"At My Soul's Edge": Donald Revell's My Mojave
Alice James Books, $13.95
Donald Revell’s eighth collection of poetry, My Mojave, continues Arcady’s graceful introspection, matching its affecting, essential plainness. Its poems also work to ferry Revell towards the erasure of physical boundaries into the realm of the eternal. Beginning with a poem entitled “Arcady Again”—which appears to exist just outside of the main body of My Mojave—the poet continues his work in a motion of expansion: “Gate into the rainy yard / Opens and even the little / Grass is very wide.” Opening outward from here, My Mojave works to explore the spiritual life of the poet with resonance, depth, and an acute attention.
Divided into two parts, Here and There, My Mojave’s sections appear to represent meditations on the reversals that occur on both sides of death’s creases. Exploring the excavation of the soul’s conditions, the poems in Here fascinate as they locate moments where the poet’s world touches what he imagines to be the next world. The “traffic noise,” “regret,” and sounds of the poet’s world often become a kind of joyful distraction (“My Trip”). In “Mechanics” the speaker admits, “there are too many sounds to count one. / The forest is countless. A tree is almost none.” Encountering the raggedness of his experiences, the poet attempts to move through what Thoreau deems to be the “infinite bustle of business” into his waking spiritual life (198). The speaker of “The Government of Heaven” claims that he “[aches] only for silence just one / With nothing to forgive.” Although the poet’s ability to break through the veil of the physical world is often “effortless”—“Plenty of words over the traffic noise, / And nothing could be more effortless”—he is also careful to note that “the work of poetry is trust” (“My Trip”).
In the humility of their trusting, the poems in Here often find kinship in images that constitute for reversals. In the poet’s world, “A perfect circle falls onto white imperfections” and, likewise, “A fish head [glistening] beside a bottle cap” becomes a sign that “plenty remains” (“My Mojave,” “My Trip”). Excavated garbage can become a treasured symbol of American life and the process of its excavation, a soul-image: “After a while the boys / Come up from the river / Hauling a tire into the sunlight” (“Church and State”). This is a great accomplishment of Revell’s voice in My Mojave ; witnessing, he manages to help small details rise to their potential. Each moment of attention is rich and generative. Reading, we are taught—we feel —that “waters overplussed with pilgrim stutter” do, indeed, “make more wilderness” (“The Government of Heaven”).
Opening the mundane, small joys, jealousies, and simple disappointments—the sounds—of this world, Revell reveals that in the afterlife, “At a tree outside the city. We shall make / New sounds and leave our throat in that place” (“Short Fantasia”). Operating under Emerson’s dictum that “particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts,” these poems attempt to locate the sheer facts of salvation in this world (878). The fading of the poet’s “son’s wet fingermark / from the warm stone” becomes a lesson in impermanence (“The Government of Heaven”). The reversals of poems like “Short Fantasia” reveal the extent to which the speaker realizes that he has fashioned his beliefs around natural facts:
The plane descending from an empty sky
Onto numberless stars
Makes a change in Heaven a new
Pattern for the ply of spirits on bodies.
The imagined Heaven is unfixed—it is both collective and individual—and factors on earth are capable of altering and degrading it.
In the face of the impermanence explored in Here, the poet also investigates a sense of right living. In the tradition of Heidegger, who tells us that “the painter […] uses pigment in such a way that color is not used up but rather only now comes to shine forth,” the poems of Here begin to suggest that we should be careful to wonder at the world without using it up (46). This philosophy appears to be enacted in “Picnic.” After a bee has gotten caught in the bottle of wine that the speaker shares with his lover, he is careful to note: “I tapped him onto the ground, and he walked off / Untangling antennae from wings and wine. / We hurried to reach the car while there was still daylight.” Concerned with transcending mean living, the poet is careful to notice the exceptional beauty and significance of small events; each and every one of these is realized as a potential reversal—a moment of contact. This realization is a testimony of Revell’s humility; in My Mojave, the very act of attention itself becomes a means of transformation, changing both the poet and the world around him.
In There the poet continues to explore the human condition focusing his explorations on imagining and re-imagining an afterlife that will carry the ones that he loves. Contemplating the act of dying—passing between worlds—the poems of this section struggle to realize death as “Nothing to do with pity / Everything to do with Heaven” (“Sermon”). The poet’s imagination posits Heaven—the afterlife—as a place of infinite rest. In “For Andrew Marvell” the speaker claims, “I remember because everything is all of its characteristics / Apart just once / Together for eternity in death’s unlimited magic.” The depth of this peacefulness is echoed in poems like “Banner”:
Say now aftermath
And a new beginning
One and the same
Happy like a crocus.
