Science and Steepleflower
New Directions, $12.95 (paper)
There Are Three
Wesleyan University Press, $25 (paper)
by Tod Marshall
These two exceptional new books by two of our finest contemporary poets both articulate loss and renewal. Forrest Gander's fundamental trope is geological; he plumbs the lexical depths of our connections to the earth, vividly revealing how eros inhabits the landscape. Donald Revell's imagination orients more toward the musical; his poetry announces suffering and endurance, grace and redemption.
In blossoms and fissures, tree trunks and waterways, Gander's poems interrogate the long script of how we can "thread" ourselves back into "the dull wood," "the groined chamber of salt," and realize how the "beloved's body"-that otherness with which we desperately long for contact-is also the body of land, plant, and water. Science and Steepleflower emphasizes sexual union as a relief from exile from the other-the bodily, human other-as well as our exile from landscape, the physical exteriors that give shape to what Charles Olson called "our own primary." Sea and mud, particular plants and rocks and waters become, if we take the time to know them, home.
Gander's third book is both his most ambitious and his most successful. Formally, the poems are diverse and accomplished. The fragmented, disjointed syntax that he used in Deeds of Utmost Kindness is once again used successfully here, as well as a discursive syntax, embodied in a more expansive line, capacious enough to allow for philosophical ruminations. These ruminations frequently attend to matters of metaphysics and temporality or, as is the case with these lines, the efficacy of language:
Specific words are uttered and specific gestures made
In other poems, Gander's lines are clipped and taut, providing an energized tension through the sinewy (and sometimes disruptive) syntax:
The farther south the betterThe halting, tensile energy of these poems is vivid and shapes a dissonant music.
Gander also utilizes the most eclectic diction since Hart Crane. The particularity of words like "anguilliform," "orthogonals," "cartouche," "cephalos," "pygidium," and "glabella," as they become emblems of specific place, contribute to the poems' urgency. Words so tied to the earth imbue the text with a tangible presence of the multilayered land. If their meanings are unknown, then we are forced (after looking them up) to consider that such ignorance may be symptomatic of our unrootedness- disconnection from that "primary" that is the land. After uncovering definitions, we begin to understand what the particular diction of vivid, earthly poetry can reveal. Simply, Gander's poetry ties together our profound desire to discover place and to feel at home.
To discover is to know, and the sexual implications that have been associated with that word are telling. Many of his poems weave together the earthly and the erotic; consider, for instance, these lines from "To Live Without Solace":
Only: an incisive force. A contraction
But there is more to the book than the interplay of landscape as inscription of the body. The opening section of the book offers poems that meditate on time and how that form of "convulsive incision" gives shapeliness or order-but only provisionally because:
No one comes prepared
And such seeing leads to the second section of the book, the long poem, "Field Guide to Southern Virginia." Here, particular names shape the land as body, erotic and solid, to which, if we are familiar with region, place, and home "we compass." Formally the most innovative in the book, the third section offers poems with split margins, a vibrant use of the page as field of composition; many of the poems also exhibit a semblance of narrative structure, a hint toward the versions of history that the fourth section provides with poems such as "The History of Veneration," "The History of Domesticity," and "The History of a Wobbling Axis." These ambitious and palimpsestic texts render histories as they revise them.
The fifth section of the book is a long, complex poem, "Eggplants and Lotus Root," that weaves together six poems-"tea scripture," "monitory," "a macula of light," "close to water," "moon in the afternoon," and "coda." Excepting the coda, each of these poems is comprised of three brief movements: "geometric losses," "violence's narrative continues," and "meditative." The texture that these 16 poems create through repeated phrases seems more like an action-canvas than a poem. Consider the "geometric losses" section of "moon in the afternoon":
The paratactic energy, associative web, and unusual imagery are representative of Gander's methods. Science and Steepleflower demands a great deal of a reader; one must frequently assemble connections, puzzle over imagery, and look up words in the dictionary. However, such labor-which soon becomes the pleasurable work of discovery-is well rewarded. The final section of the book ends with the powerful poem "Garment of Light." This poem, dedicated to "two figures preserved at Pompeii," closes with lines that could serve as a coda to the entire collection: "Our days / come tagged to that foreign / inscription, a delicate, enharmonic reply." Gander's poetry, in some ways an intensely "foreign inscription" of earthly lure, shows how realizing the draw of the land can end with the euphonious connection this poem suggests.
