“Shadows of Leaves”: Donald Revell
by Richie Hofmann
Donald Revell’s poems are weird and beautiful. Weird because they seem, at times, to resist simple narratives, to create meaning out of disparate images and statements. Weird because they celebrate strange and obscure (sometimes archaic, sometimes contemporary) objects and places and people and quotations in poems that are sensuous and surreal. Beautiful because what these pastiches—playful and allusive—add up to are sumptuous and lyrical meditations on art, the history of literature, the erotic body, the aging body, and on beauty itself and suffering. In Revell’s poetic imagination, starvation, for instance, becomes “a pack of dogs with jeweled mouths.” “Clematis” a language not one of us speaks.
The qualities I love in Revell’s poems are on full display in “Tithon,” the third section of Tantivy, until now his most recent Alice James Books collection of poems. “Tithon” is a name that evokes the Greek mythological character, Tithonus—loved by Aurora, he is the once-mortal prince blessed/cursed with immortality by the gods, but without eternal youth—as well as the myriad works of art about him, including Tennyson’s long dramatic monologue. It is also rendered, like so much of the book, through the windows of the gorgeous, sun-drenched world of French:
Shadows of leaves
Shadows of leaves
Je suis le prince
D’un pays aboli
In the 10 pages of “Tithon,” we don’t quite get a retelling of the myth; nor do we quite get a dramatic monologue or psychological portrait of a character. Instead the poem intimates a story in simple, beautiful terms, in recurring images and landscapes. There is a prince. There was a prince. Though his country is lost, he seems to take solace in the sensuousness of the environment around him. Sometimes this is the Mediterranean world, with its Cézannesque flowers and mountains. Sometimes this is the world of art—the body rendered in paint, paint creating new bodies—which the speaker of the poem uses as touchstone for memory. The poem is an elegy; it is a song; it is a literary collage; it is both erotic and abstract; it is both grave and fanciful.
Revell’s “Tithon” is a polyvocal text—filled with quotations from Cézanne, Traherne, Dylan Thomas, René Char, Aiken, and Blake; with an interlude letter to Nathan from 2009—though even Revell’s poetic musings feel swept and shaken up in a mistral of language. Central images and themes repeat: hands, mouths, sparrows, mountains, leaves, the presence of God, of heaven, of artists, a blind girl, a fountain, an only son, the mirror. But each time they’re invoked, they’ve been shifted into new patterns, into new landscapes of thought and feeling.
God counts only up to one
His hands are small
And in God’s hands even
Mountains are sparrow-sized
My hands were as small as God’s hands
In heaven sparrows
Became snows and cataracts around us
Creation is the miniature of creation
When God and I walked together we spoke paint
And later in the poem, as the speaker reveals even more information about himself—his loves (French poets), his losses (a son he will not know), his dreamy landscape (“clouds are France,” the speaker says):
The shadows of leaves are addressed to immortality
Little birds give wings to the mountains and the mountains fly
Underground streams find a fountain cloister in New York
Nothing but one road in all this world there is nothing
But God myself alone as a child and counting
Up to one the garden number
The poem is a difficult poem, but it would be inaccurate to call it dense. Its foliage is thick but familiar. And it’s a pleasure—intellectual, aesthetic, erotic—to move through this terrain. In the end, as the speaker cycles through these images, I feel like I’m grasping for some story of loss, some consolation in the world of memory or in the world of art, or in the natural world of sparrows and mountains.
Who in his right mind would burden
This wonderful creation with a consciousness?
And in the end, we feel complicit with estranged God of the poem, putting meaning into all these words and images, animating these allusions and illusions—unable to count up to one, and yet capable of doing nothing else:
And a prince beside himself with joy at the axle of sunlight
Knows that it is all hallucinations
And one of them is true