Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
To put it another way, dramatic, meditative, and narrative poetry enact arrival through the structure of exposition, complication, and climax, i.e., through transport to rather than realization of. The distinction is small but important. Plot carries us from here to there. Dramatic tension moves, but often toward nothing more than a glimpse of a still-retreating destination, a false rendezvous where presence is supposed to be rather than where it is. How often with narrative, meditative, dramatic, or even some lyric poems do we hear of “earned” emotion, as if a certain rhetorical sequence could adequately conjure the ecstatic, the tragic, or the sublime? From Luke to King Lear to Dickinson the most intense lyrical moments are rooted less in the progress toward presence than in an awakening to it. The lyric poem par excellence embodies what is lost and pays tribute to the realization that whatever is longed for is always present in the mind; as the poet Thomas Traherne wrote in Third Century (1668–1671), “I saw moreover that it did not so much concern us what objects were before us, as with what eyes we beheld them.” Longing is not enough and deferral can never do. Thing, word, action, object, place, other, poetry: they are here, what we need are the eyes to behold.
Few scholars know the intricacies of the elegy as well as Peter Sacks. His critical volume The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (1985) is widely acknowledged as a seminal work; and his four previous collections of poetry exhibited a unique sensitivity to the range of the elegiac mode and the unfolding of its various tonal registers, from heartfelt loss to accepted consolation. Although similar strategies propel many of the poems inNecessity, here Sacks shifts from the exile’s lament to the necessary work of leaving those losses—and the more traditional methods of conciliation (dialectical, salvationist)—for the assuaging bonds of new communities. These are evoked through recurring metaphors of water, from the “possible river” of the imagination to the “fire” river with its “sword arm” which shears the painful past, from the “seventh river” of palliating memories to the culminating “Ocean” with its “uncounted dolphins caught & strangled in the net.”
Throughout, Sacks vividly evokes landscapes recalled andinvented, transubstantiating recollection into actuality, the world imagined into the world around us. In “Head” the speaker claims that “that battleground you fasten over you—your skull, your face” will be able to glean “ancestral” traces and “the memory of river-water” from the “unsung” wind, provided that you “listen far enough.” He writes:
there is a continent before the gods, there is a door of bone
between—behind you now the field is opening its jaws
below the ridge—there is no hollowness through which this whispering
can fall—no peace-filled re-imagining now it is yours, repaid,
a monument through which no birdcalls seep—
you have to see it here, the place reserved for craft, for prayer,
in which you pause unknowing so these pieces of the tree—
not life, not replication—grow around us, thickening, however
much we cut them back, the branches of black ivory, the leaves
that open elsewhere to descend, ungatherable, around another generation’s
thirst for everything between itself & its own end—do not
come home, they say, begin again, take all the time that’s left, take Africa.
These evocations acknowledge their own risks, however. If Sacks’s “door of bone” recalls the points of contact between the inner and outer realities of the “Head,” it also suggests the gate through which deceptive dreams pass, according to the classical tradition: “Those dreames that Fantasie / Takes from the polisht Ivory Port delude / The dreamer ever, and no truth include,” writes Homer in Chapman’s translation of The Iliad. If the tree which keeps growing around us is a vision of the necessary contact with the realities of the past made present, it is a vision that threatens to entrap despite its pruning, an apt emblem of Sacks’s memories of his native South Africa and all the attendant conflicting emotions with which his speakers wrestle.
If the climax of Necessity is written in water, then the movement to that climax is written in the blood of the earth and the fire of conflict; again and again Sacks describes the blades and fires by which visions are severed or incinerated to allow for transformation. In “Ocean” Sacks quotes Plotinus’s claim that “one must oneself become Spirit, and oneself must become vision”—is Traherne’s sentiment far off?—and this quotation illuminates the ambition of the collection as a whole. That is to say, against the more ominous and even harrowing threads of the book Sacks poses a gentle voice, reminiscent in some ways of the more vulnerable moments in Pound’sDrafts and Fragments of Cantos CX–CXVII. For instance, in “Dove” Sacks writes,
So it fell to
what we might have heard had we been there—
the breeze under the light already shifting through the ranks,
the terms for peace redrawn between their opposites—blue, suturing,
sky-thread drawn loose or tight according to
the distant order of the imaging.
As one might say
love we are in each other’s keeping.
Having life, how measure it?
And like those last cantos of Pound, disconnected and between worlds, cut off yet connected to homelands—and the plural here is imperative because it accepts provisional ties, projected connections, envisioned communities—Sacks’s work seeks and finds refuge, domus, consolation, and, most importantly, vision in the answer to a question one of his poems asks: “What’s nearest to you now?” The answer to this question might be found in another quotation from Traherne’s Third Century: “All things . . . spotless and pure and glorious.”
