My Mojave by Donald Revell
Since I grew up not far from the Mojave Desert in California, I began Donald Revell’s newest collection, My Mojave, anticipating themes of aridity, parchedness and thirst. Instead, I found myself thinking of the way water moves in a swimming pool, with the light on the surface reflected off the bottom in undulating striations of light and shadow. These poems are kind of like that, as Revell contemplates objects and moments in time, and finds history, memories, and other interior landscapes reflected back at him.
Divided into two sections entitled “Here” and “There,” the structure of the book immediately brings to mind polarity and distinction, intimacy and distance. The poems quickly begin to dissolve this notion, for fundamentally they are about transparence and permeability, how “skins” of time, self, nature, fruition and decay constantly shift in opacity to reveal and inhabit each other.
The title poem “My Mojave” explores the interplay between an initial event and the consequences that follow. The poem begins with short lines comprised of just a few letters each, and over the course of several stanzas, widens to form a half-pyramid. Visually, this structure parallels the shadow cast by the “meteor at mid-day” referred to in the poem as it enters the slanted world of illusion and perception, when “Shadows and mirage/Compensate the world,/Completing its changes/With no change.”
Moments of flowering, both situational and spiritual, are focused on, particularly in the section “There.” These instances contain the eventuality of their own ruin, powerfully evoked by the “Three ash trees/I saw beside a lake in late October./One was bare. One was flame-red. The third/Smoldered still in summer green, and it was screaming.” In one of the book’s anchor poems, “Prolegomena,” Revell imagines the moments preceding the earthly birth of the spiritual represented by figurines in a nativity scene. It is this hinge of a moment, poised between formless and embodied, that contains the most pure and untouchable expression of the divine: “for a last few moments, God is a wild thing/ Or still a flower.” The problem of naming and specifying threatens to betray the heart of such experiences, because “What can the inscription have described?/Telling is selling,/Even just two letters” and in “Banner”: “Say now aftermath/And a new beginning/One and the same/Happy like a crocus/I can be precise/Though it is no answer.”
And yet, many of these poems are grounded in very precise times and localities. In “The Government of Heaven”, Revell describes “October 20, 2000 Iowa City/I go out and I feel that every step of mine/Spoils the rime across the grass/In the government of Heaven/The grass is truly higher than here.” In “Pandemonium,” activity unfolds “Especially on the 900 block of Fairchild/Where a bicycle leans against a broken Aphrodite/On porch steps./Behind them it was a jumble/Coming into flower and brown fences/Breaking like waves at all angles” It is through this particularity of detail juxtaposed with much broader cultural, religious and mythological references that the immediate, historic, and eternal are so effectively intertwined.
Although there are specific Christian references in some of the poems, these references are not limited by their particular application to Christianity, but rather are expanded by how they are used to probe complexities of experience. These poems journey past the illusion of the opposition of things to the embodied wonder of the world and the fact that “every blessed thing is elusive.” In fact, the space navigated by this collection seems to be the contemplation of worship itself. In “Arcady Again” (the poem that opens the collection and serves as a preface, since it isn’t placed within either of the two sections), Revell muses: “God help the man who breathes/With nothing leading him/Here or someplace like it/Inside him which he opens/Wide enough to walk through/And walks through.”
The landscape created by this collection as a whole is intricate and dense. Poems reference each other thematically and specifically, as words and images jump from one poem to another, enriching and deepening their meaning where another left off. As just one example, in “31/xii/99” “midnight moves/Across the planet seeking monuments” to resurface again in the final poem, “New Year”: ”At New Years nothing’s transparent./Disappearance equals increase, and emptiness/Rises or falls according to no pattern/Because there isn’t any pattern yet.”
Reading My Mojave made me feel a way I often did when I was little (and still do) -- filled with an awareness that the world is immense, and heavy with mystery and complication beyond my understanding. I felt I was “...half in shade/And half in bright sunlight, wandering/Very deliberately, but wandering,” with these poems providing a sustaining route of contemplation to lead the way.
My Mojave by Donald Revell
Alice James Books