Keith Flynn   •  October 25, 2003

Righting The Mercy Compass

A Review of Donald Revell’s Arcady

Arcady, by Donald Revell. Wesleyan University Press, 2002
72 pages. ISBN: 0-8195-6474-5 ($26.00 Cloth, $12.95 Paper).

Yes friends, we live in a turbulent and terrible time. Forty percent of the water in North America is unfit for swimming, fishing or drinking. On certain days, in certain cities, the air is unfit for our elderly and our children to breathe. There are terror chills, SARS kills, and unpaid government bills stretching out like the Dead Sea scrolls to infinity. The jackals of the White House junta keep the populace in a perpetual state of fear, and the (un)silent majority in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor, by the constant posting of grave national emergencies. The State Dept., by their subtle manipulation of color-coded threats, ratchet up the totalitarian fear of foreign marauders, whose numbers are unknown and weapons too numerous to name (or find). We are asked to blindly rally. Cynicism is not only pervasive, but openly so, garbed in the guise of the good fight. Our leaders have adopted a pose of unwarranted arrogance, based on the assumption of unlimited power.

Martha Stewart is indicted, Sammy Sosa is using a corked bat, and Strom Thurmond dies. Really. It is unearthed that Strom, not Bill Clinton, fathered a black child while endlessly and famously filibustering against the mixing of the races, but America collectively yawns, and no mention is made of this in the major media obituaries and tributes. We have come to expect our public officials to be corrupt. Dissent is ignored or derided as unstylish. And there are more ominous tones; the President’s mouthpiece threatens that “people should watch what they say.” Several college professors are fired for untoward remarks or criticisms. Arab-Americans are routinely rounded up and questioned, deported or jailed if they resist. The Patriot Act gives the police the right to “sneak and peek” in American citizens’ homes without benefit of a search warrant. In this environment, the outcry must come from the poets and artists in the face of a telling silence, knowing that we cannot teach Democracy to the world until we have restored our own.

Suddenly, in the space after the horrifying events of September 11, all the radio and TV commentators began to quote from poems to describe to a shattered nation what had transpired. More than a balm, poetry is what the world wants when its heart is broken, when it buries its dead, when it christens or marries its young. Because poetry is a spiritual medium infused with the highest concentration of dynamic language, couched in music and balance and truth. Our post-Seinfeldian Poet Laureate Billy Collins has said that “the nation is turning back to poetry.” We North Carolinians bought more books of poetry per capita than any other state in the union last year. Sam Hamill, founder of Copper Canyon Press, asks for poems against the war-mongers and receives tens of thousands for presentation to the First Lady, and then publishes the best of them in a briskly selling anthology. In this early rumbling of outrage and protest, many poetry collections are being produced that explore the radical collapse of our national psyche, attempting to right our collective mercy compass.

Of these books, the best I have read is Donald Revell’s Arcady, a book which never directly addresses our moral malaise, but through its prisms of Thoreau and Ives and Poussin, presents a model of hope and optimism and transcendental beauty. It is a book demonstrating that the fire in the heart of mankind is the same fire that exists in the fragile rose, and is built from the sparks of kind acts and compassionate quiet answers. It is as lovely in its way as Browning’s The Ring and The Book, or Frost’s Steeple Bush, delighting in the things of the Natural World and their conversations with the living and the dead. This veil between the actual tactile beings in our common realities are blurred in the memories that reshape and crowd them out. In “Loon a Wave Alive a More Living Wave,” Revell sees in his two year old son, the ripple of unreality as we make our momentary gestures in this air.

Benjamin for his second birthday
Throws black olives into the Colorado River
Common sense is contact
And nothing wasted loon
A wave alive more living

Where is the birthday now

I fear not ghosts
Of which I am one
But I fear bodies

(Loon A Wave Alive A More Living Wave, lines 6–14)

In his Prefatory, Revell sketches out the beginnings of this book, in a moment that splits the veil between worlds. “Roberta, my sister, my only sibling, died suddenly in December 1995. I felt my island sinking out of sight, my planet falling out of the sky. Now I alone remembered what we two had said together. It takes two (never fewer, rarely more) to language. I was suddenly one. My native language collapsed.” Arcady is full of elegies and memories, not only for his beloved Roberta, but for all beloved things, making their path in the air. And the deaths pile up. Allen Ginsberg, Shari Lewis, Denise Levertov, Persephone and Poe. In one of the longest poems here, “Tooms 4,” a mere thirty-five lines, Revell blurs a childhood memory with an adult’s sudden knowledge.