And in poems like “Prolegomena,” the poet claims “Before I was human / I worshipped everything.” The depth of Revell’s commitment to this realization is—as it must be —brave and intensely personal.
Restless to return to the equilibrium of their origins, souls shift, moving like mustangs from the schoolyard: “[…] it was time / To take my son to school before the mustangs, / As they do every day, fled / The schoolyard for quieter fields up high” (“Given Days”). In There, the soul’s time often eclipses human time. It is also important to note that the soul’s impatience also leads to reversals that degrade the world in relation to the remembered state of the afterlife. Reversals like these happen in “Prolegomena”: the poet claims that he is,
Unable to bear
The memory of Heaven a moment longer.
Compared to Heaven,
Music and peace are shit.
Splashing color against the disparate winter-trees, a cardinal “exposed to everything” can become “a stab / Of the grotesque” (“In Christmas”). The struggle of the soul’s time—its desires and degradations of the material world—creates dramatic tensions in the poet’s life that become very real for the reader.
However, while many of the poems seem to feature an insistence that the soul stay in appreciation—“deep in / The delectable mts”—to do work that is yet to be done, there is also the sense that the world—the material—is slowly killing the poet’s soul. In their attachment to the material, the poet and his soul are losing their ability “to see what comes”—“the stream is frozen because it is cold” (“Bacchae,” “In Christmas”). “Counsel” enacts this conflict in a moment of insistence:
Redress my soul
As in a mirror
I can see myself
Urging a friend
To stay alive.
The tension of this doubling continues to expand and, turning back on the reversals of Here, it reveals further contradiction (and possibility). Realizing the contrary states of his soul, the poet is able to realize the contradictory nature of his awareness of his emotions, impulses, etc. Seemingly antithetical emotions like happiness and grief can exist interchangeably because they are equally capable of revealing truths about the conditions of the poet’s experiences. This echoes in the erasure made possible via the poets lack of punctuation in “Counsel”: “True grief is endless / As happiness / Is unforgettable / Every single time.” In My Mojave, emotions exist at the knife’s edge with a kind of equilibrium that allows them to turns backward forcing us to rethink, rediscover the root of the assumption we bring to the poems. Likewise, There becomes a testimony of Here and vice versa; each reifies and insists on the other.
Steeped in the contradictions of his existence in the material, the poet is thankful. In “A New Abelard” Revell notices:
How troubles twin us
The white doe
The National Bank
Although the soul we have
Is love’s doing.
His contemplation in “In Christmas” emphasizes the possibility of the contraries of one’s experiences leading to a greater aptitude for belief: “And me who wants no comfort / Only to believe.” The speaker of “Prolegomena” also looks to the possibility of his struggle: “And any way you look at it, you are, / Like a heron on one leg, halfway to Jehovah.” This is a tremendous testimony of the simple grace that gathers in My Mojave; neither wholly Here nor There, Revell catches himself—and us with him—somewhere between. And while this discovery could certainly position one in a space of great doubt, Revell transforms it into the beginning of great possibility.
As the poems of Here yearn for the solitary—“to meet again / At a tree outside the city”—the poems of There find themselves in a solitary place realizing community—even as an absence of boundaries. In “Prolegomena,” the poet claims that “The little things of the woodland live unseen / At my soul’s edge because the soul is alone.” The poems of There have begun to inhabit a new place, and, doing so, they have managed to recognize and carry the significance of their material experiences. In “A New Abelard” the poet realizes that
We are a protest
Raised against ourselves
And God comes now
And God is alone in a leaf
And we are snow in the desert
Making a new sound.
This is Revell’s achievement in My Mojave—between Here and There, the new sound that he realizes will be made in “Short Fantasia” is being made in “A New Abelard.” The breadth of this accomplishment is remarkable. It solves and/or acknowledges the tension between the book’s sections as articulated in “My Mojave,” the title poem of this collection: the “earth is jealous” and the poet’s “soul wants only to go.” As much Here as There, Revell seems to realize that—for the time being—his soul is already home.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” The American Tradition in Literature Volume I. Ed. George
Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 9 th edition. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 1994: 871-897
Heidegger, Martin. “Origin and the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Perennial Classics, 2001.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Life Without Principle.” The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau. Ed. Lewis Hyde. New York: North Point Press, 2002.