His Name is Donald: Mike Smith on Donald Revell’s The Bitter Withy

The Bitter Withy, Donald Revell, Alice James Books, 2009

Given that it appeared a mere two years after his sublime A Thief of Strings, it is possible to regard Donald Revell’s new collection, The Bitter Withy, as mere addendum to that important book. For if Revell were as much an heir to Wallace Stevens’s publishing practice as he is to Stevens’s lyricism, he might have merely attached the poems of The Bitter Withy to his own very own Harmonium. That would have been a mistake. At once more uniform and less ambitious, but with almost as large an emotional register, if The Bitter Withy is a quieter achievement, it nonetheless perfects the idiom of A Thief of Strings to great advantage in individual poems. And if a majority of readers decide that A Thief of Strings is the more important book, it is equally possible that many will find themselves more intensely moved by the poems of The Bitter Withy. Revell’s gaze is deceptively (un)adorned, and capable of great zooms, inserting or removing tracts of distance. These poems look at the world of human life realistically, palpably nostalgic for old consolations and greater capacities for wonder, consolations and capacities that can be approached now only through submission, a careful and powerful quiet that Revell both achieves and instills.

In fact, it may be that in addition to the greater number of individually successful poems in The Bitter Withy, this new book proves that the proper length and form of this new idiom of Revell’s is the 14-line sonnet that might now more fruitfully be compared to Berryman’s Songs than the late-career sonnets of Berryman’s friend and rival, Robert Lowell, which, for all their loose architecture and looser materials, still seem overly-tied to the pentameter. Like Berryman, Revell has evolved a frame malleable and restrained enough to house this new voice and perspective. The sonnet form dominates The Bitter Withy even more than it did A Thief of Strings, since there are no long poems in this new collection equal in length or ambition to the long poems of its predecessor, especially if you read, as I do, the 14-sonnet cycle for Robert Creeley in that book as “one solid block.”

No, it is the shorter poems in which Revell’s evolved, now unmistakable, voice finds itself most at home and it is the sonnets, in particular, that best showcase the enduring virtues of Revell’s idiom: its friendly and conversational tone, the childlike constructions (which proceed from a renewed emphasis on simplicity and openness to the natural world), the quiet riddling and subdued surprise, the packed (away) metaphors that lead into, most often, generalizations of suffering, belief, and the joy and wonder of mere survival, the challenge and contentment of letting the world just happen. Add to these characteristics the non-sequiters that discomfit rather than amuse, the penchant for direct statement and direct address, and you end up with a voice just sonorous enough that you want to let it get away with saying anything. More often than not, it does. Take for example, the opening lines to “Tools,” the first poem of the collection:

Just at dawn the full moon
In its coin of rainbow
Called my name. I’d been cold…

And then I wasn’t cold anymore.
I have a name, and it isn’t a problem.

It’s effortless how the coin, the basest of tools we call treasure, glosses the rainbow that has no end. The moon has to be full, doesn’t it, for the spell to work? Not just because it catches more of the sun’s rays, but that, in its clockwork precision, it shouts loudest his name. “Tools” introduces one of the most frequent tropes at work in the book. How many of these poems give us one of those “momentary wonders if more briefly now” in which the speaker achieves the (Christ-like) peace of pure reaction to the occurrence of the world? If the world needs him to suffer love, he will suffer. If it needs him to laugh, he will throw back his head.

Probably even greater than sentimentality, the danger these poems flirt with is a flabby kind of flatness. Flatness and the illusion (Berryman?) that anything can be brought in to this form and dealt with equally effortlessly. The poem “Flight,” which, unfortunately, comes early in the collection, succumbs to both of these dangers.

The enormous man selling
Over the airplane telephone while below us
An emptiness made of ten million stones
Of mist (or is it the sun haze,
The exhalation of a star in every stone?)
Prepares his soul and my soul
For heaven and for heavens.
It is 2004 and 140 A.D.
Juvenal’s Satires find America.
No cede malis. We are killing
Everyone not here.

I miss the wonder and the wondering, the witness without the judgment, the capability of this same voice to approach the earnestness and artifice of gospel. I’ll take Mark over Matthew, and not just because he claims to have been there, and I can’t help but contrast this poem with the sublime “Nemesis,” which appears a few pages later.

A man removes the animal from his eye;
And the animal dies—
Reluctant symmetry.
When I was alone I traveled
The entire way around the Earth on snow.
I was fast.

