Donald Revell — A Thief of Strings

Last week after coaching my son’s soccer games (one a delightful romp in victory, the other a game which featured another goalless loss) I came home to a sobering scene. The dog was lying on its side, breathing heavily and looking kind of glassy-eyed. An attempt to bring her outside resulted in her legs buckling and her falling to the grass. The situation looked dire. A quick trip to the vet confirmed our suspicions. She was dying, a ruptured spleen. The life or death decision arrived at about five o’ clock that evening. My wife deferred. The decision was mine. Do I extend her 10-year-old life through extraordinary means or do I get used to mornings waking up without any heat-sharing hound next me, a den of one?

Donald Revell has provided me with a number of meaningful experiences through the years. His early books like The Gaza of Winter, New Dark Ages and Erasures were instrumental in illustrating the use of recursion as a strategy for coherence beyond any kind of formal structure. This knowledge served as a crutch for many years. Whenever I didn’t know where to turn next in a piece, I luxuriated in the look back. Revell excelled in such byzantine recursion that it inspired awe at how he could orchestrate his poems so that they coiled so tightly in around themselves.

Of course, now in his recent collection of essays entitled The Art of Attention Revell eschews such “strategies” as a kind of training wheels for the imagination which would be better served if they were just taken off. His aim is for an Eden where the senses are clicking on all cylinders. If one only pays attention with all the energy that attention demands, really paying attention, then one arrives through the imagination at the poem as it can be fully imagined. One keeps one’s senses open, one’s eyes attuned, reacting intuitively. This leaves out a lot of talk of strategy, technique, and craft. In fact, it leaves out all talk of it.

I’m not sure I can fully get on board with an aesthetic that entrusts itself to a leap of faith. I have a penchant for strategy and technique, and I often find myself trying to elucidate that in many of my essays. I find a cryptic will to be an unsatisfactory explanation for how a poem is put together. Even if there are intuitive moves, there seem to be reasons for them, if only after-the-fact ones. The irrational/sub-rational has its structure too.

Another reason I am wary of letting the intuitive imagination be the essence of the creative act is that without some reflection on technique, the imagination can get locked into making many of the same kinds of intuitive moves. One starts to write the same poem over and over again without some sort of critical faculty stepping in. Perhaps in Revell’s case that critical faculty is intuitively built in as well, but it would be nice to see it in action, evaluating and deciding, not endlessly drifting to another shore.

Also, I suspect much of the leaping of faith that occurs within Revell’s discussion of his aesthetic in The Art of Attention as well as his collection A Thief of Strings is due to his newly found devotion to God, a mystical Judeo-Christian God, who sits smack dab in the middle of the poems with all the associative sparks running through wires to electrodes fastened onto the bashful deity in order to jolt it to life.

Here is an example (the poem that closes out section II):

What If Christ Were a Snowflake Falling into the Sea

The water is taller than itself,
Covering spirits of the air beneath.
And so the land, so mountainous beside,
Does not exist.

Have you thought about the future?
Take your finger and rub it across a stone.
Do you feel it?
Heat where nothing but cold most certainly is.

The water does not suspect.
A distant star is plotting with the center of the Earth
Against the Earth.
And the lake rises. The outlet rivers rise.

There is also an uprising in Kiev.
God is love.

It is interesting how Revell, who seemed more focused on sociopolitical history has taken a more spiritual focus with his later books. In A Thief of Strings this religious outlook is at its most pronounced. One wonders if, after a good deal of one’s younger life spent thinking about the intricacies of sociopolitical and historical intrigues, Revell hasn’t burned out on all the cynicism it generates and has opted to dismiss all of it for a more sweeping view of how social change occurs. Agreement with this take by Revell would hinge upon the debate about the efficacy of the monks demonstrating in Myanmar this week. Are they merely graves-in-waiting?

It is almost as if Revell has reversed the poles on Pessoa, whose sensate poet Alberto Caeiro took precedence early in his writing life only to be displaced by the more complicated, nuanced Alvaro de Campos. I prefer the older Revell in the same way I prefer de Campos to Caeiro.

However, I wonder if my preference isn’t a terribly mean and confining trick I am playing on both myself and Revell, like saying the new Bruce Springsteen doesn’t hold a candle to the classic old style of The Boss whose work at that time captured everyone’s imagination and attention.

Also, I must recognize that as a born-again heathen (who experienced a brief conversion to the God-is-love crowd during a high school Bible camp only to fall back into my slovenly way of thinking once I returned home) my tolerance for Christian platitude is not very high.

I shrink from those who declaim environmental decay, social unrest, and the impending destruction of the planet by a supernova star and then summarize their stance with “God is love.” Unless one believes that God loves us by punishing us. . . you wear the black latex mask and body suit, Christ, O my Commander.

