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Revell, Donald (George)

REVELL, Donald (George)

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 12 June 1954. Education: Harpur College, Binghamton, New York, 1971–75, B.A. in English 1975; State University of New York, Binghamton, 1977–77,M.A. in English 1977; State University of New York, Buffalo, 1977–80, Ph.D. in English 1980. Family: Married 1) Astrid A. Revell in 1985 (divorced 1990), one daughter; 2) Claudia Keelan in 1992, one son. Career: Instructor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1980–82; assistant professor, Ripon College, Wisconsin, 1982–85; assistant professor, 1985–88, associate professor, 1988–93, and professor, 1993–94, University of Denver, Colorado. Since 1994 professor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1988, 1995; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1990; PEN Center USA West medal in poetry, 1990; Guggenheim fellowship, 1992. Address: 7335 West Agate Avenue, Las Vegas, Nevada 89113, U.S.A.



From the Abandoned Cities. New York, Harper and Row, 1983.

The Gaza of Winter. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1988.

New Dark Ages. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1990.

Erasures. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan/University Press ofNew England, 1992.

Beautiful Shirt. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1994.

There Are Three. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1998.


Translator, Alcools, by Guillaume Apollinaire. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1995.


Critical Studies: "The Borders of Astonishment" by David Young, in Field, 48, spring 1993; interview with Tod Marshall, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 25(4), July-August 1996.

*  *  *

Donald Revell is one of America's most important contemporary poets. His work draws from a variety of traditions, including Frenc surrealism, poststructuralist theory, musical form, and late twentieth-century political realities. Perhaps Revell's most fervent attraction is to the mystical and antinomian tradition embodied in the religiosity of Anne Hutchinson, the poetry of the likes of William Blake, and the philosophical inquiry of Wittgenstein. In a 1996 interview published in the American Poetry Review Revell said, "As I get older I become more and more of an antinomian. I distrust any name. I think it's the project of poetry, the project of writing, the project of reading, the project of doing almost anything to unname things."

Revell's first book, From the Abandoned Cities, was selected by C.K. Williams for the National Poetry series. Using a variety of formal structures, the book reveals deft control as well as a unified vision. The poems render a variety of emotional states and are frequently elegiac in measured and compelling lines. For instance, consider these lines from "Odile":

Later that night, I thought of her, and of
the bells she wore. A swan in death, she fell
into the music I had wanted love
to be, and ended there. I cannot tell
you much of her beyond that dying. It
was absolute. My lamp had been a bare
intelligence until she died, a fit
of pointless energy at which to stare
and be annihilated like a bug
in summer...

The rhythm is clean and the language clear. In The Gaza of Winter many of the poems seem to wrestle with the premises of Revell's first volume. To put it another way, if personal pain is often the grid upon which the metrics of From the Abandoned Cities find their beats, then The Gaza of Winter articulates the speaker's realization that such pain is not unique. Terrible things happen to everybody; few personal tragedies are original. The last poem in the book is perhaps a coda in that regard. "The Raft of the Medusa," based on the painting by Gericault of shipwrecked survivors who resort to cannibalism, offers these lines: "A long time /before anyone is shipwrecked, he has chosen /part of a novel or some green window /never to die, never to let him die."

Revell's next book, New Dark Ages, further explores the realization that "subject matter is not what poetry is made of." Once one moves beyond the particularity of one's own tragedies, the affairs of the polis, of those outside the self, are real. The book articulates several significant ideas, perhaps most importantly that the private and public are the same and that lying in either realm brings about awfulness. Revell understood the mid-1980s as a time of incredible opportunity, as a chance to move beyond the grizzly history of the early part of the century toward a way of doing things anew, "to make a new polity." Such a movement never happened, however, and instead

We put each other in camps. I crush my lover with a kiss
and then it is impossible to lover her.
What must die if we are to live without barbed wire
and bad sex is the very idea of otherness.
And to kill the idea, we have merely to find
one victim in ourselves who will die for nothing.

New Dark Ages is a powerful and pivotal collection. Combining the explorations of his first two books, this third volume articulates a vision of the changing face of the world on the order of Blake's conception of a New Jerusalem.

Erasures, which followed New Dark Ages, speaks to the plain fact that the opportunity for a "new polity" was unrealized. It is a book of despair. The language of the book is more opaque, as if Revell is implying that the failure to move out of a "new dark age" is profoundly connected to how tarnished language has become. Words used as expected perpetuate lies; hence, Revell tries to disrupt expectations by breaking syntactical conventions and shaping a new music to render a new vision. Radical lineation, shifts in usage, and a generalized instability of language govern the book. Consider, for example, these lines:

It is a white train
sees and makes it darker.
Oh sustain it.
I am in the wires.

The book signals a movement toward realizing the antinomian, and Revell disrupts expectations in order to make a reader think about how expectations shrink the world toward definition. For the antinomian definition is death.

Beautiful Shirt reveals a further exploration of this tradition. The long poems of this collection are complex renderings of musical form. Written out of a further dislocation of the familiar (many of the poems came out of the author's "immediate circumstances" of travel in France and elsewhere), the collection compounds the elegiac conclusions of Erasures. Revell's next book, There Are Three, is propelled by diverse energies. Motivated by both the loss of a father and renewal through the birth of a son, the poet attempts to understand a world from which "God is gone" and we are left with "only a window and a wilderness /remaining." Windows allow vision, however, and clear vision is the beginning of revelation. The title poem reads, "An hour along /the groundless tangents /of a meadow is not wasted /until it ends." The lines imply that there is no loss until we impose "the barrier" of a conceived closure upon the experience, an ordering principle. Other poems articulate similar sentiments, as, for instance, "Overthrow," in which we read, "On such a night, the stars could not consent to constellations."

In some ways Revell is a religious poet, but having declared that, I feel the need to qualify the statement. He is a religious poet in the way Kandinsky was a religious painter or in the way Thoreau was a religious writer. His aim is always toward revelations of the provisional interstices through which grace emerges. The quotations from Blake and Hutchinson and Thoreau; the emphasis on time as durational, as a musical score, like a snow-covered meadow, onto which history has not scratched its notes; the revisions of grammar and syntax—all embody Revell's dedication to searching for wilderness, a place of possibility for the Arcadian vision in which contradictions can blossom and coexist like "flowers," fisting "their beautiful /contentions without choice."

—Tod Marshall

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