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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Mysterious Sources

Donald Revell’s poetry hides and reveals in equal measure in Pennyweight Windows.



University of Utah professor Donald Revell grew up in the Bronx, where beauty lurks like a fugitive on the lam. As a result, he didn’t encounter anything remotely lovely until he went to church, where he was seduced by the language of hymns. It’s 40-some-odd years later, and that lineage lives in him yet. “My primary interest has remained in the ritual and comforting sequence of words,” Revell once told an interviewer, as if poetry were both a call to God and a way to assuage us that He, in fact, exists.

If you are the kind of reader who finds this endeavor noble, then Pennyweight Windows'Revell’s hefty volume of new and selected poetry'is a book to buy and read in the quiet moments of a Sunday afternoon. Swathed in the velvety hush of a man who thinks his way to God, it is a solemn book that requires a powerful quietude on behalf of its readers. “One little turbulence, a candle lit/in the hollow of a wall,” to borrow a line from one of its poems, and Revell’s delicate experiment could be extinguished.

It wasn’t always this way for Revell. In the beginning, he was a troubadour of sturdy Rust Belt urbanity. The Broken Juke'his first volume, published in 1975 when he was just 21 and fresh out of SUNY Binghamton'doesn’t even appear herein. The earliest poems come from his third book, 1983’s From the Abandoned City, a lonely, searching volume that uses the city as an echo chamber for the poet’s memories:

If you could wrap your mind

around the park, the way these walls do, you

would rot a little more slowly. Maybe if

you dreamed the way a building dreams

you might even heal.

(from “Central Park South”)

Like John Ashbery, Revell rarely confronts the mysterious sources of his pain head on. There are hints of domestic heartache, bolstered by a lovely and musical tribune to John Cheever. A son flits in and out of other poems like a ghost.

Verse needn’t confess to be intimate, yet the elliptical quality of these details makes us feel like voyeurs'shown one thing, but not the other. Access is meted out, leaving occult fragments of a mind prone to building castles in the air.

The unsigned architecture of loneliness

is becoming taller, finding a way farther

above the horizontal flowering

of the Cold War, the peonies

and star asters of wild partisanship.

(from “Last”)

As this segment might reveal, Revell has a habit of tumbling headlong into a dense tangle of metaphor. The point of language seems not to be the conveyance of meaning but ferrying the reader over into a trance state of opaque remove. That’s a nice way of saying you can read some of his long poems, arrive at the end, and have not a clue what you just read. Go back to the poems more than once and questions arise. Is architecture signed? Do things ever flower horizontally? What does loneliness have to do with the Cold War?

With age, Revell has learned to prune back at the hedges without stifling the wild, but essentially hit-or-miss originality of his imagery. The result is My Mojave, the volume which won him the prestigious Lenore Marshall Prize. It emerges from the thicket of previous books here with miraculous modernity: a bolt of poetic lightning. Excepting a rather pointless diary-like poem that begins with Sept. 11th, the poems are clean and sharp, more trustworthy of the senses. The world of tangible things has returned to him.

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.

(from “My Trip”)

As a disciple of the French poet Apollinaire and the American Wallace Stevens, Revell has to work hard to leave language’s stained-glassed sanctuary. In the volume’s final section, though, it appears he has done that at last, coaxing himself out and about with a series of poems about the movies. Celluloid becomes his new landscape, calling him back safely to boyhood:

Today is the day

The desert gives up its baseballs,

The day

Its blue-black butterflies and dragonflies

Uncover the real sun no one’s ever seen.

(from “A Green Hill Far Away”)

For 30 years, Revell has pointed the telescope of his intelligence at the heavens and attempted to describe what he sees when he looks upward. But our knowledge of the constellations has dimmed in recent years. We need God to be closer these days, to be more tangible yet. Revell has finally learned that lesson. Pennyweight Windows charts his zigzagging journey to that wisdom.