But perhaps I am not being fair to the Christian Revell. Maybe I am not reading his work in the spirit he intends. Perhaps God in his work is not really a deity per se as much as it is the concept of god, an ecumenical habit of mind [though I must admit that a capitalized G in God is loaded; it makes it hard for me to see such a thing as reaching broadly across the religious spectrum despite what supporters for the Pledge of Allegiance to keep “under God” might say]. Certainly he aims again and again at the metaphysical with his God, and I am willing to follow him there despite my not feeling particularly compelled to name things in the afterlife.

I freely admit that I am among the faithless. I don’t believe very well, my genetic shortcoming.

The first half of the book is crowded with references to God and Heaven and Eden and prayer. Angels seemingly appear as “white linen floating in the sky” in the anchor piece of the first section entitled “O Rare.” But apart from these forays into the spiritual superstructure, Revell interlaces copious amounts of witnessing nature, almost as if he has become tired of the travails of men. He is becoming animal, informed by the memory of his father that “my eyes and my sister’s eyes were brown like those of a deer.”

Revell also includes quotations from somewhat obscure literary works: the writings of Goethe and, later in the book, Thoreau’s journal and Thomas Traherne’s meditation no. 28 from one of his Centuries. Often I feel I am caught between the vice grip of the literary Revell who alludes to rather obscure texts and to the Revell who is obliterating himself, his knowledge, his memory, with what is displayed as divine before his senses, his art of attention.

Here in ”Bartram’s Travels” Revell travels alongside the 18th Century American botanist William Bartram who chronicled his explorations through the south among the Seminole and Cherokee to explore and record the flora and fauna of the area. In this poem the crossing over is the central metaphor, and like some tag-along of The Ghost Shirt Rebellion, the speaker here emerges on the other side remarkably unscathed showing “no signs of burn.”

In ”Landscape Near Biloxi, Mississippi Revell flashes his environmental concerns through reference to murdered islands, both figuratively and literally. But it is the dismemberment of both Pentheus (mistaken for an animal hiding in a tree while he spied on the bacchic rites) and Actaeon (torn apart by his own hounds after setting eyes on a naked Artemis bathing in the woods). In the poem it is the shrimp boats and other commercial fare that are degrading the barrier islands. The loss of these barrier islands has been mentioned as a strong reason for why New Orleans and the surrounding area were hit so hard by the recent hurricanes. In this Revell acknowledges that “the god is a destroyer . . . the goddess is a maw.” Revell questions the justice of such gods, but could not a Christian god be implicated in similar acts of destruction? It is curious to me that the Greeks have to bear the full force of Revell’s judgment of being unjust.

In ”The Wisdoms” Revell returns to his contemplation of the sociopolitical realm. In particular, he seems to be commenting on the loss of unity in America. He laments: “Time was, a man or woman had to love me. / That was America. That was a chief concern.” But the disunity he addresses does not seem to be based on religious or foreign policy differences. It is based on the colors: “Broken glass is alive too, / In the colors. In them, I was a republic.” The speaker, a spokesperson for a country, talks of the loss of status as republic. The title appears to make reference to the wisdom lost in not paying attention to the colors. This could be read symbolically, as above, for the ethnic and racial diversity of America or as an appreciation for the dance of light that is reality. Revell seems to be saying that seeing things clearly without any filter, can restore unity. After all, the epigraph seems to refer to the moment of Goethe’s passing and his monumental utterance of “Light! More Light!” on his deathbed. The wisdom that Goethe passed on was that seeing, perceiving, was enough of a reason to linger in the realm of the human.

On top of all of the poetry of witness and the literary Revell is a heaping helping of the apocalyptic vision. The passing of the world of men is treated as a foregone conclusion in many places in the book, especially in “The Last Guitar,” a three-part piece in the last section of the book . In this piece, Revell invokes “the last guitar” as the final song that humanity plays. He is imagining what comes after, and through God, he assures us as readers that “the last guitar is but the first of many.” This would be a hopeful sign if it weren’t for the fact that all but the heartiest of creatures will be dead. It is here that we see mortality as only an intermission in the big musical Herr Direktor has planned.

Mortality also is apparent in the jaunty little “Stoic.” Despite its title and final image, the tone of this piece is not so weighty. It invokes the WWII invasion of Norway (presumably) as a parallel, no doubt, to our own current American disaster of an invasion, but then there is paratactical shift to what seems like an episode of Lassie where we, as readers, await some sort of rescue. However, the only rescue forthcoming is from a blissful ignorance, a return to sensation that feeds the soul and keeps us alive. King Kong, another animal, is watched, and then the ominous animal appears in the last line. Is Revell commenting that the only respite from the current war and the death it brings is to busy ourselves with watching animals as a reminder of who we are, of our fragility?

Stoic

My soul is a mind and a meander, a Mrs. Luxe.
Little Spartan boy, release the animal in your shirt!
It isn’t a wolf cub, it’s a puppy soon
To be Lassie, and she’s needed
For the invasion of Norway, that disastrous offensive.

Her parachute opens.
A minute or so later,
Her paws touch delicately down
Onto the glacier, and instantly
The ice turns a radiant deep sky-blue
Wherever she goes. Peter Lawford
Is rescued and returns to England.
Lassie remains behind,
Changing every inch of the arctic earth into blue sky
Which is becoming my mind.

