Essay: A Critical Memoir
by donald revell
omnidawn, 64 pages, $17.95
onald Revell did not write Essay: A Critical Memoir for the essayists, the critics, or the memoirists. He wrote it for the poets. And a poet, for Revell, is any person who loves.
A two-time winner of the PEN Center USA Award for poetry, Revell is a professor of English at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the lauded translator of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell. The translator’s patience and rapture with language are evident on every page of Essay, where a single line can send Revell into a state of paroxysmal joy or solemn reverence.
Essay pitches itself as “an experiment of the old school and of revived delight in the pleasures of close reading.” This yields a mixture of poetry, memoir, and critical insight.
The brevity of the book—it is well under a hundred pages—might fool you into thinking it can be devoured on a single lazy summer afternoon. Quite the contrary. If Revell is to be read, he must be read on his terms: “lovingly,” as he frequently stipulates, which I take to mean slowly, and with care. Revell, like any excellent poet, is one you should let sit in your auditory imagination for a while.
Revell unabashedly studies the capital letters of poetry: Nature, Beauty, Love. He has a reputation for disarming our modern knee-jerk cynicism about lofty, Romantic mores. He turns to Shakespeare and Thoreau midsentence as naturally as one recalls a conversation with old friends. Thus, the “memoir” of the title refers to anecdotal recollections of his youth as well as to the living memory of poetry, of the creative spirit.
As for his critical bent, don’t anticipate a treatise on metalanguage or semiology. “For Heaven’s sake, these are spiritual entities, not structural doodads,” Revell exclaims finally, and he is bold to pronounce, “Structuralists do not exist.”
Rather, the thrust of Revell’s argument in Essay—although it feels more like a celebration—is that Love, which poetry sets to allegory or metaphor, is true and real. If love is real, then our creative works are real: “Every work of every date or place already nestles, already mansions there,” Revell writes. Love’s currency, its enactment, is “‘an art / That nature makes’” (to quote Revell quoting Shakespeare).
What Revell is too gentlemanly (and honestly, too good of a poet) to say is that our literary culture is stifling the reason we create, and the reason we live. The virtues of poetry cannot be praised, the friendship of great brother and sister poets cannot exist, when the creative act is a specimen to be analyzed, or a practical measure to be weighed for usefulness.
With beguiling sumptuousness and sincerity, Revell argues that Art is progressing infinitesimally toward Paradise. Our lives are pageants of eternity, and our loves are pageants of the greatest love, that of God. Creative works are alive (“spiritual entities”). Poetry is a transformation, an interval between vision and prophecy: It is seeing, and declaring good.
Far from penning a polemic, Revell whispers with a wink that the emperor has no clothes, that what created Art is being drained from it: Love. Many serious readers (this reviewer included) have been guilty of not reading. Instead, we plow through books to check them off our lists. We scan classics to decode allusions and verify cross-references.
Revell gives us all a gentle nudge. He writes that if we are to “read rightly,” then “close-reading is close-loving,” or “else we risk the oblivion of metaphor, disappearing back into the anthologies.”
In order to read and write, Revell insists, our first duty is to love. Memory, of our lives and of our poets, is only what comes of it. We cannot navel-gaze but must, equipped with knowledge and remembrance, move forward.
“Love makes all things new,” Revell insists, which is the calling of the reader and writer. By loving the extravagance of creation, we make it new.
Kelsey Burritt is an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.
This review first appeared in the February 2016 issue of First Things.