Friday, June 11, 2010

Real and Surreal: Poetry of Donald Revell and Jonathan Aaron

What makes a novel -- a mystery, an espionage thriller, even a courtroom drama -- unforgettable? I propose three factors: the uniqueness of the characters (let's list Lisbeth Salander from the Steig Larsson Millenium trilogy, Mallory from Carol O'Connell's books, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch with his Vietnam tunnels baggage; and from the classics, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple); the intensity of the emotions (the despair of the newly accessible Scandinavian mysteries; the frustration and fear that come with the American military role in the Korean DMZ in the 1970s in Martin Limón's series); and the ability of the book's language to evoke a particular place, time, conflict (although it's a lame mystery, Paul Theroux's evocative Calcutta novel A Dead Hand; the despair of post-World War I England in Charles Todd's series; the grim gray menace of the oncoming Second World War in anything by Alan Furst).

Actively wrestling with language and its capacity to frame the big issues -- love, loss, life, death, afterlife (if any), faith, hope -- forms the underlay of many such books. And poetry shows us the most condensed, intense ways to do this. So today, I offer two selections for warming up for either writing or valuing these summer days and nights.

Donald Revell is such an established poet that his insistence on innovative language comes as a bright surprise in each new volume. THE BITTER WITHY (Alice James Books, 2009) comes wrapped in classical pastoral imagery, with European medieval garb, mother and child, rabbit and fields. So this is a good example of not judging a book by its cover: Revell's poem "Flight," for example, holds no white-winged cherubs, but rather the passenger down the aisle of the plane:
The enormous man selling
Over the airplane telephone while below us
An emptiness made of tell million stones
Of mist (or is it the sun haze,
The exhalation of a star in every stone?)
Prepares his sould and my sould
For heaven and for heavens.
Revell goes on to add, "We are killing / Everyone not here." He rhymes "heaven" with "giving in" and with "given." There's an embedded dare -- so that I leap to wondering, what on earth are we doing in two wars at once?

Revell also channels the surreal, the power of dream and vision:
My dog is chasing a lizard.
In a dream, where the lizard isn't real,
He's screaming.
In the long way back out of sadness,
In new dark passages,
He accepts miter and tonsure.
That's not right.
The dog's really killed him.
Hasn't the sky a sky above it too?
When God prays, the sky turns blue.
Later in the volume, Revell writes that "The dawn is a branch in my right eye" and that "Duty is horror" -- so that when the poems slice at the fabric of existence, they do so with sharp edges.

Jonathan Aaron, who teaches in Massachusetts, drives into the surreal at high speed as he opens the collection JOURNEY TO THE LOST CITY (title of an old horror film; Ausable, 2006, now available through Copper Canyon). In "Expletives," he treats words as rats scurrying away from semantics, into darkness:
But I've always been certain of you --
how quickly you pointed out
the difference between the onion
I thought I was chopping
and the sudden bloody head of my left thumb,
the face in the window
and the backlit leaves flinching in the wind.
When he probes old films, he comes up with, "I could be five and just waking up from another nightmare. / Half the world is lying in ruins." And the Lone Ranger, the squire and knight in The Seventh Seal (Bergman's early film classic), and his wife "snoring into her pillow" arrive together in "Anxious Dreams," where horses "lower their heads to the nervous, undrinkable water."

And I like in particular the opening to "Certain Stories":
Certain stories live in the air like ancestral spirits
or weather phenomena. You acquire them
from people who spread the word like proselytizers
of the latest true religion. Carried away, ignoring

whoever is urging you to act your age
or at least think of the children, you set out
on a mission to share your inheritance.
Talking dogs and kangaroos then mingle with mothers-in-law, the pig with the wooden leg, more of the imaginative hilarity that gives relief to our lives.

If you have time for no other poetry this week, you still might want a chance to read Aaron's "Lady With Wheelbarrow, Or: Reading a Mail Order Catalogue" and "Night of the Demon" (named for another film). Whether we linger on a hillside or laugh ourselves silly in a backyard get-together, Revell and Aaron capture the reality and the memorableness of our moments. Line up enough of them, like stanzas, and life's unforgettable outlines emerge.

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