My soul has turned from now to then.
It’s all a luxury, this being alive.
Read me that women’s poetry, I’m watching King Kong.
There’s an animal up my sleeve and it’s killing me.

The literary forebears Revell invokes are solitary types, and this collection is imbued with a solitary tone. In almost every piece the meandering associative presentation gravitates between a solitary witnessing and the spiritual implications of watching the world, tinged with a copious amount of literary learning. This is not to say that it is boring and plodding. Revell is never guilty of being boring. His associative leaps are almost always daring and fresh. This is the part of the show that everyone who comes to it admires and respects. At times I can’t always ride along with him on his daring mission, and I have to watch as he travels into terra incognito. This is the stuff that second, third, fourth readings are made of. At times it can be a little annoying as when he makes grand surrealistic moves like “The sky is sassafras / And also a balloon landing.” “There are stars / made wholly of woodsmoke.” “Between French and death / The houses sail like baseballs.” These are rather isolated examples and they are taken out of context; however, I could not rope them to any cleat in the larger poem. [When one operates according to instinct, some moves are going to land in a particular reader, others won’t.] Contrarily, Revell also delivers some absolutely zinger lines. My favorite in the book is:

Easternmost archangel, untune my words and teach me tanager.”

I’m not really sure why the easternmost archanagel should be called upon for such tutleage; however, I find that, at times, I would like to learn tanager too.

The untuning of the mind is a large concern of Revell’s too, following in the footsteps of his anti-rational Francophile heroes. Rimbaud appears a couple of times in the book, but paired with an interest in those American writers who lean toward a transcendentalist mode, Revell seems to encourage an overcoming of the mind by dismantling it, suspending reason. This is the way of faith I am told, but I am too weak and exhausted in my present condition to use it as a guide for raising my children. If I don’t keep my wits about me, they’ll start stealing all of my food.

I suppose that Revell would caution me to be mindful that none of what is part of this earth, what is perceived, can be owned for very long. What harm can there be in a little stealing, a little redistribution of wealth if the aim is honorable, such as grasping for a more spiritual plain through song.

In the thirteen-part title poem “A Thief of Strings” Revell introduces us to a thief of guitar strings that he again is witnessing from a distance. He uses the EBGDAE of a guitar’s standard tuning to riff on, one line beginning with a word that corresponds to the E, followed by the next that begins with a B, and so on. These sequences of invention recur throughout the piece and serve as a way to bind the reader to one of the central events in the piece—the stolen guitar strings. Revell seems to side with the motives of the thief who is only aiming to do what birds do naturally. Furthermore, Revell makes an even more radical claim for dispossessing oneself, for “disowning” and “helplessness” such as in the poem’s final section:

from A Thief of Strings

13.

Outside his shop
In the leafy sunlight
The clockmaker smokes at ease,
Singing a little,
Rapping a cadence
Against his artificial leg
With his good leg.
His shop sign is a broken clock face
Filled with leaves.
These metaphors mix themselves,
And I say hurray for helplessness!

Who made my eyes? Not I.
And an almshouse everywhere?

When I am alone the air
is flecked with sassafras.
Crowded before me in shoals
Happy shrieks grow old.
I say hurray for helplessness!
What use to a man is Man?

When I left the train I could hear
Singing in the trees. It was the trees
Who sang. When I was a boy
It was the trees who sang. My whole life
From the end of childhood
Until this very moment
Is one bird nowhere.
Not forgotten. Free.

Revell reminds us that we are paying tribute with our eyes, that everywhere is an almshouse. This is the price we must pay for being free like animals.

I’m reminded of Rilke in the eighth Duino Elegy (tr. by Edward Snow):

If the assured animal that approaches up
on such a different path had in it consciousness
like ours—, it would wheel us round
and make us change our lives. But its existence
is for it infinite, ungrasped, completely
without reflection—, pure, like its outward gaze.
And where we see Future it sees Everything
and itself in Everything and healed forever.

Sometimes though, the reality, strangely enough, is elsewhere. A price is attached to the life of an animal. That said, I still could not give up on my dog. I suppose it was not so much for the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to disown the dog and allow it to untether itself from its moorings in this world (though that may be partly true also). The thing I kept thinking about in my rather haphazard anthropomorphic way was that if the tables were reversed, and she were making a life and death decision about my continued existence, she’d let me have one more fighting opportunity, one more chance, rationality be damned. And so it is with Donald Revell and me. That comfortable relationship I’ve had with him as literary kindred spirit has been strained by circumstance. His forays into the spiritual have caused me to question why my meanderings into spirit have stopped short of the chasm of faith. However, there is still enough there, still enough “wet tongues on the nose” to make me want more, to want to see him fight for more of that sassafras air. In the end, I just can’t put the ol’ dog down.

Other poems from A Thief of Strings: ”Sibylline”, Landscape with Warhol and the Coming of Spring, 2003”

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