about unity, eternity, and transcendence, “Tithon” is ultimately about loss. Here Revell follows most closely in Tennyson’s footsteps, giving new light to the myth of Tithonus, who begged for immortality and was cursed with the perpetual attenuation of life, and whose anglicized name, Tithon, Tennyson first used in the 1833 version of his poem of the same name. Revell’s “Tithon,” like Tennyson’s, is an elegy for lost time, a dirge not for the dead but for the remembrancers.
Tennyson may be the poem’s kelson, but its language more closely resembles those other great elegies for the condemned, Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos and Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill. Like them, it is fixated on the disordered contents of memory—the flashes and fragments of a broken paradise illuminated and made otherworldly by the dawning of death.
I lay my eyes upon the ground and see the ground
I lay my eyes upon a cloud (clouds are France) and see the
I lay my eyes upon the slowly moving surface of the water
In a narrow pool between dragonfly and cruel acacia
And my eyes swim away from me finding my friends
Alive with skins made of diamonds (the poet Char) and high
sounds (the poet Reverdy)
I lay my eyes upon the easternmost horizon just at dawn
And my only son Benjamin walks out of my eyes
Never to be seen by me
In its closing, “Tithon” assumes most closely the music of elegy, which, like all lyric poetry, has the ego at its center. Tennyson’s Tithonus is a stand-in for the bereaved for whom, abandoned by the dead, the world has lost its savor. Revell’s Tithonus is himself, the long practitioner of attentiveness, who mourns not his inability to die, but the coming loss of the objects of his attention. His anxiety about this separation rings like a crisis of faith through the whole of Tantivy and seems to challenge the foundations of the mysticism Revell has built in the desert. Though deeply sad, Revell’s work has never been more fine.