The Same Anew

An interview with Donald Revell
Donald Revell (Dona Shatford Peters)

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?

I’ve come to understand the event of forgetting as a liberation of consciousness from the limits and bondage of personality.

DR: Levertov and Ashbery were surely heroes to me, beloved models of what a life in the practice of poetry might illuminate and even, eventually, come to understand. Writing poems “in memory” of them was not so much a remembrance (though I cherish dear memories of them both and of their guidance, their affection, their fun) as it was an anticipation of reunion and of a further conversation. You could say that the poems revisit sites of love (e.g. a telephone call, a postcard, a walk through the late night in Denver) forgetfully, so as to love again anew. I think often, in this regard, of a favorite phrase from Finnegans Wake: “The same anew.” Joyce beautifully understood the intimacy between memory and forgetting, as did Dante before him. Only because he had crossed the waters of Lethe was Dante able to see (not merely to recognize) his long-lost Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise.

AD: “In Memory of Denise Levertov” isn’t the first time you’ve written about her. Can you say a bit about what Levertov has meant, and continues to mean, to you?

DR: Denise Levertov was the very first living poet whose work I came to read and to treasure. I’d come to poetry entirely by mishap. For Christmas of 1969, I’d asked my mother for a book by Bob Dylan (Tarantula, I think). Mother was a shy, proud woman; she went into Manhattan, to a bookstore. Hurried and flustered, she said to the sales clerk one word only: “Dylan.” He gave her the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, and that was my Christmas gift. Not wishing to hurt mom, I expressed delight and took the book to my room. Then, as they say, the top of my head flew off. I was wonderfully bewildered and entirely glad. 

I began looking for more poets, and the ones I found at school (Keats, Shelley, Whitman), though intoxicating, were dead. I wanted a living voice. So I went into Manhattan, to Eighth Street and its fog of patchouli, into the glorious Eighth Street Bookstore, seeking a contemporary. Two titles shone clear to me: O Taste and See and The Sorrow Dance. I bought them both and have been a devoted reader of Levertov ever since. Always, she was able to write free verse of astonishing formal integrity. Always, she seemed effortlessly able to express (like Dylan Thomas) the life of the senses with a deep conviction of the sanctity of sensuality. She was the living embodiment of the via affirmativa, the finest devotional poet of our time. How wonderful that I should come to meet and to know her. Her letters would arrive just when I needed them most. I never received such timely encouragements nor such accurate rebukes. Once, she’d been reading a book of mine (Beautiful Shirt) on a bus in Seattle. On one of the blank pages at the end of that book, still on the bus, she wrote a new poem of her own. Next day, she mailed that page to me—just to show me, ever so gently, how she felt a poem ought to be done. 

AD: The collection opens with the “St. John Passion.” Later, you describe a moment of ecstasy via Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor.” In an earlier book, you wrote, “Either everything is music or nothing is,” before declaring, “Everything is music.” When you’re thinking of music in your own writing, do you think of it primarily at the level of the word, or the line, or the poem, or the collection? How does the music of poetry help you attend to what you call “the music of the world”?

DR: I don’t think of music at any one level per se, but rather as a region whose nature and circumstance instruct poetry—speeding it, chastening it. Without doubt, Shakespeare was most entirely himself in his songs. We meet him there. And it was Shakespeare’s contemporary, the songwriter Thomas Campion, who first put forward a credible kinetics of English verse. In music, attention and forgetting become synonymous, simultaneous. I cannot hear the next note if I am still attending to the note before. Likewise the world: it does not pause for our consideration or regard. For me, music is something like the light of the world, a tireless velocity. Poetry strives to keep pace. When it succeeds, momentarily, its pace is the measure of success.

AD: Of your 2002 book, Arcady, you said, “I wrote the poems meaning to go to Heaven and to make my best report from there.” How, if at all, has your vision of Heaven changed in the nineteen years and several books since then?

DR: Has it been nineteen years already? I still so vividly remember an afternoon when the first lines of that book came to me: my wife and son and I were living in Memphis, and I was walking our dog Joe Gargery beneath the whispering canopies of Overton Park. Some words clearly hovered in the air: “Meant never to die / Map and archive Arcady.” Arcady is a book-length elegy for my sister, Roberta, and in a simple yet abiding way my vision of Heaven remains connected to her. For years, all through college and graduate school, I kept a fifty-cent poster from the Cloisters museum shop thumbtacked above my desk—a medieval image of Heaven as a green hillside upon which friends and lovers from all walks of life are joyfully reunited while flowers bloom and rabbits frisk about their feet. Well, when I’d finished graduate school and was getting ready to move on to my first university teaching job, Roberta took that poster and had it beautifully mounted and expensively framed. I’m looking at it now. And so it remains my constant emblem of Heaven as a continuum of reunions, all of them joyful and forever free of mediating circumstance and distracted personhood. Friend will be fully conscious of friend, released from otherness and far beyond desiring—a love without limits.

