Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Outside authority no longer means anything to me.

Small and hidden is the door that leads inward, and the entrance is barred by countless prejudices, mistaken assumptions, and fears. Always one wishes to hear of grand political and economic schemes, the very things that have landed every nation in a morass. Therefore it sounds grotesque when anyone speaks of hidden doors, dreams, and a world within. What has this vapid idealism got to do with gigantic economic programs, with the so-called problems of reality?

But I speak not to nations, only to the individual few, for whom it goes without saying that cultural values do not drop down like manna from heaven, but are created by the hands of individuals. If things go wrong in the world, this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first. For this I need – because outside authority no longer means anything to me – a knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being, in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche. - Carl Jung

Monday, October 2, 2017

It's the drama of the scene that excited Yeats

‘Cuchulain Comforted’, written a matter of weeks before Yeats died in January of 1939, is his only use of Dantescan terza rima: it began life as a folktale-ish prose narrative of the kind collected by Lady Gregory. The draft, dictated by Yeats to his wife on 7 January, opens:

“A shade recently arrived went through a valley in the Country of the Dead; he had six mortal wounds, but he had been a tall, strong, handsome man. Other shades looked at him from the trees. Sometimes they went near to him and then went away quickly. At last he sat down, he seemed very tired.”

A week later this became:

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
Violent and famous, strode among the dead;
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head
Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree
As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

While the language of the prose sketch verges on the simple, even primitive, that of the poem is laconic and theatrical. Cuchulain is no longer a conventional good-looking hero, ‘tall, strong, handsome’, but a Yeatsian one, ‘Violent and famous’; conventional ‘shades’ become unsettling ‘Shrounds’, as if the dead were so many winding sheets, their weirdness making them fit choric witnesses, as they confer ‘head to head’, of the mortally wounded hero’s singularity. It is the drama of the scene that excites Yeats, and although the poem is about Cuchulain’s loss of agency and individuality, in these opening stanzas he is still enacting his purposefulness, striding among the muttering dead; when he rests it is not because he is ‘very tired’, but ‘to meditate on wounds and blood’.

The narratives dramatized in Yeats’s oeuvre nearly all involve some decisive act of transformation that is in many ways analogous to the process of transforming prose into poetry.

– Mark Ford

Friday, September 1, 2017

Poetry is a game of compassion, and if you give people fun, their hearts will open to you.

I think a lot of writers have lost track of the fact that without pleasure, there is no reason to read on. …at the end of the day, the message you pick as an artist is only your secondary responsibility. Philosophy takes better care of pure thoughts than poetry ever can. So does criticism. What poets do that philosophers cannot is let our readers experience manners of thinking that they would not have access to on their own. The way leaps and transfusions and associations lead a mind from thought to thought. And then, once a reader has experienced a poem’s manner of thinking, the reader can use that manner of thinking in their own head, with their own thoughts, whenever they want. When I read your poems…I get the sensation that I’m making eye contact with someone else a thousand feet away, and we’re both using x-ray sniper scopes that let us see one another’s optic nerves. I hope that I can one day produce that sensation in language myself. Our primary job as poets is to make people more creative, to make them better thinkers, much more than give them any specific set of thoughts.

And good luck convincing anyone, obscurantist poet, to try out your brain if it seems like a hostile place. Poetry is a game of compassion, and if you give people fun, their hearts will open to you.

But maybe it’s a whole lot simpler than all of this. I like making people smile. So shoot me.

My mother often justifies many of my excesses by saying, “But Max, you are a poet!” This somehow comforts me, every time.

But I do believe in distance. And a belief in distance requires, for me at least, an attempt to span that distance, no matter how futile I understand those attempts to be.

In his A Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley says, “Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitude of things.” Maybe, if it’s language, as we use it every day, that fills us with that sense of distance, maybe too it can be poetic language, or more precisely metaphorical language, that might allow us to feel closeness, intimacy, love.

There’s also something to be said for poetry’s inbuilt wisdom when it comes to matters of mortality. I mean, as I mentioned before, no art ends as much as poetry does—line endings, clause, phrase, and sentence endings, stanza endings, section endings, page endings, poem endings, book endings… And for so long, poetry has sought to limn those endings with sonic devices such as rhyme. Plus, poems, like life, are often shockingly short.