The other side of this coin, though, is one of the chief virtues of Revell’s voice: Its ranginess. The same extended breath can give us everything from dialectical meditations to articulations of devotion and death at home in any Renaissance anthology, to homely and homey poems of miner (minor?) epiphanies to survivor poems that find or fail to find analogies for the human predicament in the natural world. As I said, Revell is an honest heir to Stevens, but also to early Creeley and any number of Elizabethan poets, though there is more of him in Gascoigne than Donne. He is, often in the same poem, occasionally in the same line, political, amorous, post-romantic, bucolic, post-LANGUAGE, realistic, associative, discursive, and most eloquent, perhaps, when communicating religious feeling. In fact, it will be tempting for readers of The Bitter Withy to claim for it a familiar theology in its preoccupation with Judeo-Christian terminology, narratives, and questions; in Revell’s emphasis on solace, however it comes, in his capacity for pity, attraction to redemptions, and in the book’s Wordsworthian intimations of a larger world. But the source of the title poem of the collection, unfortunately one of the least memorable, is a medieval hymn that emphasizes the susceptible humanity of the Christ child, and is decidedly outside the canons, as is St. Eustace’s vision which concludes “The Rabbits,” a close second to “Crickets” (It might be a photo-finish) as the finest longish short poem of the collection. Indeed, the poem and book are attracted to solace, however it comes. The perspective that comes through is of one for whom sitting at the table is a deliberate choice, and enough.

I want to expand on this by looking at three connected poems, almost a triptych, you might say, that occur almost exactly midway through the book: “The Lay of Smoke,” “The Lay of Wood,” and “The Lay of Water.” Here’re some lines from “The Lay of Smoke,” the first of the three poems:

As if we were rabbits
All that’s needed for any heaven
Is death and damage and a ditch

It’s telling of Revell’s survivor’s sense of himself as both body and being in the world that “damage” follows “death,” just as “humiliation” follows “death” in the second poem, “The Lay of Wood.”

Yellowbird, I pray for change…
… … …

Even as each day
The changes prove more terrible,
More set upon death and humiliation
Even the humiliation of mountains.

It’s even more telling that both lists end with the Earth itself. Reading these three poems, I asked myself the last time I’d encountered a better articulation of the problem and persistence of faith than these three poems. Wood, water, and air. The tools and trappings are familiar, but somehow they don’t seem worn out in Revell’s capable hands: wood of the cross, water of life and the promise of renewal, rebirth, and the airiness of the hope of reward. The problem of faith is inescapable, and Revell’s rearticulation and solution in the third poem, “The Lay of Water,” is positively Kierkegaardian:

Love fails and never fails.
Christ couldn’t bear it, but we must.
We must walk on water and through a woodland too.
The actual past weeps from future wounds.
We have children,
And the children live on air.

(A grammarian’s note: The number of punctuated sentences in the first poem is zero. There are nine in the second poem and sixteen in the third. I’m not sorry to say it took me three readings to notice.)

But Revell is sensitive to more than just the role of the natural world in the faulty formation of the human experience of faith. The very next poem, “Under the Rail Way Bridge in Albi,” presents for us both an example of the evocative power of artifact and our capacity for transforming into symbol the things of this world, in this case the composites of a garden scene in a photograph of the “actual past.”

Can you smell it,
Woodsmoke inside the camera?
… … …

I forget the garden waste on fire
Which is happiness, which becomes
Small snow falling across my world.

A transformation (transubstantiation) occurs: The ash of refuse from the lost garden, the “garden I have forgotten” becomes through processes of life and time and art the grace of “small snow falling across my world.” And two pages later, we get another poem on another photograph of snow from the actual past, a poem which approaches pure depiction, further refined, which shows Revell at his spare best, the voice quieted almost to the point of silence:

Snow so very
Small so welcome,
A whited tree
Comes to me.

This is monk’s music, a meditative determination to receive with greater openness and less judgment. And direct observation leads, as it almost always does with Revell, to direct statement:

These are islands,
Imperiled generations
So very small
In their mid-air,
Mid-oceans of air.

… … …

Small as snow,
Death is a window
Open at the beginning,
Open at the very end.

I wonder how many poems Revell would have to write in this new idiom for them to become rote. Eventually, of course, each subsequent poem would diminish its predecessors, but there’s no danger of that yet. Certainly, each one is necessary and welcome in this book. And I am convinced that together they will make one of the more enduring poetries to emerge in the first decade of our still-new century.

Purchase The Bitter Withy

4 responses to “His Name is Donald: Mike Smith on Donald Revell’s The Bitter Withy

  1. Thank you for t his review. Revell is one I’ve avoided but I will buy at least one of these books . If he is anything close to Berryman or Stevens it will make for a good read. I’ll check him out at east and form my own opinion. thanks, leonard

  2. Thank you for t his review. Revell is one I’ve avoided but I will buy at least one f these books . If he is anything close to Berryman or Stevens it will make for a good read. I’ll check him out at east and form my own opinion. thanks, leonard