Donald Revell’s poetry is testament to “the good news” that ordinary life is miraculous. The renowned poet, translator, critic, essayist, editor and UNLV professor is the author of more than 12 books of poetry. In his September release, Tantivy (Alice James Books, $16), his poems gesture all the way into “The Afterlife” and open the window to what comes next. The 58-year-old’s words feel closer than ever—closer to themselves, to each other, to the only cloud “that never moves,” to “true love.”
If you aren’t an avid reader of poetry, Revell’s work is a perfect beginning. He is the recipient of numerous national awards and fellowships, including two Pushcart Prizes, so you know you’re in good hands. But more importantly, his poems are true, not obscured by metaphor, and never “a puzzle” to be figured out. Revell says exactly what he means.
What kind of space do you enter when you write a poem?
A lot of people have spoken beautifully and truthfully about the relationship of poetry to prayer. I would like to think that sometimes when I’m writing poetry, it’s in a state commensurate with prayer, but it’s always a very intimate space. … I and the poem are alone together.
How should people read your poetry?
The best way to read a poem is as though you yourself had written it. Don’t think about what I hoped to say or what I put there. Read it as if this is your poem. Then you are free to have the same experience I had but in the context of your own existence, your own meaning. It’s not a puzzle. I used to think, when I was just getting started, that I was making a very clever puzzle and then people would come along and figure it out and say, “Oh, what a bright fellow he is.” But that’s kind of sad, in the end, because there’s no intimacy.
In Tantivy, you often pay homage to Victorians. Why?
The Victorians were beautifully presented with certain facts. They had the Bible in one hand and a fossil in the other. They had the Gospels and Darwin. And they had to deal with them both at the same time. I think that’s a big arrival. I think that’s, in a sense, when humans grow up. I talk about the next way of being. We won’t get anywhere beyond that until we’ve changed utterly. I mean, there are some people who want to throw down the Darwin and say, “This is bull, only the Bible.” There are some people who want to throw down the Bible and say, “That’s for children, that’s for superstitious, ignorant people. Darwin’s the truth.” But the Victorians knew, we have to live with both of these. They’re both true. The Bible is true. The Origin of Species is true. Grow up.
How does the Mojave Desert impact your work?
Deserts are in the resurrection business. People worry about, what does resurrection mean? But if you live in the desert, everything that’s here has been resurrected. Like I had a tree that I thought was absolutely dead, because my irrigation system had broken down and I didn’t notice. … And then the rains came last month … it’s got flowers on it. In October it’s got spring flowers on it. Resurrection is the business of daily life in the desert, so what people think of as miraculous in other places, is merely ordinary here.
What do you think about Las Vegas as a place to experience poetry?
Why not here as well as anywhere? I mean, the sun goes up, the sun goes down. The stars are there. What’s missing? Everything you need to make poetry is freely available here and, in a weird way, more here than most, because this place is exactly what it says it is. I mean, there’s a kind of innocence about Las Vegas. Here, sex means sex. Alcohol means alcohol, school means school. It’s a marvelously sincere place. Because there’s no hidden agenda. Everything is on the surface. So it’s a perfect place to learn poetry.
Most people don’t read poetry today. Why should they?
It’s a red herring to say that people don’t read poetry anymore. They never read poetry really. They watched television that rhymed. They saw Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in couplets. But I think poetry, the good thing about it, is its difficulty. Good poetry is difficult. Bad poetry is obscure. We’re losing our taste for difficulty, and we’re trying to blame difficulty and call it by the wrong name, call it obscurity, call it elitism. … Poetry is there to tell us that you have to pay attention, if you want to live. And one of the beauties of poetry is that it calls us to love the difficulty of existence, rather than to resent it, or to suspect it, but to praise it. God is difficult, but that’s one of his charming features.
“The sky has slipped behind the moon…”
The sky has slipped behind the moon and the blue shows through
Blowsy flowers discarded propane canisters see
The moon dissolving not setting and the sun’s immeasurable
Peace beginning now above the house
Only a little way farther on
Far back in my life an idiot complains of my philosophy
Light gives way to light all houses are magical
Little birds keep pace with every soul on earth
– from Revell’s Tantivy