On Donald Revell
by Dan Beachy-Quick
There’s a poem these days I keep turning back to, one recently discovered, whose gentle prism minds and reminds me what I love most about Donald Revell’s work. The poem is “Tools,” and in it, the “moon / in its coin of rainbow / called my name.” The moon builds it rainbow in a circle around itself, unlike the sun, not lighting up the falling rain, but spiriting visible the spectrum from ice crystals floating in the air. The moon calls his name, and this warms him on a cold morning out walking his dog. The sun has its innate heat, its self-sources light, ancient symbol of reason and self-sufficiency. The moon, like us, borrows what light illuminates it; like us, the moon does not have the solar privilege of maintaining the sphere of its own perfection, but varies, but waxes and wanes, and so can call out to us our names because like us, it suffers that experience we so gladly suffer—life.
Then come the lines I most love:
I have a name, and it isn’t a problem.
I have a soul, and it’s no problem
To feel it slipping away from me
Into a name the full moon
Shouts to the sun.
Over-reaching, perhaps irresponsible to say, but it feels true nonetheless, that much of our poetry written in the last many decades has occupied itself almost wholly with the trouble of having a name, as if such trouble warranted the writing of a poem, as if the theoretical awkwardness of signifier to signified, as if the weightlessness of difference, required that a poem look only inwards, playing with its own wordy parts, demonstrating, again and again, how the means of making meaning mean nothing necessary, and what realization we come to, we construct ourselves. But “I have a name, and it isn’t a problem.” In one line, Revell—as has so often been the case throughout his writing life—trues us away from the ease of concept back to our more honest problems.
It might just be, I can hear him say, that our problem isn’t a problem at all, but a gift. The soul slips into the name, informs it just as it informs us—it’s no problem. The moon shouts it back to the source of its own life, and the shout is praise-shout and shout-of-defiance, is faithfulness and is doubt, happy recognition that what is our is ours own loan, as is the light of the moon, as is our name, as is our soul. Emerson reminds us, “Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.” Revell reminds us of the same: the sun and the moon, the name and the soul, are each sides of the same fact. The poem may be no more than the rainbow that shines through the prism of that fact, beauty of no body, existent only by virtue of contingency—which is to say, I suppose, our best mirror.
Revell writes from a “long and dear acquaintanceship with time.” It is his intimacy with the duration of life that makes his ear so attuned to those “tuneless numbers” that extend through time to reach past it. Or maybe, thinking more dearly about Revell’s project, I realize I’ve spoken the direction wrong: it is by the love he’s found (and founded) within human life that allows him to be so companioned by the eternal when it pierces down into our temporal dwelling and beside us, within us, takes up its lodging.
Such attention is rare, maybe ever-rarer, this seeing past the problem of a name. It returns poetry to its oldest uses—of dedication, and of praise. When the soul slips into a name and the moon shouts it back to the sun, then any act of naming—that most basic function of poetry—affirms life far past the limits of life, offers itself to the dead as a small sacrifice, keeps intact the gods of the household and the heroes, keeps happy the ancestors upon whose lost lives our lives are built. For they are there in the names, all of them, and as Revell so rightly reminds, “You must breathe the dead to feel the dancing.” To my friend and mentor, I want to say, “See, I’m learning to dance.” So he’s taught me, as he’s taught so many of us—as the worker bee returning to the hive—the dance that is our guide to the flower-field entire.