Truth and lies
Enjoy equal eternities

Panda proves it
I sleep on the couch of her approval

It is a great half world
I mourn
Puppeteer Shari Lewis
1933–98 old enough

(Just) to have been my mother
Dying the same day my real mother
Receives the same disease


40 years ago Shari Lewis made an ageless lamb
Today in lovemaking
I smell sweet of my real mother’s
Yellow roses cupped and drooping dead

Mother is on the airplane back to New York City
From Las Vegas where I live

Mourning and disturbance
Make lambs out of human beings alone
No strings

(Tooms 4, lines 15–35)

Donald Revell grew up in the Bronx, New York City. He received his Ph.D from SUNY-Buffalo and splits his time between his home in Las Vegas and Utah, where he is professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Utah. Arcady, published by Wesleyan University Press, is his seventh book of poems. I first encountered Revell’s work by reading New Dark Ages, a meticulously crafted, prophetic rendering of historic injustices; and though I have long believed him to be one of our best American poets, nothing prepared me for the elegant marvel that is Arcady. Although he praises Charles Ives in several places here, the same maverick Ives who asked, “What has sound got to do with music?” and believed that “American music was already written,” Revell’s tones are not gnarled or clustered. They are, in fact, spare and compact; most poems are no more than fourteen lines, not sonnets, but sound constructs nonetheless, lithe and sinewy.

Take these opening lines from “Democritus,” for example:

Belief in each
Changes shape
As change believes
In the man’s shape
Whose silences
Show his face

Because of fear we recognize each other

The endings of these poems lean into the wind, conversational and wise, rich with the American speech patterns preferred by Dr. Williams and Robert Creeley, in whose company Arcady belongs. It extends the traditions of William’s variable foot and projects its spare syllables in a vertical nudge down the page, with the same feel for the negative space as Charles Olson and the best of the Black Mountain practitioners. Revell is as versatile as Maximus and as fearless at times as John Berryman in his Dream Song regalia, who wanted his poems so tight “that a mosquito couldn’t squeak through.” Revell’s music is seamless and warm, his tactics almost invisible, without black-faced Berryman’s self-pity, and the green tones resonate long after the reader moves on. From the truncated independent phrases to the clipped and articulate axioms, the poems here sing irreversibly of praise, sometimes birthed by loss or lost feeling, music heard through and against other music, “a dissonance,” he has said, “at peace with itself.”

Trying the peace
One lays a feather
Another loses a shoe
As always
People are amazed with matter

And the peace lasts as long as the amazement
I would have broken my eye-strings
To stay
I would have become a senseless linen
A feather a shoe
To cuddle them longer
Friends of the discards satyrs and spindly Pans

After eyesight I saw new forests
Out of all senses actually amazing like sunshine
come such friends

(Trying the Peace)

Mythical Arcady is the utopic Greek realm described as paradise by Virgil who named it and celebrated it. Many artists through the centuries have used it as a backdrop to describe a state of perfection. Thoreau dreamed it, walking through the woods in Walden, Poussin painted it in his frenzied creative sojourn in Rome, and Charles Ives, listening deep to the heartbeat of an imperfect Democracy, provided the glittering score. Revell is drawn into Arcadia by looking, almost benignly, for what has been lost or taken from him. “Silence made an Arcadian out of me,” he says in the Prefatory; “every picture told a story, and I was free to ignore it, keeping my eyes on the Arcadia all around. A story asks to be followed; Arcadia remains to be seen.” The first page in the Book of Deliverance reads surrender. Only inside the hurricane is the calm eye focused on the future. Only when you remove yourself from the equation, then you will see the scales reach the same height, the conduit opens and the music spills out. Revell says as much at the end of “The Critchcrotches Are Going to Seed:” “Freedom/ It makes no odds what atoms we use/ / Key to the music of Ives is confluence.” Successful poetry is always flowing, a hungry piece of momentum, propelling the reader along by virtue of its rhythm and musical dynamism. But all senses have to be in play and the poet nowhere to be found. Sometimes in his absence, the poet finds that poems have come while he was gone and he adopts them, gives them names.

Hymn completed in tears
No drunk can dream
I’ve been here before
What a funny candy

Be born
Be born

Someone in the circus
Into the audience
And it’s happening

This is an explosion
The exact white lollipop
I refuse to stop

(Hymn Completed In Tears)

There is both high and low culture at work in Arcady; sometimes the tone is mournful, but it can also be playful, childlike, with cartoon characters popping in and out, always imbued with a sense of wonder, a soft-shoe pantomime.

