A Thief of Strings by Donald Revell
Donald Revell's tenth collection, A Thief of Strings, extracts maximal poetic value from the land and its changes. Attentive to birds, flowers, the weather, and the spiritual connotations of these, Revell's poems seek to wake us to the realization that "It's all a luxury, this being alive." The poems address faith, war, history, and memory, and meditate on important precursors from Robert Creeley to Rimbaud (whom Revell has translated) and Ovid. The title poem attempts to think through the meaning of life with the few clues we're given -- "what use to a man is Man?" One's admiration for the poems will likely be governed, to at least some extent, by whether one shares Revell's construal of the spiritual import of the material world.
A Thief of Strings opens with a series of poems ostensibly about landscapes, though these poems move freely (according to their titles, deliriously) from outer to inner world. Sometimes, Revell's quite canny in his commentary on America: "New wars prepare new trances / And bad bargains. / The enemy is maniacs. And we, Poem are with the other side, / The savages." As he observes, if "War is terror," how can you have a "War on terror"? In "Landscape with Warhol and the Coming of Spring 2003," the counterpoint of blue jays in Alabama and unspecified birds in Baghdad captures how the early stages of the Iraq war seemed curiously flattened by the television coverage.
Afterwards, however, Revell frequently withdraws from overt commentary into the life of contemplation. "Thinking in the World" urges us, paradoxically, to "Think well of ignorance." At the window, "waking in the dark," "Flowers bring their deep intelligence to bear / Against the mind, and mind's grateful." Revell seems convinced about the clarifying ignorance of flowers, since he returns to the image at the end of the book: "Choice is our natures, loosed from memory. / The flower / is never blinded by the sun it faces freely." I'm not sure about the metaphor here: Phototropism is hardly "freedom," and it's not even clear that plants don't have a kind of memory of the sun's location.
Revell's keen perception of landscapes, animals, and flowers lends his poems a sense of grace received. This isn't always especially persuasive, though it is always expressive and frequently lovely. In "To the Christians," Revell's speaker says:
Smile for me, Immortality.
You are a certainty.
Otherwise, there is no sky
And no explaining the life in it,
The lilac colors swimming there.
Those inclined will, perhaps, see an implicit tension in the first two lines -- if Immortality is certain, then why ask it to smile? But everything about this collection encourages us to take the last three lines seriously. But "certainty" and "Immortality" don't sit easily together, either as theology or as aesthetics. The difference between abstractions and the "lilac colors" can't easily be glossed over.
Sometimes, Revell's imagery lurches beyond "unpersuasive" into something less palatable. For example, in "Election Year," the speaker notes that "every day, / Although the nation is done for, / I find new flowers." I recognize that the perception that "the nation is done for" to some extent disrupts the placid discovery of spiritual truths -- Revell's lineation is always worth attending to -- but even so: This is, after all, a nation where a significant number of our fellow-citizens looks forward to an apocalyptic rapture. Or, as Revell speculates, "I am thinking all the time about serenity, and what it might mean. / I think it means the end of humanity." It's not as though poetry must be engaged, though many of the best poems in A Thief of Strings are; it's just that Revell's insights sometimes verge on self-satisfaction.
A Thief of Strings is an intricately connected book, where minute details echo across several poems, such that they linger together in the mind. And there are moments of astonishing loveliness, such as his description of how "Ice / presses the air out of each blade" of grass during Maine's December freezes. Those pleasures are real, and they occur frequently enough to make up for the conceptual dissonance one might otherwise find. Revell's world is a lovely, strange place, and he brings it vividly to the mind.
A Thief of Strings by Donald Revell
Alice James Books