Donald Revell: "Death"
Donald Revell has mastered a poetic genre few poets even attempt: the happy poem. That’s not to say that his poetry doesn’t grapple with darkness—it does, and deeply. This poem is called “Death,” after all, and Revell tries as hard as he can in this small space to meet mortality head-on. One of Revell’s possible goals is to engender a sense of awe: in his poems, life is fundamentally amazing, even though—even because—it has an ending. Poets write poems for many reasons, chief among them to express feelings, to articulate the vagaries and fine points of an emotional state. Poets also write to create emotional states in readers, and this Revell poem invites readers to accept death. Without ever forgetting the mortal stakes of every moment, Revell manages to sing joyfully, no matter his subject. He knows deeply what the words have always been telling him: that all our terrors, such as “space and time,” are “inventions / Of sorrowing men”; in this poem, he chooses not to be one.
As a celebratory poet, Revell is in good company: Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Herbert, Dickinson, and Whitman come to mind as voices playing in the background of “Death.” All these poets revel—a pun on Revell’s name that he seems to have taken seriously—in details and in the capacity of the imagination to elevate them toward a kind of holiness. Of course, many of these poets also had a particular kind of holiness in mind, as does Revell; when he (or the others) uses the word soul, he means it in the Christian sense: the immortal soul that will live eternally in heaven. Revell is one of the leading Christian poets now at work, though—like Whitman and Dickinson—in his work, he also seeks heaven on Earth. In poetry at least, the “soul is my home.” Revell sees heaven everywhere. He has crafted a poetry that lets him “live outwardly,” embrace the unfolding, enjoy even its darkest surprises, and let go of what is “left behind. …”
Finally, Revell is also an experimental poet—this poem’s quick jump cuts and seeming non sequiturs are a big part of what make it so satisfying—and so meaningful. The idea of death is perhaps too confusing and terrifying to be described in a poem using plain logic, direct cause and effect, and straightforward narration. They are perhaps less than helpful when grappling with something as seemingly unreasonable as death. Revell has used these techniques for many years, even before his later poetry’s religious focus. The truth of the language is ever unfolding, is itself unfolding. It is “whirligig”—meaning “constantly changing”—one of the poem’s most fitting words and an unlikely bit of linguistic archeology.
How does a celebratory, religious, experimental poet describe and prepare for death? With this cheerful, chatty, transcendent poem. Of all the death-poems I know, this is the least fearful, yet it appropriately accords death its massive power.
The poem’s overall rhetorical structure is that of a conversation. The speaker is talking to his readers, occasionally quoting from another conversation (“‘Death,’ I said …”) with the personified figure of death itself. Revell alternates between the longer stanzas, which meditate in florid language about what Death did and how Death is, and the couplets (and one five-line stanza) addressed to Death. It’s a kind of call and response but a sideways one: Revell interrogates the nature of life and mortality from a bird’s-eye view: “For what are days but the furnace of an eye?”; “For what are space and time. …”
Revell ribs his old friend Death, almost flirts with him, teasing with seemingly silly statements—“‘Death,’ I said, ‘if your eyes were green / I would eat them,’” and “‘I know someone, a woman, / Who sank her teeth into the moon’”—and rhetorical questions: “How is it I remember everything / That never happened and almost nothing that did? / Was I ever born?” But though these lines may at first seem silly, the stakes here are as high as they can be. All of this figurative language about eating eyes and the moon is a fun way of calling for something such as carpe diem, exuberance, living life fully. Revell continues in this leaping, metaphorical manner, nodding, perhaps, to Blake’s “The Tyger” (“In what distant deeps or skies. / Burnt the fire of thine eyes?”) and Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” which itself alludes to Blake. Revell melds Blake’s awe and terror (what is the Tyger but looming death) with Ginsberg’s exuberance and ends with a celebratory turn that is all his own:
For what are days but the furnace of an eye?
If I could strip a sunflower bare to its bare soul,
I would rebuild it:
Green inside of green, ringed round by green.
There’d be nothing but new flowers anymore.