- Max Ritvo

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Shakespeare attaining the farthest reaches of luminosity

The exploitation of a few technical forms produces mannerism, while the use of many produces style. A page of Shakespeare can be divided endlessly into technical devices (no doubt, for the most part, spontaneously generated): shifting rhythms within the blank verse, coincidences and contrasts of vowel quantity, metaphors, epigrams, miniature plot processes where in a few lines some subject rises, blossoms, and drops – while above the whole is the march and curve of the central plot itself. Yet even Shakespeare tends to bludgeon us at times with the too frequent use of metaphor, until what was an allurement threatens to become an obstacle. We might say that the hypertrophy of metaphor is Shakespeare at his worst, and fills in those lapses of inspiration when he is keeping things going as best he can until the next flare-up. And thus, as with the music of Bach, if he at times attains the farthest reaches of luminosity and intensity, he never falls beneath the ingenious. - Kenneth Burke, from “The Poetic Process” in Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare edited by Scott L. Newstok

Monday, July 3, 2017

Something is happening.

Something is happening. The new casualness had been introducing itself, casually of course, but suddenly its credentials lay everywhere. It was a new time of being born, looking ahead almost fiercely enough to be the ripe ear, and still keeping discreetly in the early stage of noncommittal promises. It wasn’t the lily-pad stage yet, but there was buzzing everywhere as though the news had already broken out and was flooding the city and the whole country. The next day he rose up from that bed of reflective voluptuousness, determined never again to fall into the richly human excesses that his horizontal state had left him vulnerable to, having decided to grant a personal interview to each member of the enemy that blackened the plain as far as one could see in all directions. And the rumor strengthened with the night. In the morning they had all vanished at least as far as the nearest mountains and probably from the face of the earth. - John Ashbery, from Three Poems

Thursday, June 1, 2017

"Earth, You Have Returned to Me" by Elaine Equi

Can you imagine waking up
every morning on a different planet,
each with its own gravity?

Slogging, wobbling,
wavering. Atilt
and out-of-sync
with all that moves
and doesn’t.

Through years of trial
and mostly error
did I study this unsteady way -

changing pills, adjusting the dosage,
never settling.

A long time we were separate,
O Earth,
but now you have returned to me.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Emily Dickinson overcoming time and space

There is one poem in which a thoroughly inebriated speaker enjoys her lack of control and is not overcome by it: a rare portrait that develops a fantasy of achieved delight.

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun –

     The element of fantasy in this poem is pronounced; so is the presence of the ingénue persona who appears so persistently in Dickinson’s love poems. The two combine to give the poem its childish air. Yet it is precisely that quality of make-believe which permits the speaker, and the poem, to maintain the happiness of which she boasts.
     The poem begins with a riddle. What kind of liquor is never brewed, comes from tankards made of pearl, is far superior to any ordinary, earthly beverage? The answer: air, or dew. Even as the opening stanza clearly contrasts “real” liquor (from “Vats upon the Rhine”) to another sort – not of this earth, imaginary, or symbolic, so as the poem develops its conceit of being drunk upon air, it steadily compares literal and figurative experience, experience in nature and in the mind.
     Surely, air was never brewed; thus it answers the requirements of the riddle. But neither is it literally a liquor. We can interpret the metaphor: to be “Inebriate of Air” is to be exhilarated, excited, overwhelmingly delighted by summer skies. Yet as the poem elaborates this conceit, it is not its symbolism but its drama that engages the reader. When the “Debauchee of Dew” begins her drunken progress from airy inn to airy inn, her activity takes on its own reality, one that overpowers its literal counterpart. This is fantasy, and it is a delightful image. It is, in fact, an image of delight embodied.
     If the extravagance of her emotion is essential to this situation, so is its lasting power. These summer days are “endless.” We recall how important the idea of permanence is to Dickinson’s ideal of delight.
     But summer in nature’s world is never endless, no matter how it may seem in mid-July. In stanza three, time surfaces, only to be triumphantly repudiated by this poem’s speaker. The inebriate of air has her real-life counterparts: bees and butterflies who likewise reel through the sky, with flowers as pubs; like her, drunken on the summery nectar. Yet bees and butterflies are subject to seasonal time; drinking hours are up when autumn comes.
     “I shall but drink the more!” How she gets to overcome time, she doesn’t say. But the final stanza shows her drinking on into eternity. “Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats – / And Saints to windows run – .” The original riddle provides a clue, since the liquor that she drinks from opulent goblets (does “scooped in Pearl” mean that they are decorated with pearl or that the liquid that they hold is like pearl?) never was of this earth. Not “real” alcohol in the first place, its inebriation is likewise not “real”; neither are the actions to which it incites the drinker. Since her activity has always been fantasy, taking place in a mental sky, she has no difficulty perpetuating the fun. Yet her intoxication is more than fun; it is also a sign of power. In this poem, lack of control, diminutive stature, are coyly representative of their opposites, as the final audacious image, of the “little Tippler / Leaning against the – Sun – “ indicates. (In another version of the line Dickinson has the little tippler “From Manzanilla come!” That makes her a world traveler; this more exciting image makes her a space traveler.) She has overcome both space and time by the poem’s conclusion, such is the strength, the power of her emotion.
     This poem is another form of the celebration of delight. It perpetuates and praises the feeling, not through incantation, as in “Mine – by the Right of the White Election!” but through outright fantasy. Both poems, however, achieve their prolongment of the emotional experience with a rhetoric that places the action of the poem in the realm of the imagination and explicitly, almost challengingly, opposes ordinary reality in the process. Here, in the space of the mind, delight can be maintained, delight can be controlled, delight can be praised. A contrast with nature and its kind of time is an essential aspect of the poems which describe delight achieved. – Suzanne Juhasz

