Richard Greenfield

Grief in the Ruins of Pastoral: Donald Revell's Arcady

Wesleyan University Press / 2002
$12.95 Paper, 0-8195-6474-5

What brings mortal self-consciousness to the shepherds in Nicholas Poussin's most famous rendering of Arcadia is the epitaph: the dead speak to the living, saying, "I too lived in Arcadia." The image of Poussin's shepherds—suddenly removed from pastoral complacency—also haunts Donald Revell's Arcady. Yet, Revell's project ranges well beyond the ideological frame of a Golden Age; rather, it is the semiological frame of contemporary poetics that he manages to negotiate along with the overwhelming grief felt in the loss of his sister Roberta in 1995. The book opens with a prefatory designed in part to stage the poet as an "awakened" Arcadian, whose wrenching inquiry into the provisos of human transience will test the limits of language:

Now I alone remembered what we two had said together. It takes two (never fewer, rarely more) to language. I was suddenly one. My native language lapsed.

Though the preface immediately immerses the reader in the deep sadness of trying to understand the loss of a loved one, it also indicates the degree to which the event has influenced the poet's development of "voice" in the book. Lapsed is key because the transformation into the ultra-spare poetic style that Revell has realized in Arcady (a style whose beginnings can be seen in 1998's There Are Three) signals the immense silence from which it arrives, where response is asked for but not received from the many ghosts inhabiting the poems.

A prominent ghost within the book is that of a tradition that has largely lost its significance for contemporary poets: the pastoral. Yet since the pastoral form at its most basic level averts the present, providing the space for processing angst, and is thus always elegiac, Revell has realized and negotiated its relevance to enact his largest concerns about death. The book does much more to explore language than exclusively through genre, but reconfiguring, or readdressing the pastoral with the gains (at least from the standpoint of the aleatory experiments and proclamations of meaninglessness that abound in the book) of post-structuralist practices, is very much present in the poems. At least two concerns are revealed in this methodology. The first is that Revell realizes the nostalgic elements arise out of a romantic separation of nature and society, desiring for a time when both were conceptually joined in Arcady. The second is that the nostalgia is not totalizing, for the inherent aporia between the concepts of nature and society reveals that attempts to conjoin the two are actually critiques of society alone. With these two concerns in mind, this project seeks to test the tropes of pastoral genre with contemporary pressures. The successes and the failures of such tests are the important subtexts for each poem in the book. The prefatory for the book, on this point too, must be read as providing for the reader two contexts in which to proceed: as the effects on the self of investigating the loss of the beloved, and as the self negotiating the implementation of disparate poetics for the purpose of that investigation.

The new model for Arcady found today is, as Revell constructs it, literally a land of shrub and rock—a desert that "blooms more forgiveness," or a landscape of "dry river beds" where the true "lily" is a "joshua tree." Revell's pastoral provides, like all pastorals, an opportunity to engage with the dichotomy of country and city, but here that dichotomy is not only of the now (postlapsarian) and the then (the Golden Age), but the here (just beyond city limits) and the now (the throes of grief). Sometimes there is an absurd quantifying of nature found in Arcady, as the very number of flowers is sought within a scene, revealing a quotidian nature. To count "ALL OF THEM" suggests not a pastoral of limitless abundance but that of a well-managed inventory. Yet the real investment in the unreal utopia recalled in the pastime consciousness means Revell must instead make his "scrap heap" out of blinding "beauty and sunshine" rather than the meadowland materials of paradise once available to the pastoral poet, caught between the omnipresent death of the beloved and a hinterland made up of the remnants of ancient Arcady.

Though Revell remains aware that Arcady is Ideal, he grounds that Ideal in the practice of Transcendentalism. Furthering the relationship established with Thoreau in There Are Three, Revell tells us he "came again and again to Walden, especially to this: 'In Arcadia when I was there, I did not see any hammering'." Revell's, however, is a land where hammering is seen, and the importance of the acts of construction are revealed in lines such as "Map and archive Arcady" (notice the imperative present tense) "completed in tears," "I refuse to stop," and "I call it measurement." The site of Arcady is assembled in the past and present. While the new Arcady is a desolate land of "fatherless children," it is joined with the remnants of the old Arcady that must remain. This is a project to locate disruption, understand it, and live with it. Perhaps predictably, these remnants form the "confluence" of the music of Charles Ives and "the distances of Poussin," or rather, the appropriate combinatorial power of lyric and image. Revell's experiments with this combo are often deceptively quiet or restrained, yet it is within his erasures—at times that which is withheld and at other times the constant silence in the background white space—that the terrible volume of grief is at its loudest. It is in the penultimate poem of the book that the poet is perhaps most open about his feelings towards locating this anguish within Arcady:

And I needed to risk it
In the dark
And rejoiceless heart
Of helplessness

Some die in neglect
Some in the midst
Of every attention
Aren't we pretty lordlings then
And aren't we a source of ruin.

