Donald Revell: A Short Travelogue
by: Kevin Goodan
It has always been a secret little joy of mine to have books published by Alice James Books, not only because AJB is truly an amazing press, but also because they publish the books of Donald Revell. I have been an avid reader of Revell’s work since the early 1990’s when I came across his book A Gaza of Winter at the University of Montana bookstore. I had just come from a long difficult season of fighting forest fires, and was searching for something to lift the top of my head off. The title stopped me. I thought ‘what a strange title’. I opened it, and was borne aloft in ways I did not then understand. In an increasingly secular society I read Revell’s poems work with a kind of reverence, for aren’t his poems the closest we have in contemporary literature to prayers, psalms, amulets in a steadily darkening world?
Recently, I have come to understand that poets write from one of two places: One of unknowing, of seeking through the language some sort of answer to quell the doubts and fears that consume the poet, and one of knowing, of having some means by which to understand the world (and the non-world) and to put forth that knowledge into poetry. Revell is a poet of the latter order, in the vein of Merton. He writes from a place of knowing that often seems beyond here, an almost angelic perspective. This is not to say that Revell’s poems do not contain wry humor, or that they are not doing “that post-modern thing”, but often when I read his poems I feel as if they are verging on prophesy (or, since Revell identifies as “a kind of Calvinist”, would predestined be a more proper word?). But how to test this feeling, how to create a situation in which this idea could be verified….
As luck would have it (or was it fate?), I was to embark upon a journey. I was to drive from my home outside Moscow, Idaho all the way to Cape Cod. It is a kind of migration I have done many times (I cannot count how many times I have laughed uncontrollably at seeing the sign for Fangboner Rd in Pennsylvania), and each time I give myself a rule. Usually, these rules restrict me from something, such as no coffee, or no music (this usually coincided with the radio not working in the car), or no air conditioning, just to see if I could do it. Since the previous rules took something away, this time, I decided that I would add something. The rule was this: each time I pull off of I-90, either at a rest area, or for gas, I would have to write down observations of the place I stopped in, then, at random, choose a Revell poem from one of his books published by AJB, and write a short commentary on it.
So, there I was, leaving home with Donald Revell’s books as my co-pilot, headed out on this mad-cap adventure along the interstate, and my first stop was Missoula, Montana, where I had lunch with Henrietta Goodman, long-time friend, and fellow AJB author. Afterwards, I pulled over in the parking lot of the Thunderbird Hotel: 11:44 am, 63 degrees, high overcast, parking lot replete with a few cars in various states of dereliction. The Thunderbird used to be a kind of flop-house for the Missoula transient population, and has seen more than a few keggers, drug busts, and one or two shootings, though it has tried to clean up a bit. From the passenger’s seat I grab a Revell’s Pennyweight Windows, and open it:
The Night Orchard
They have given me a room near the power station
across the canal, and sleeplessness has become
an island jolted by hot sounds and water lights.
A vapory static scents the air like fruit
that has caught fire. Thickly, the shallows
of a dream that I would have if I slept
darken under a greasy skin that won’t break.
And then the scent of fire again, sweet, heaviest
near a woman’s letter to me, propped on the nightstand.
As you near the center of America,
you reach an unmoving inland sea of towns
founded, strange to say, on a migration
fleeing tolerance. The coastal cities
had accommodated small boroughs of affection.
Their harbors steamed with tenderness at morning,
and at day’s end a borderless sublime
floated in the bankers’ streets and you
might put it in your soft hand and then
into a friend’s hand like clean money.
And so the undistracted governments
of heaven fled inland, upwelling
and lacustrine charters of orchards, tulip farms,
and, in the next century, power stations
and bad hotels to afflict the transient.
Borne up and eddied in sleeplessness there,
in nearly a fever dream, I can sense orchards
burning and power becoming water again.
The first stanza allows us to experience what it might be like to take a room at a place like The Thunderbird, where sleeplessness is the island the speaker and the reader cling to, trying to take an accounting of the situation, finding only the letter as a possibility of salvation from the fire that is our lives. Ok, lovely.