Few contemporary poets come close to the formal skill exhibited in Donald Revell’s work, and I’m not talking about sonnet-making but about fashioning a rhythm so propulsive and persuasive, so exactly right that a reader feels the music as deeply as she hears it. In Revell’s earlier work, the music seemed masterfully shaped, artfully controlled. His obvious craftsmanship provided a sense of stability to the surreal locutions of Erasures (1992), the lexical surprises of Beautiful Shirt (1994), and the antinomian discord of There Are 3 (1998). His intelligence and exactitude were always in evidence but without detracting from the poems’ liveliness and immediacy. On the other hand, Arcady is Revell’s giving over to magic. Having lost his sister a few years ago, the poet found himself suddenly damaged; as his introductory note points out, “It takes two to language. I was suddenly one. My native language lapsed. Immediately, I lost my daily care for making poems.” But out of this loss came the possibility of realizing that the “daily care” of composition may not always allow for the world’s revelation; that is, whether the poem is made or not the poetry is there, immediately before the attentive eye, always within the receptive ear. Great pain and loss can sometimes shatter the structures through which the music routinely flows, renewing language and, even more importantly, perception, so that we see the art always before us. So renewed, we are free to let go of the anxieties and worries and trivialities that made us fear that pain—and even more, the letting go looses all holds, all barriers, all blinders to the music and revelations around. The eyes that behold are suddenly allowed vision; what do they see? As Revell puts it in his prefatory note: “the Arcady all around.”
One of the primary places in which this books’ glorious magic is present is in its evanescently contrary music, ranging from the harmonic notes of disjunctive hymnals to the playful refrain of soulful echoes, from mantra and childspeak to the plaintive strains of a bereaved brother. Consider an entire poem, “Light Lily Lily Light Light Lily Light”:
Light lily lily light light lily light
Outline stones for the wind
All creatures come
To mind to oneness
Where I am formless When I go back into
My breaking through The ground the deep
Will be far greater In me whence I came
Light lily lily light light lily light
Revell’s poetry has been rightly praised for its perceptive intelligence, its bold poetics, and its courageous politics, but not enough attention has been given to the musicality of his work. Here, ranging from exuberance at the syllabic level in the pitch and tone and duration (the liquid roll of the l sound crisply finished by the dental-driven t followed by a string of l’s and long e’s—part “pure poetry” of Abbe Bremond, part piano notes tapped out on a keyboard) to interludes of discursive proposition (“All creatures come / To mind to oneness”), Revell’s poem engages the ear at first, and then like the songs of Shakespeare’s fools invites the reader to engage more than the music. Through combining the spell-like incantation of the opening with fragmented and ruptured attempts at discursive explanation with exuberant wordplay at the end of the poem (where magic and the image are bound together), Revell offers language both ritualistic and evocative.
There is another aspect of Arcady that is more difficult to describe, but which owes primarily to the disarming simplicity of the book’s lexicon and spareness of its phrasing. The overall impression is one of great humility, sincerity, and integrity. Call it what you will, the music of this book is further complemented by a voice that rings true. Consider these lines from “Tooms 3”:
Almost the equals
Of our bodies
Love the world
And stay there
Loving the world is staying in the world, accepting “The ground, the deep,” losses of home and beloved, whatever living might bring, and responding—“sometimes crying—but always finding a way to “stay there,” remain present to the Arcadian bliss that surrounds.
There is much more to appreciate in Arcady, from the edifying ethos of many of the poems (especially “Tooms 4” and “All Summer Long”) to the interpolation of Greek cosmologist thought (“Anaximander,” “Democritus,” and “Anaxagoras”) and the powerful presence of Revell’s guiding angels, Thoreau and Ives (“Arcady Ives” and “Conforming to the Fashions of Eternity”): the poetry maintains a fine balance between conveying a certain haphazard freedom (magic) and demonstrating that even the most powerful charm demands a shaping performance (craft). To put it another way, the book radiates a “found” quality—part automatic writing, part attentive engagement with the world—and this seeming arbitrariness is connected to the new liberty Revell discovered after contending with intense loss. As he phrases it in his preface, “I began to see poems; poems of mine, but hardly made. Sight has become my second language, native now. Sometimes I see a sky full of treetops. Sometimes I see my friend across the Pond. Sometimes I see poems from Arcady and I’m given to write them down.”
For Revell and Sacks a lament for the lost homeland or a cry for the lost beloved will never suffice. For the elegy to move beyond merely announcing loss it must utilize vivid language and intense emotional awareness to enact the transcending of loss and evocation of presence. To put it another way, both Arcady and Necessity take us on a journey through poignant emotional loss and to a vision of what remains after such loss. Traherne continues to be instructive: “Flight is but the preparative: the sight / Is deep and infinite” (The Vision, c. 1670). Different in tone, distinct in technique, these books announce that lamentation need not defer presence. Instead, they show us the necessity of finding Arcady in the here and now. And, no surprise: we must change our vision to do so.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.