Some readers may find Donald Revell's poetry similarly challenging. Revell's poems reveal how language, incarnate as both word and phrase, can resonate both as referential signifier and musical notes. This method can disrupt expectations, but eventually one realizes that "what belongs together / ignores the barriers."
Thus, when Revell's poetry breaks barriers of syntax, usage, formal expectation, and the usual dichotomies of referentiality versus free-play of language, his project becomes less a statement of avant-garde allegiances and more a conviction that disrupted expectations help open the interstices through which grace shines. In "Scherzo," Revell quotes Thoreau: "The snow is made by / enthusiasm." Such sentiments speak to how Revell envisions and shapes "a music of variation"-strong and singular and charged. Once a reader becomes accustomed to the manner in which Revell's poetry asks that we think about how language works as a way to think about how other ordering systems work-and Revell is profoundly concerned with questioning, interrogating, and dismantling the ossified systems, whether social, syntactical, grammatical, or aesthetic-the enthusiasm of the poetry takes hold, and the challenge diminishes.
Although, as in his previous three books, New Dark Ages, Erasures, and Beautiful Shirt, the elegiac continues to be one of Revell's most powerful modes, 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 poems attempt to understand a world from which "God is gone," and we are left with "only a window and a wilderness / remaining." Windows, though, allow vision, and clear vision is the beginning of revelation. The title poem to the collection 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. For instance, "Overthrow," where "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. He is a religious poet, the way Kandinsky was a religious painter or the way that 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, a musical score (snow-covered meadow) onto which history hasn't 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."
As in his previous three books, Revell organizes this collection as a cluster of brief, musical pieces around the scores of the longer poems: "Overthrow," "For the Lord Protector," "Scherzo," and "Outbreak." In many of his poems, Revell repeats words and phrases like notes and themes in a piece of music. Further, these words and phrases frequently change meaning and function within the context of different sections, as in musical progressions, offering the effects of counterpoint and dissonance so often utilized by a musical idol of Revell's, Charles Ives. The progression of the poems is not argumentative; they are not discursive. Instead, the phrases accrete and transform. Consider the short poem, "Elegy":
Like a rondel, the music of this poem brings us around, but the poem does more than just offer a brief melody. After exploring the many ways that the syntax can enjamb the lines, one might notice the poet's decision to present the lines as exactly the same length (through justifying the text); this lends a formal emphasis to "myself the other": same length equals same weight, same emphasis. Given that the poem is an elegy, such a weighting gives a poignant pathos; when one recognizes the self in an "other," and there is "loss" involved, then "winter"-that figure for loss and despair-is "even more" felt, apparent, harsh.
Silence is also an important aspect of Revell's aesthetic. If the words sometimes clang and chime like musical notes, then it is important also to note Revell's attention to the ways in which silence textures a poem, functions as both absence of sound and presence, into which anything may be introduced. He uses the short line masterfully-sometimes juxtaposed with prose inserts, sometimes yoked to a halting syntax, sometimes for descriptive purposes, and sometimes as a way to break and drape a quotation from Thoreau or Hutchinson over two or three lines and concentrate the reader's attention. Revell's work has achieved a minimal music that is reminiscent both of Williams's attentiveness to shape and sound and Dickinson's grammar of the spirit. Unlike contemporaries such as Jorie Graham or Robert Hass, who have sought a longer line in order to accommodate the snowballing density of commentary and perception, Revell's work achieves an almost ideogrammatic minimalism as in Japanese ink drawings or the sketches of Miro.
But given Revell's utilization of musical shaping in the book, the music of Ives is probably a strong point of comparison. Ives's "wild dissonance" finds embodiment when ample silence allows for juxtaposition of discordant sounds and discordant emotions. Revell is similarly attentive. For example, "Scherzo" is simultaneously a poignant announcement of suffering-"Something I trusted / apart from solitude / died with my father / o worse than lonely"-endurance-"My soul is alive alright, but nothing / to do with me"-and, perhaps amidst such loss, even hope-"Claudia brought in flowers." The presentation of these three themes is achieved by counterpointing repeated diction and themes in different contexts and usages. Difficult to explain without lengthy excerpting, the effect over the course of the long poems is exhilarating.
Silence and sound, death and birth, the seasonal continuance that the poems articulate: Revell's There are Three is a haunting and graceful book. It is haunting in the manner as Forrest Gander's Science and Steepleflower; they both remind the reader of connections lost. Similarly, although propelled by different poetic sensibilities, they both ambitiously attempt to reconnect, rediscover, relearn, even invent languages, syntaxes, and silences that allow the possibility of realizing grace.