But what really strikes me is the opening of the second stanza, given particular task ahead of me: “As you near the center of America,/you reach an unmoving inland sea of towns/ founded, strange to say, on a migration/ fleeing tolerance. The coastal cities/ had accommodated small boroughs of affection.” How does Revell know this, how does he know where I’m going? This is the situation of prophecy that I mean. How is it that these lines speak so strongly, so truly to me at this moment, sitting in the parking lot of a hotel with a difficult history, preparing to drive to the farthest point of the nation. Indeed, in his book of essays The Art of Attention, Revell states “the creative act is continuous, before, during and after the poem” (pg. 6). But how does he know? I nose the car onto I-90 with this question churning in my head, wondering where the next stop will be, and what poem it will bring.
Deerlodge, Montana 1:43pm, 79 degrees. Conoco. A cool windy broad valley, foothills already the color of August. The gas station is across the street from the Sesame Wok, itself a former gas station, with the double doors, the overhead lights with the pumps jerked out. Beside the building is an excavator and an old John Deere tractor, and to the west behind a rise I can make out the top of what looks like a Super Walmart, and to the south, the slopes leading up to the Pintler Range. The semis pull in to the station. Semis pull out. The clouds verge on virga. Somewhere close by there are felons resting, doing their time— but aren’t we all? It is here that I open Thief of Strings:
To The World
You are the last guitar,
A morning of age that ends
In tender, first, and simple noises.
To the north of here an old man is dying.
To the east, his sister bleeds into her brain.
So it goes. And sometimes it goes very far,
But never close to you, never
In sight of the first mountain
From which I threw myself into the trees
Whose tops are oceans and whose wood,
If I lived, awakened as guitars.
I can’t complain. When I am born again, I will begin.
Good world, you are the rumor I believe
When no one’s there but me.
Sitting in the car reading this, I am stunned most by the first three lines of the second stanza, the truth of those lines. In every direction, is there not someone who is ill, who is dying? And yet the world is not alarmed, is not saddened (And so it goes). This is the nature of things. There is no reason to complain, because nothing will change (even if all the trees become guitars). And in the face of this do we not construct our own worlds in which we have other lifetimes (when I am born again, I will begin) to conclude?
I drive on.
Rest Area, Greycliff, Montana, 4:37 pm. 83 degrees. Crickets in the yellow spurge that surrounds the parking area, and on the slope that leads to a low plateau on this, the west side of the river, gray snags of a wind-driven fire from a few years ago. If one follows the angle of burn down the side of the plateau, one can speculate that the point of ignition resides right behind the old farmhouse built by the river. To the east, a broad nimbus is capping. A monarch flits in front of me. A meadowlark is somewhere upslope behind the restrooms. A large man is walking his Chihuahua with a baggie in his hand. He nodes my way, runs two fingers through his gray hair. Everywhere the thin sweet stench of ruptured deer. I open The Bitter Withy:
The rainbow seems to breathe
And so it breathes.
When it speaks it makes
The birds in our black trees
Glad and brave.
Yes, it is true. I am between two storms, the one building in front of me, and the storm of flame that visited this land. What was, what is, what seems, are one, and gladly so. Again, how does Revell know? How did he know that I would be reading this poem at this moment in this place when he wrote it?
After a short, planned deviation in Billings to spend a few hours with my brother, I drive on.
Sheridan, Wyoming, 10:43 pm. 78 degrees. Cenex pump in front of unnamed motel. Great flashes of lightning to the east. Crickets, the scent of rain-visited sage, and faint smoke in the cool dark. The gas pumps are in the parking lot of a motel that caters to road-crews, judging from the vehicles and the way they are parked: front end facing out. Behind me, in the same cluster of buildings is what looks like a café that had maybe a brief hey-day decades ago. Through the dark window I am surprised to see the hunched, bleary form, a woman moving back and forth with a silver wand in her hand. I have stopped here a few times before, always without intention, always with the sense that I am the only one that doesn’t know better. And yet, here I am. Even this far into Sheridan, the whine of the interstate is palpable. I open Tantivy:
Fringe and halo
An hour is it
Or is it
All the ones
Come out of a black pail of smoldering branches?
Fringe and halo
The now forgotten
And Utrillos show
More vividly than all
The best and rough-hewn I remember.
Love breathes deeply of the wood smoke.
Here is a rough-hewn table.
Here is a happiness with nothing underneath.
Love and another grope their way
Beneath the smoke along the drunken wall.
A roseate landscape glows in the quiet kitchen.
Take dear one, into the keeping of your color,
These branches that were green an hour ago.
