Donald Revell’s latest book of poetry, White Campion, opens with an epigraph from the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins: “Time reigns; yet the kingdom of love is every moment, / Whose citizens do not age in each other’s eyes.” Love working in and against time; the city of God and the city of man: this is the territory that Revell explores in White Campion and his previous fifteen collections of poetry. Revell, who writes in the tradition of Whitman and Dickinson, deems seeing—true seeing, ecstatic seeing—as the poet’s real task. “Modern times are too cautious,” he declares in White Campion. “Cautious” is the last word I’d use to describe this remarkable book, which is filled with angels and visions, the strangeness of time met by the strangeness of eternity. The book opens by considering the fructifying effects of forgetting; it ends with a lovely memory, as the speaker recalls a sound “making a pause in creation. / That was the beginning of beauty.” Revell and I spoke recently by email.
Anthony Domestico: In “A Hint to Plotinus,” you write, “At great heights, oblivion / Mimics creation.” Later, you describe the pleasures of forgetting: “Forgetting the roads ahead and those behind me, / Entrusting myself to those rainy hillsides / Shaping heroism, faith, and tendresse / Tall alongside.” What role do you see forgetting play in perception and creation—what you elsewhere call “the rigorous discipline of true carelessness, i.e., in seeing what there is to see and not what we expect or mean to find”?
Donald Revell: I’ve come to understand the event of forgetting as a liberation of consciousness from the limits and bondage of personality. I think this may well be a sort of rhyme with T. S. Eliot’s “escape from personality” as imagined in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (an indispensable essay much more spiritual than critical). There is a poetry that comes about only when vision has no prior investment in what is being seen—no lingering commitments, no bias, no aspiration. All the poems in White Campion originate in a moment from my childhood. My beloved sister, fourteen years older than I, had just purchased her first car and wanted to take me for a drive. We drove north out of the Bronx, into Westchester. It began to rain, and then to rain heavily. My sister turned on the windshield wipers, and I was transfixed. First, the windshield would be blinded with rain and then the wipers would clear the rain and there would be a greeny prospect of houses and trees, and then blindness again. On the steering wheel, my sister’s wrist jingled with the charms on her charm bracelet, one of which was me (“Donny”), in gold, in profile. I jingled and appeared. I jingled and disappeared into a turn of the wheel. Disappearances prepare the way for miracles and wonder. They are Lethe, the river of forgetfulness we all must ford on the way to Vision.
AD: At the same time as this book considers the joys of forgetting, it also displays the gifts of remembering. There’s a poem in memory of Denise Levertov, for instance, and another in memory of John Ashbery. In an earlier book, you quote Ashbery’s description of “vision in the form of a task” before summarizing this task: “To read closely into our loves, remembering each in its place in the pageant. Memory unseals a poet’s vision of these, placing the poet in right relation, and then the pageant moves.” What role does memory play in perception and creation for you? How do you think about its relationship to forgetting?