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Rusty Morrison rewrites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 52

Sonic fig juice

somatic bitch-boy in the under-words, hissing bestialities –
can’t beat it, cheesy sock-puppet leisure –
witch me, heathen, knock me loud into surgery –
forethoughts buried, dime-joint mind in cellular seizure –
wherefore, sore of fealty to feasibility, stupor-swollen, sucking air –
wince! The poem’s not even nearly half done yet –
yikes! My groaning words, thought-hearses, waste escape valves –
oh capacious germs, can’t sterilize my shtick or sex it –
sewed into quick lime, that old rhymer that shaking-spear gent –
I’ve an oar behind my earlobe, for beating back the talktide –
tumored with orneriness, I am spurious, I am hesitation-blasted –
buy it new here, infatuation is the poem’s best incendiary lie –
howl-beautified in the 50s, come to surrounded by ad-marketing & lyric-dopers –
getting had, tho, is my fav trumpet, singing lag-time, blindly I grope –

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

And fantasy it was

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word. - Toni Morrison

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A poem by Hanshan

In the house east of here lives an old woman.
Three or four years ago, she got rich.
In the old days she was poorer than me;
Now she laughs at me for not having a penny.
She laughs at me for falling behind;
and I laugh at her for getting ahead.
We laugh as though we'd never stop;
she from the east and I from the west.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

On Humanism

Humanism was the particular glory of the Renaissance. The recovery, translation, and dissemination of the literatures of antiquity created a new excitement, displaying so vividly the accomplishments and therefore the capacities of humankind, with consequences for civilization that are great beyond reckoning. The disciplines that came with this awakening, the mastery of classical languages, the reverent attention to pagan poets and philosophers, the study of ancient history, and the adaptation of ancient forms to modern purposes, all bore the mark of their origins yet served as the robust foundation of education and culture for centuries, until the fairly recent past. In muted, expanded, and adapted forms these Renaissance passions live on among us still in the study of the humanities, which, we are told, are now diminished and threatened. Their utility is in question, it seems, despite their having been at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization. Now we are less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being – for those who create and master them, at least. Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us. Or perhaps we are just bent on evading the specter entropy. In any case, the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own. In such an environment the humanities do seem to have little place. They are poor preparation for economic servitude. This spirit is not the consequence but the cause of our present state of affairs. We have as good grounds for exulting in human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.

. . .