Poetry strives to keep pace. When it succeeds, momentarily, its pace is the measure of success.

AD: One of your poems borrows its title from a quotation from the ninth-century Irish theologian Johannes Scotus Eriugena, another from the twelfth-century mystical theologian Richard of St. Victor. What kinds of theology do you tend to read? What does it offer you—as a poet, as a reader, as a believer? Do you ever think of your poetry as doing theology? (With the caveat that, as you’ve written, “Poems happen not because of faith, but just before. And so a poetics need never be doctrinal.”)

DR: I read theology to which other poets have sent me: Pound to Richard of St. Victor; Eliot to Dame Julian and to Pascal; Auden to Kierkegaard and Charles Williams. I read for companionship and for courage. Having spent a lifetime in academe, which is so often stridently secular, so blithely willing to dismiss faith as a revanchist aberration, time spent in the company of learned and welcoming believers refreshes me. They offer me both an imagery and an idiom drawn from nature and from their human natures that moves, almost musically, into the supernatural. If ever my poetry succeeds, it is by accomplishing such a music: something imaged in the sound of words that proceeds, almost effortlessly, toward reunion. That’s theology for me—the reunion of nature with its supernatural origins: something Meister Eckhart described as a “river running uphill.”

AD: In an earlier poem, you state, “The work of poetry is trust.” How do you see the trust involved in poetry relating to the trust involved in faith? I’m thinking of these lines from George Herbert’s “Faith”: “What though my body run to dust? / Faith cleaves unto it, counting every grain / With an exact and most particular trust.”

DR: The question surely strikes home, as Herbert is the poet to whom I turn when courage fails me or when the music eludes me. I hope to live long enough to pray one day at Bemerton. And that phrase of Herbert’s—“exact and most particular trust”—proves inexhaustible. A poem proceeds by—and, if it succeeds, it succeeds by—an exact and particular trust in its own originary metaphor. Metaphor is at first a compelling mystery to me: a sudden presence that finds me unprepared. I must follow, not knowing the way, not imagining the outcome, but trusting that everything will, as the Shakers say, come round right. Exactness is the discipline. I must not hedge my bets on a metaphor. If I do, I end in irony or, worse, in cleverness. Trust travels farther and faster than knowledge. It risks the shadows of doubt and of obscurity, leaving no single particular of any metaphor unobserved. Herbert always found time to lavish affectionate attention upon his words and figures, never afraid of losing time or focus. Why? Because he trusted in time to provide. The metaphors will add up. If at first we meet them darkly, we shall meet them eventually face to face. Every successful poem is an instance of the poet’s meeting metaphor face to face, and gladly—just as the apostles were glad to find themselves on the far side of parables, in joyful reunion with the truth. It’s wonderful how simple even the most complex of metaphors turns out to be, if only it is trusted long enough and far enough. Think of Eliot’s long journey in Four Quartets, ending in such transfiguring simplicity: “And the fire and the rose are one.”       

AD: You end one poem in White Campion, “Live for beauty or do not live at all.” In the difficult last year and a half, where and how have you found beauty?

DR: One morning, in the first days of the pandemic, two peahens appeared in our front courtyard. They’ve been with us ever since. No one has come to claim them, and there’s no accounting for how they found our place, nearly fifteen miles southwest of Las Vegas in the Mojave desert. Refugees from a disbanded petting zoo? Discards of a bankrupted illusionist? We’ll never know. But at sunrise and again at sundown, when they come running to me like tipsy empresses for their treats, I get a wonderful feeling of happiness and peace. It has always been the gratuitousness of beauty that assures me. The naturalist will rightly say that a flower is beautiful in order to summon the necessary bee, and that the trumpet-blossoms on my desert willows are beautiful so as to attract the piercing hummingbirds. But the gorgeous rings of Saturn and the radiant nebulae—what bees or hummingbirds do they mean to entice? God has signed creation with an extravagant flourish. Grace and gratuitousness are all one poetry to me. 

Published in the September 2021 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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