Is not the far lightning a kind of fringe and halo glowing erratic in the purple night? Is not Sheridan rough-hewn, even in the dark: a squat place trying to hold itself to the wide, storm-fraught prairie? And yet, it is a place to breathe deeply, to love, to be happy and the “now forgotten” are on continuous loop, coming back into view, then fading, but never going completely away. Revell’s poem transcends the moment and becomes the moment, the place of the moment. Always the storm is before us.
Rest Area, Belvidere South Dakota. 5:55 am. 64 degrees. The morning light is clean and cool after the storm passed through, truly a moment of severe clarity, where every spear of bunch grass is visible, every spent dandelion thin and noted. The air is sweet with the smell of rain trammeled hay, starlings and flash flood. All the long-haul trucks cached here for the night are idling and the trash can overflows with McDonalds Big Mac wrappers. I pick My Mojave up from the passenger’s seat:
I am looking at a smallpox vaccination scar
In a war movie on the arm
Of a young actor. He has just swum
Across a river somewhere in Normandy
Into the waiting arms of his rejoicing comrades.
Of course, the river’s in California,
And the actor is dead now. Nevertheless,
This is the first of many hotels this trip,
And I find myself preferring wars
To smut on the networks,
Even as I find myself reading
The Pisan Cantos for the umpteenth time
Instead of the novel in my bag.
The poet helps me to question:
Does anything remain of home at home?
Next day is no way of knowing,
And the day after is my favorite,
A small museum really perfect
And a good meal in the middle of it.
As I’m leaving,
I notice a donkey on a vase
Biting the arm of a young girl,
And outside on the steps
A silver fish head glistens beside a bottlecap.
The work of poetry is trust,
And under the aegis of trust
Nothing could be more effortless.
Hotels show movies.
Walking around even tired
I find my eyes find
Numberless good things
And my ears hear plenty of words
Offered for nothing over the traffic noise
As sharp as sparrows.
A day and a day, more rivers crossing me.
It really feels that way, I mean
I have changed places with geography,
And rivers and towns pass over me,
Showing their scars, finding their friends.
I like it best when poetry
Gleams or shows its teeth to a girl
Forever at just the right moment.
I think I could turn and live underneath the animals.
I could be a bottlecap.
Going to the airport going home,
I stop with my teacher, now my friend.
He gives me a good breakfast, berries and hotcakes.
We finish and, standing, I hear
One policeman saying to another
Over the newspaper in a yellow booth
“Do you know this word regret, Eddie?
What does it mean?”
Plenty of words over the traffic noise,
And nothing could be more effortless.
Catching a glimpse of eternity, even a poor one, says it all.
The second stanza floors me. Maybe it’s because I have driven through the night without stopping, and with the exhaustion and growing light I am easily and emotionally swayed, or maybe it’s the clarity that can only come under such beautiful duress. Whichever, the last line of that stanza speaks to me, haunts me, makes me question my trip (Does anything remain of home at home?). If I am driving across the country to arrive at a place I once called home, what will remain? Part of me wants to turn around and go back to Idaho. What am I doing? I ask myself. I read on, and the next stanza ends with “Plenty Remains”. Ok, fine, I will continue my easterly trek. The fifth and sixth stanzas capture perfectly the sensation of standing in the light after a storm, breathing in the diesel sweetened air, feeling the flesh slough away into the landscape that surrounds the body, sloughing away into elation. And, what epiphany is perfect? What rapture? Well, as Revell writes “Catching a glimpse of eternity, even a poor one, says it all”.
I drive on. Hour by hour, until I approach my human limit.
Worthington Minnesota, 4:03 am. 62 degrees. After spending a day and a night in a new hotel who’s interior is still strongly off-gassing, I step out to my bug-spackled vehicle. The sun rises slow and rich above cornfields ,and cars in the hotel parking lot. The early sounds of semis on the interstate. A dust cropper making lazy loops above the land, faint mothball smell of herbicide punctuating the air. I open the car door, open My Mojave one last time for this project:
A New Abelard
Start right now
If you are a twig
Skins and skins of death
Our life it is what we fight for
The only stain in it
Taking out pain which was not accurate
The opening of the poem fixes me to the spot where I am standing, turned toward the light. It speaks to me from somewhere deep inside me, or outside me speaking to the core of me. Start right now… which reminds me of the revelation at the end of Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo: you must change your life. I have rested, and I am a twig preparing to blossom into the next phase of this trip, which is a journey against death, into the luminous, blinding sun, alive, accurate and alive. And so it goes.