This stanza is extraordinary for its lucidity and simple but deeply penetrating archetypal imagery, and it shows how Revell operates at his best. We can’t read his description of the “days” literally, but it may conjure the bright afterimages of the world projected on our eyelids when we close our eyes—a gorgeous and strange vision like that but with the eyes open. This is a prescriptive poem, a poem about how to look. Revell wants us to see the world as magical and strange and charged in that way: a kind of visual miracle, the familiar made strange.
Revell then breaks down one of these everyday visions to make it miraculous and strange. Lots of poets have seized on sunflowers as powerful emblems (Ginsberg calls the sunflower “a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon”) and Revell’s sunflower is an ecstasy atomized, its basic elements laid out to reveal “its bare soul,” which, rebuilt, is composed of “Green inside of green, ringed round by green.” This “green” is an old archetype, nature’s generative power, the same green that makes someone with a green thumb a great gardener. The redundancy of the line—three greens in one sentence—suggests nature’s lush, irreducible creativity—living things grow, and when they die, new ones grow, leaving “nothing but new flowers anymore.” And then there is that lovely, surprising flourish, a nod to God: “Absolute Christmas”—it’s Christianity’s annual celebration of birth, death, and rebirth that is made general, accessible, almost secular. Revell doesn’t seem to want to alienate non-Christians here; instead, we readers can find our own divinity in nature, our own place in the cycles of life and death.
This is what I come to poetry for, what, I believe, we all seek in poems: language that can show us a life unbound by time. It’s hard won, demanding absolute faith in the intelligence of the words themselves. Hence Revell’s huge associative leaps, his trust in simple, indelible symbols—green for youth, the moon for distance, hope, and desire—and all the fun the poems are having as they “remember everything / That never happened. …”
For Revell, death is personal, right-sized; it accompanies each of us like a shadow, a version of one’s self, growing “beside me, always taller. …” Though shadows often have darker valences, this one is of the friendly, rather than the corner-lurking, sort, a kind of Peter Pan shadow, egging on the one who casts it or beckoning him to keep up, depending on the angle of the sun or perhaps how close he is to death.
It requires a special poetic sensibility not to take the typical grim aspects of death. The speaker of this poem is exaggerating: he has been confused plenty, like everyone, but not, now, about death “whose only story / Is the end of the story, right from the start. …” Perhaps death is the confused one here because of how surprising it is that this particular voice is so accepting, so open-hearted about what death usually means. Death is not expecting a friend but finds one in this poem.
Of course, as Revell says in the poem’s most extraordinary and visionary stanza, “boys and girls murdered / In their first beauty” are “now with children of their own.” It’s what we want for them, what they deserve, and we invented language or were beckoned to discover it forever ago and again every day of every life, to hold that wish for us, to uphold it, to keep it safe from the withholding of our fear. Revell finds real consolation in envisioning these injustices righted in the afterlife, which is a religious word for the lifeblood of poetry: the imagination, the realm where wishes can be fulfilled, where pain can be healed, where death can be transcended. Yes, the poem presents a vision of Christian heaven: “the explosion of happy souls / Into the greeny, frozen Christmas Eve air: / Another good Christmas, a white choir,” but it’s one we can all relate to.
At its close, the poem returns to the boy and his shadow “Beside each other still. …” When Revell reaches out to his lost mother, saying “I miss you,” he is speaking to her in the afterlife of the poem, in the imagination, where we his “Dear reader[s]” also reside at this very moment, beside his mother, with his shadow. The poem’s capacity to converse with the dead is the same as its capacity to reach out and converse with us, Revell’s imaginary readers, who, like the “you” Whitman addresses when he says “what I assume you shall assume” at the opening of “Song of Myself,” are ever present in the room of the poem, whether alive, dead, known, unknown, whether or not we ever read Revell’s words.
The poem proposes a mighty act of communion, a gathering together of readers and writers, speakers and listeners, living and dead. This is a poem of deep empathy, of comforting and keeping company. Revell wants us to feel less alone and less afraid to die, whatever we believe. Revell’s poem can help us: so that when we think of death, we can remember we are blessed with life.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books of poetry, most recently Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey (BOA Editions, 2021) and the essay collection We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress (Graywolf, 2018). He is also the editor of the selected poems of Russell Edson, Little Mr. Prose Poem (BOA Editions, 2022). He teaches...