Revell’s Restrictions in “A Setting”
by Sarah Manguso
in memory of John Cheever
There is nothing Orphic, nothing foreign.
The deep greens of a suburban June,
the lawns, the orientalia,
are enough, for now, to make you sing.
The deep greens of a suburban June
drift from oriel to oriel and
are enough, for now, to make you sing
into the dark you’ve watched
drift from oriel to oriel. And
now the air around the porchlights curves
into the dark you’ve watched,
changing into the colored air or romance.
Now the air around the porchlights curves
like hours in summer, like desire,
changing into the colored air of romance
your first home breathed into you.
Like hours in summer, like desire,
what you cried our each June
your first home breathed into you,
became the best of you.
What you cried out each June—
“There is nothing Orphic, nothing foreign!”—
became the best of you,
the lawns, the orientalia.
Pantoums restrict not just form but diction; each line is used exactly twice, in assigned positions. Cheever’s own double life was half-trapped in his own suburban settings, their houses concealing the old immortal dramas.
Revell’s subject is a setting with no particular narrative, speaker, or conflict. He provides a handful of abstract nouns: greens, dark, air, romance, home, hours, summer, and desire, but his concrete nouns are tantalizingly few: lawns, orientalia (nonspecified items that are themselves abstract), oriels, and porchlights.
Lawns, oriels, porchlights: three nouns draw a streamlined metonymic portrait of a Cheever setting.
Curved windows, a glow on the floor beneath, a green expanse in front—what isn’t said, named, or described looms before us, vast. Revell simply tells us that romance and desire also are here in the setting, in the poem. What poet dares merely to tell us something like that? Nonetheless, I believe him.
The green lawns of a suburban June are all we see and all we need to see. The greens drift past the windows, the dark drifts past the windows, the porches send their mysterious light into time and space, and this light becomes the colored air of romance. Nothing specifically Orphic is required for a song sung in a room behind the porchlights, almost inaudible.
To read this poem is to learn just how little it takes to set a great mystery. It is exciting to solve a mystery, of course, but it is perhaps more exciting just to inhabit one.