Some die from neglect
Some in the midst
Of every attention
Aren’t we pretty lordings then
And aren’t we a source of ruin

This is the chase I am gone forever
Exit pursued by a bear

(Thucydides, lines 7–13)

There are also echoes of Cummings and the experimental spirit of Gertrude Stein, in the stricken line breaks and strung words of “More Than a Bud But Pale,” “Light Lily Lily Light Light Lily Light,” “Heart I Agree,” and “Eclipt Ins.” It is the mixture of learning and lawless whimsy that separates this poetry from most of the rest of the field, and inspired Publisher’s Weekly to name Arcady one of the eight best poetry books of 2002.

You will find much rumination upon philosophy here, but the language is always colloquial, couched in the familiar tones of a learned favorite uncle. In “Tooms 3,” he advises “For enormous/ Read Erasmus.” In his travels through Arcady, he enters a middle region and there he finds Thucydides and many others; their blur of voices and constant consilience are a comfort. “Terror guarded the mid-region/ Where everything was Greeks/ And I needed to risk it.” In addition to this guidance, St. Augustine, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Anaximander, Thales, Anaxagoras, and Virgil himself, make their presence felt. In an interview with Poets & Writers shortly after the book’s publication, Revell talked about his writing foundation. “Craft is nothing;” he said, “sincerity is everything. I prefer “pious Aeneas” to “wily Odysseus.” Later he specifies his meaning, saying “To teach sincerity is hard… Only a good human can write a good poem. Good people can, of course, make terrible errors. But an error is not a lie. A poem can survive error (as in The Cantos)… it cannot survive a lie.” It is interesting to note here, that although he mentions The Cantos in his response as an example of error-filled intent, Truth as he happens upon it seems to come from Pound’s need in his own work, “to call things by their right names,” and he is careful to heed Pound’s warning that “abstraction is a greased slide.” It is important in the journey through Arcady not to disturb the Natural World, where things exist in their rightful place, seen and unseen, without the interference of man. In his poem, “Conforming to the Fashions of Eternity,” he writes: “Wild work/ Needs wilderness,” and later after listening to apple blossoms in their proper time become abundant, he concludes “Wild work grows over humans real moss.” All human work is temporary, even poetry, the real stuff is happening without our knowledge or consent.

Nature a corner for me
There will be no room
For my portrait

Besides I have seen
Enough people and horses
And extraordinary fish

To dream like this
Was worth the trouble
Getting here

My other ideas
Seem premature
Like ghosts now

The most beautiful star
Is crossing me

(Nature a Corner for Me)

Emerson is the great unseen presence in Arcady’s framework, a mentor to Thoreau and Ives and Whitman, the most important American voice of the 19th Century, whose essays give the blueprint for a nation faced with the specters of Manifest Destiny, but whose sustenance comes from the land. One of his most significant statements is that man becomes a part of God when he surrenders himself to association with nature: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” (From the essay Nature, The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Modern Library). Five years after he wrote that, Emerson specified his strategy in “The Over-Soul: “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE… We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.” In his poems and essays, especially Self-Reliance, Emerson gave all transcendent artists a model; he was after all, the one who gave Thoreau a plot for his cabin and the run of Walden Woods. Emerson was the one whose approval Whitman sought when he finished Leaves of Grass and mailed the Maestro of Concord his new book of poems. Donald Revell is most at home in the forests of Arcady, keeping pace with Emerson in the morning mist. “I whistle to the clouds/ To nudes inside them/ For a cooling rain/ And to trace it while it falls (Tracing a Shadow While It Falls, lines 11–14). Revell’s Arcady is, at its best, a psalm for the Natural World, cloaked in Rilkean praise, as necessary and silent as blood.

Broad old cesspools
Mountain the same music
Glitter in sunlight


With wonderful speed and waste of energy
Ova of insects in axils
And the stems bear it


In Arcady out there
Stems break or bear
Careful as mountain ranges
Nothing wasted

(Broad Old Cesspools)

There is nothing ironic or coy about Arcady. It gets its energy from careful observation and at times, the willingness to withstand grief as a prerequisite for learning and the consequent celebration that follows mourning. Again, from the Prefatory, Revell describes the journey as a willful observer, washed over by events, but still standing.

“I was six months silent in Arcady before I understood I’d always been there, too busy making poems to see… Sight has become my second language, native now… Sometimes I see poems from Arcady, and I’m given to write them down.” The tenderness and care that emanate from this collection are evident throughout, even when the language ruptures unexpectedly into experiment, as the poet battles through another malady or loss. So many of our great poet’s biographies are filled with tragedy and self-fulfilling prophecies, scattered estates in the search for Arcady. It is with great pleasure that I can recommend this record of a singular journey toward Heaven, where the signposts are clearly marked and the language remarkably fresh. “A poem is a toy car,” Revell writes in “Tooms 2,” “I pull it backwards it goes forward twice as far.”