Donald Revell's 2007 collection A THIEF OF STRINGS (Alice James Books; tenth collection from this Utah professor) lays out a landscape of the absurd -- one where Jack and Annie in a children's book rescue a bear and give it to Wm Shakespeare, while outside the pages a Hasidic child is stolen and killed by a bear -- one where military action in Baghdad is somehow Andy Warhol's war -- and step by page, transforms the twists of life and poetry into an argument for Paradise and the practice of the presence of God.
Revell's lines and rhythms are far from the sprung rhyme and intense metrics of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but his arguments of text are true descendants. In "Delirium: A Landscape," he offers us a rabbit at Christmas:
The rabbit is not cold because the orchard is on fire.
When I was a sunbeam
I landed in a tree.
I could see the president dying.
I could see the wolves come out of his mouth,
And the rabbit was ashes in their mouths,
Love is a thing for my sole pleasure and for yours.
I am violets. You are broth.
God walks on earth.
The poem leads inexorably to its final line, as though it had presented a tightly reasoned syllogism. Yet God, if the God-ness must include all we know and love and fear, may indeed be such an addition of lines. At least for Revell, this comes with an expressed certainty.
The first section of this volume is a prism of poems refracting landscape and "God's lathe" (I think of the demand regarding the Torah scrolls, "Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it). A second section erupts into "14 for Robert Creeley," jostling landscapes with animals, flowers, mythos (the fall of Icarus), a golden poem called "After Williams" that tests a notion of heaven, and at last, "What if Christ Were a Snowflake Falling into the Sea?" I give in complete here, as it offers a powerful example of Revell's juxtapositions:
The water is taller than itself,
Covering spirits of the air beneath.
And so the land, so mountainous beside,
Does not exist.
Have you thought about the future?
Take your finger and rub it across a stone.
Do you feel it>
Heat where nothing but cold most certainly is.
The water does not suspect.
A distant star is plotting with the center of the Earth
Against the Earth.
And the lake rises. The outlet rivers rise.
There is also an uprising in Kiev.
God is love.
The third section of A THIEF OF STRINGS opens with an epigraph from California poet Jack Spicer: "This is where my love, somehow, stops." The opening poems rip forth: "To the Christians," "To the Jews," "To the Muslims," "To the World" -- which opens with the announcement, "You are the last guitar," and proceeds to list agonies of life followed by a sureness of goodness made from trees, oceans, and at last into guitars. These form a provocative harrowing of the ground before the concluding masterpiece of the collection, the thirteen-part poem "A Thief of Strings." The opening begins with addressing "Sky" by name, then frames an indelible moment:
The poor thief running out of the guitar shop
Was stopped and searched and humiliated
Not ten feet away from me as I waited
For the train. Down on his knees he gave up
A pocketful of strings, and I couldn't see any more
When the train came. I was safe on board.
But this is a train journey from the safety of childhood to the challenge of being an adult in an often unjust world. Revell draws in Dylan Thomas with the Welsh poet's near-death comment, "I want to go to the Garden of Eden to die." Thoreau's Johnny Ruyaden (young Irish Johnny Riordan) comes into this. The poet offers flowers and passengers as tokens of progress toward the Garden, framed also in a small cemetery viewed from the train. And after punching sequences of language that summon up the "piebald beauty" of Hopkins, he pushes to the heart at last in calling forth a car trip he recalls taking with his father. Picture Revell as a five-year-old, secure with mother and father and his fondly embraced Catskill Mountains. Now see the screen of the mind's film turn a glowing white-silver, erasing all color, so that the leaves of the trees and even the road itself are mirrors -- and most strange of all, embrace an understanding among Revell and his parents that the swiftly motoring car has driven into Paradise itself for a this part of the journey.
It's a memory of Paradise (which Revell rhymes with "Is") that he's explored before, most lucidly in an essay called "Wine Instead of Whiskey for Awhile." And whether it's "true" or a child's misunderstanding or an adult's fabulation, the power of it hovers in the poetry and the choices of how to paint the importance of life, and afterlife.
We who read this may not buy the point -- and for those of us beyond the "easternmost angel" of the Garden of Eden, Revell offers a conclusion that brings God-ness a bit closer, a bit more accessible:
When I left the train I could hear
Singing in the trees. It was the trees
Who sang. When I was a boy
It was the trees who sang. My whole life
From the end of childhood
Until this very moment
Is one bird nowhere.
Not forgotten. Free.