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

Multiverse, Mike Smith’s New Poetry Collection

Multiverse, Mike Smith, BlazeVox Books

Before reading the poems in Mike Smith’s remarkable new book, the reader must take a good long look at his opening note on method. Smith means and does just what he says in this note. I’ve seen these acts of Houdini-magic unfolding over the last several years, and I’ve published a number of them in Notre Dame Review. To watch Mike Smith load himself with chains and then escape with a kind of elegant grace is astonishing. The more ambitious poems in “Anagrams of America” – the anagram of Pound’s first Canto, for example, and the whole of “Multiverse: A Bestiary” – are expressions of a weird and even troubling genius. I don’t know of anything else quite like them anywhere.

—John Matthias

Reading Mike Smith’s Multiverse is like watching Adam bring forth new creatures from the mud of language by breathing their name. Two books in one, one a bestiary of bodies, the other a personal history, both are a tour de force of the anagram: a thrilling demonstration of how the constraints of language and living produce poetry in life, as poem after poem infects one another.

—Steve Tomasula

Mike Smith lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his young daughter and son. A graduate of UNC-Greensboro, Hollins College, and the University of Notre Dame, he has published poetry in magazines such as Free Verse, Hotel Amerika, The Iowa Review, The Notre Dame Review, and Salt. His first full-length collection, How to Make a Mummy, was published in 2008.

A Letter to Jennie: Mike Smith on Jennie Neighbors’ Between the Twilight and the Sky

between the twilight and the sky

Between the Twilight and the Sky, Jennie Neighbors, Parlor Press

(the format of the poems quoted has been altered)

Dear Jennie,

Reading your first book, Between the Twilight and the Sky, often makes me feel as though I’d sniffed the wrong powder or rubbed the wrong lamp the right way and found myself in an unknown but somehow familiar land with only an unreliable imp of a guide. She has named herself Marginalia, but insists I call her Traveler because journey is the name of the game. For it is the moments of movement between destinations, moments that resist the negation of definition, that most interest you, Jennie, the Reader, whose voice I hear and who is, I feel sure, just ahead of me on any of the many routes you’ve laid before me. I most admire books like yours that get me out of my usual rules of engagement. When encountering a new collection of poetry, it is best, usually, to try and discern who is speaking before you move on to what is being said. But what do you do with a poet who so bravely and recklessly incorporates other texts into her work, sublimating her own voice so severely in places that it makes me think she is seeking anonymity; a poet who’s sensibility desires compactness and precision so strongly that the title of the book and the title of the three cantos are pieces of the same puzzling excerpt?

It didn’t take me long to give up my search for a grounding persona in favor of finding what was right in front of me all along—a distinctive and synthesizing voice. By turns somber, funny, dry, strong, quiet, precise, wise, and self-constrained, this voice spirals out of the collection’s epigraph (one answer to one question) through an arrangement of argument and idea to create a world of dialectic, intentionally and necessarily incomplete. And it is the voice that provides the tactility, the force that keeps the many and varied appropriated texts in orbit. The sensation is not the familiar one of overhearing, but mind-reading, for the real achievement of this book is the representation of the formation of a poet’s mind. It is nothing less than the transcription of the ongoing exchanges and debates, comments, disagreements, and expositions of the student mind as it wrestles with the agents of its formation, that ever-expanding list of texts. And just as your lines riff off of these sources, so, too, do these appropriated quotes gloss your lines in a kind of galactic see-saw on the space-time journey of the individual mind coming into its own.

Primarily, there are four ways in which the various excerpts and your own lines interact:
1. The quoted material is given as the given to which your work responds as answer to question: “Yes, but…” or “Yes, but…” or “Yes, and…” or “No, and….” Most of the examples of this interaction occur in the first canto and it is the first method to disappear. Here’s “Song of Secret Hymns”:
“If they are bastards…it is due to a mixing or intermingling of languages, but rather to a subtraction and variation….”

An exchange of questions and answers between the heart and eyes. Leveled thus, this little monad went to market.

Let’s not fool ourselves.

The final moment quiet as all get out. That which seeks to limit only displaces further.


“knowledge is a treasury and your heart is its strong box (cor tuum archa)”

This technique is one of the most effective of your vehicles, carrying as it does the force and informality of palimpsestic scrawl.

2. In the second mode, the quote functions as marginalia comment to your lines,
often as a check to an unabashed lyric impulse, “Pictures of the Sea”:

instant (how small
must the moment be

for us to say, here it is

—among momentary days—

“Another touch with the thumb,” said Giacometti,
“and whoops!—no more figure.”

Or there’s this one from much later in the book “A little Endarkment.”

there are only a few places left for the unbeliever

because we appeal to reason as if it were a light; because without darkness

3. Sometimes, the quote is incorporated into your lines as a kind of reciprocal assimilation (to use one of your favorite words), as in “The Bookcase: A Prelude”:
the air folds away
answers to each other

porous as they are
“crammed with heaven” just as everything is

just as everything is
mostly emptiness

“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it….”

4. Or the entire segment/poem is made up of quotes drawn from one or more sources. In these segments your voice is detectable as sublimate, the art of DJ, as in “As the Present Writing Speaks”:
“letters are shapes indicating voices…
frequently they speak voicelessly the utterances of the ab-

“The gift of writing is precisely what writing refuses.”

Of course, the arch of the whole book is one of assimilation and in the final canto “In the Lock of Artist Time” the sources have become such a part of your own voice that excerpt and original often are indistinguishable. “Ariadne’s Thread”:
extends along
the horizon: rises and falls and you

rising and falling
are it, half under

what can’t be
assimilated, rises into, as
the instant
From this vantage point, it is clear that the arch is the poetic representation of the formation of the poet, a kind of ars poetica writ large. And like many compelling apologies, it depends upon the voice of the apologist. In this case, Jennie, it is necessary and almost sufficient that the timbre of your voice evokes playfulness as often as it does. It is the ribbon of cloth on the branch, the fresh footprint on the path that keeps me tumbling after:
and this
crazy azalea bursts
into flame:

how the past perishes
how the future becomes

It is the bemused admiration of the choice of “crazy” that sticks with me, set before two lines that evoke one of the many philosophical ideas present and accounted for in the book. This is also an example of the quoted material functioning as marginalia here
to your lines, your depiction. It is commentary, not critique, which is why it succeeds better than the conclusion of the first segment, “Three Towns and an Abstract Universal,” which is all quoted text with the exception of the fulcrum/punch-line of a single line:
“A doctrine of connectedness is wanted.
It is how the past lives in the present.
It is causation. It is memory.
How the past perishes is how the future becomes.”

But then again, too many is’s ruin a good game.
But this kind of false note is very rare in the book and so it is both fortunate and unfortunate that it comes when it does. At least we get it over with as quickly as we do.

There is elegy in any journey. Every new route evokes old roads, old ways that have fallen into disuse. Today’s superhighway was once a single-lane gravel road, which was once just a footpath, which was once an animal trail to water. There is in your book—in addition to the scattered precision of the lines on the page, the indeterminacy, the disembodied voices—an awareness of and lament for older ways of negotiating the journey from text to text to poem. Like any honest elegy, there is judgment too: those old ways overlooked a lot. Books like Between the Twilight and the Sky help us uncover new ways of travel. Books like yours focus our gaze on the new methods of journey.