As cartographer of new Arcadian vistas, Donald Revell must insist on surveying such ruin—the result a sequence of poems that encounter the death of the beloved and hollow a space for living afterward. How Revell "hollows" out space is perhaps the most compelling element of his particular poetic, as it reveals the genius of an artist whose discursive movement puts the past to work for the present. In "Meant Never to Die," the self is visionary of both beginning ("The wind on the north side of the tree/Grows is paradise) and end ("It will be a sweet destruction"), and the middle action, apocalyptic ("In the uproar"). A later poem, "Conforming to the Fashions of Eternity," reconfigures these elements from a distance, with the new softening inclusion of apple blossoms:

From far way in the north
Uproar risings inseparable
Now from apple blossoms
Roar at my windows.

This process is indicative of the pattern set up through much of Arcady—a movement from prelapsarian immediacy to postlapsarian distance, or vice versa. Lines like "Be born/Be born" from "Hymn Completed in Tears" have the imperative present about them, though they occur before the Fall:

           Be born
           Be born

Someone in the circus
Into the audience
And it's happening

From this pattern, the imperative "Be born" shifts from existential hope to resuscitation of the fallen—a repeating spectacle that is the very nature of trauma. The crushing force of trauma either impairs or compels continuation- the latter in the case of Revell: "I refuse to stop." The valences of this gesture are interesting in terms of how they insist upon a duality of elegy, for in elegy's drive to capture continuation after trauma comes always a casting backward into time to reassert the trauma itself—a terrifyingly perpetual chasing of the tail whose insistence to not stop becomes a tragedy separate from its cause. Scenes in Arcady such as these are accompanied with a dark, lyrical soundtrack ("The sympathy of friends is pleasant VIOLINS/ But it makes no difference anymore TROMBONES") and funereal bouquets ("Though the words/ The flowers are more/ Flowerily than ever/ Unspoken and wide open/ Leave death to ripen/ Flowerily").

Though the generative aporia between country and city provides a default critique of the city itself by placing the Golden Age on a high pedestal, Revell's insistence on elegizing requires him to increase the parameters of that critique to include the pastoral tradition itself, and the tombeau concept allows for this. As one of the most self-conscious of elegizing practices (as in Mallarmé's tombeaus, for example), it investigates into the means by which art can or cannot correlate to experience; it questions the valorizing of those we have lost from our lives, and how lyric self in its many manifestations is problematically constituted by that experience. In "Arcady Tombeau," if the tomb has been erected for Arcady itself, it then declares, at least in this moment, the death of pastoral conceit as well. A historical example of this can be seen, as the critic Raymond Williams observed in The Country and the City, in poets' reactions to the process of enclosure in 17th and 18th century England. Williams locates the anxiety in counter-pastoral works by poets such as Collins, Goldsmith, and Crabbe not only in how the acts of enclosure disrupted people's lives, but in the notion that enclosure diminished the age-old poetic subject of the rustic life itself. The poet's stance consequently becomes both mimetic of ruin and deconstructive of representation. There is something of that final Augustan posture in Arcady's poems, as well—updated for the twenty-first century—where desire to write the loss of the beloved competes with interrogation of the means to write. The poet's implicit "tomb for poetry" suggests a questioning of the medium's ability to truly grapple with death. Tones of this show up in "Upon the Death of Allen Ginsberg" ("Lion in what company now Lion" and "Please Master Please Ghost"), "Hymns Ragged Up," and the "Tooms" poems. In the second of the "Tooms" poems, for example, the metapoetic becomes primary:

I enjoy
Scribbling on my hat
Theories become new instruments
Not answers
To enigmas
In which to rest

A poem is a toy car
I pull it backwards it goes forward twice as far

The book as whole, however, never settles for complete rejection of the conceits of an Arcadian dream; thus, though Arcady has been itself entombed, it is brought back, or "added." Newly built, with "no vestige of moss upon them not the least," it is also noted that "Other ruins/ Are ivied but not these." The model is still the same, but the structures are not intended to last or to memorialize ("Paradise melts and pours into the air"). A new Arcady is intended to realistically encompass both life and death, so that the anomalous et in Arcadia ego becomes conventional counter-weight to being: "Arcady is the kingdom of child's play weeping." This is not an easy answer to the dilemmas the poet has faced throughout the book, and the restless meditation on death keeps the poet honest about any compromising model of Arcadia he might conceive. For example, in "Brighter Than Ever Accounted," he states:

In the country in dream in Arcady
One sentenced to death was given wings
I do not want to die.

Sky especially of executioners
Is bright as only blindness knows
I do not want to die was answered
(in the dream it was Apollinaire speaking) "I know"

or, in "Anaximander":

And the mind in which
The valley and apples
Have failed cries out

For a very short time
With eternity no dif-
Ference between being

Possible and being actual
There is a different life

Within the context of testing the limits of pastoral, Arcady courageously enacts the journey of a speaker overwhelmed with grief. Both poem and Arcady are built and destroyed, written and revised, and this process trails off like ellipses. The concept of pastoral as possible "container" for this emotional overload produces a stunning though somber synecdoche of "mind" and "valley" held in visionary stasis. As Donald Revell states it: "Arcady remains to be seen."



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