There are so many works of the mind, so much humanity, that to disburden ourselves of ourselves is an understandable temptation. Open a book and a voice speaks. A world, more or less alien or welcoming, emerges to enrich a reader’s store of hypotheses about how life is to be understood. As with scientific hypotheses, even failure is meaningful, a test of the boundaries of credibility. So many voices, so many worlds, we can weary of them. If there were only one human query to be heard in the universe, and it was only the sort of thing we were always inclined to wonder about – Where did all this come from? or, Why could we never refrain from war? – we would hear in it a beauty that would overwhelm us. So frail a sound, so brave, so deeply inflected by the burden of thought, that we would ask, Whose voice is this? We would feel a barely tolerable loneliness, hers and ours. And if there were another hearer, not one of us, how starkly that hearer would apprehend what we are and were.

- Marilynne Robinson

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Everything is in this sheet of paper

Just as a piece of paper is the fruit, the combination of many elements that can be called non-paper elements, the individual is made of non-individual elements. If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no water; without water, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, you cannot make paper. So the cloud is in here. The existence of this page is dependent on the existence of a cloud. Paper and cloud are so close. Let us think of other things, like sunshine. Sunshine is very important because the forest cannot grow without sunshine, and we humans cannot grow without sunshine. So the logger needs sunshine in order to cut the tree, and the tree needs sunshine in order to be a tree. Therefore you can see sunshine in this sheet of paper. And if you look more deeply, with the eyes of a bodhisattva, with the eyes of those who are awake, you see not only the cloud and the sunshine in it, but that everything is here: the wheat that became the bread for the logger to eat, the logger’s father - everything is in this sheet of paper. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Between the Clock and the Bed - Edvard Munch and Jasper Johns

The art history legend is that a friend of Johns saw the Munch painting in Norway, and sent him a postcard because he spotted the similarity between the bedspread and John’s trademark cross-hatched paint strokes. In fact, Ravenal – now director of the deCordova Museum near Boston – believes that Johns had already seen the painting in an exhibition in 1950, and had been interested in Munch’s work for many decades.

Ravenal asked Johns about the clock and the bed, and the artist, famously reticent to reveal any psychological insight into his work, said he was interested in painting objects positioned between other objects. Asked once about knives and forks and other kitchen implements in some of his work – they also appear in another grim Munch self-portrait of the artist about to tackle an entire cod’s head – Johns said helpfully: “My associations, if you want them, are cutting, measuring, mixing, blending, consuming – creation and destruction moderated by ritualised manners.”

Ravenal thinks both artists’ paintings are about sexuality and mortality, subjects much on the minds of both men – explicit in the Munch work, with the painting of the nude girl hanging by the bed, and the coffin-like clock measuring the remaining time, but also lurking in the shadows of the Johns.

“If the story of the postcard is true at all, it certainly came late in the process,” Ravenal said. “The connection was already there. Sex and death.” 

- Maev Kennedy

Monday, October 3, 2016

A poem about death that's a celebration of life


Death calls my dog by the wrong name. 
A little man when I was small, Death grew 
Beside me, always taller, but always 
Confused as I have almost never been. 
Confusion, like the heart, gets left behind 
Early by a boy, abandoned the very moment 
Futurity with her bare arms comes a-waltzing 
Down the fire escapes to take his hand. 

"Death," I said, "if your eyes were green 
I would eat them."    

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. 
Absolute Christmas. 

"Death," I said, "I know someone, a woman, 
Who sank her teeth into the moon." 

For what are space and time but the inventions 
Of sorrowing men? The soul goes faster than light. 
Eating the moon alive, it leaves space and time behind. 
The soul is forgiveness because it knows forgiveness. 
And the knowledge is whirligig. 
Whirligig taught me to live outwardly. 
Shoe shop. . . pizza parlor. . . surgical appliances. . . 
All left behind me with the hooey. 
My soul is my home. 
An old star hounded by old starlight. 

"Death, I ask you, whose only story 
Is the end of the story, right from the start, 
How is it I remember everything 
That never happened and almost nothing that did? 
Was I ever born?" 

I think of the suicides, all of them thriving, 
Many of them painting beautiful pictures. 
I think of boys and girls murdered 
In their first beauty, now with children of their own. 
And I have a church in my mind, set cruelly ablaze, 
And then the explosion of happy souls 
Into the greeny, frozen Christmas Eve air: 
Another good Christmas, a white choir. 

Beside each other still, 
My Death and I are a magical hermit. 
Dear Mother, I miss you. 
Dear reader, your eyes are now green, 
Green as they used to be, before I was born.

- Donald Revell

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.
Absolute Christmas.

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