New Dark Ages by Donald Revell
Shortly after I finished writing my first book, Tidal, I started to feel anxiety. The momentum and rhythm of drafting, revising and ordering the manuscript was over. The image systems and the concrete nouns in which I had lived and moved were no longer available to me. The landscapes of rebar, pandanus and potholes were gone. I felt an aimlessness. I would sit down, write, and hours later, end up with retreads of old poems. I worried, in some nonsensical way, that by writing a book I had forgotten how to write.
Around this same time, in 2011, I began reading the work of Donald Revell, whose collection New Dark Ages was recommended to me. It is a book of sentences. It is a book that is aware of God, of a faith in God. It is a book that contains beautiful music but does not privilege sonics above meaning-making. It is a book whose stark images are not domineering. Its principal concern is not story-telling or to create a dramatic series of images, but to distill thoughts and reach for universal truths while also bending and reimagining images and narrative through syntax, enjambment, and repetition.
This approach is apparent in the book's first poem, "Survey," which after a seven-line first sentence, departs from its descriptive opening:
When a man talks reason, he postpones something.
The break from the second to third line adheres to Revell's idea that a line break should enact the intensity and pressure of a religious conversion. The syntactically straightforward second line is subverted by the prepositional phrase in the third, "for the sad vengeance that he is." This is a representative move of New Dark Ages, and one which invites the reader to think critically, to meditate on a particular universal truth that does not stand still and goes beyond the simple reenactment of a human condition.
I am compelled, when I read New Dark Ages, to grapple with how my life has the potential to negate the lives of others. The poems never fully release the reader into comfort, which makes the book so deeply human. Take, for example, the sonnet-length sixth stanza of "Against Pluralism":
Feeling comes from nowhere and goes nowhere.
The poem declares a stasis, as feeling "is not a train. It is not one instance / of lovemaking." Eventually, though, this declarative tone is interrupted by the repetition of the phrase "the same" in lines five and six. The hesitance in the repetition, the fact that it recants an original thought (from "We are all the same" to "...we should believe we are the same...") is a departure from earlier lines in this stanza. This hesitant moment turns again, though, as the speaker declares that "bad sex is the very idea of otherness." Is this true? Is this partially true? Not at all? I am not sure but I have thought hard on it, just as I have wondered if "happiness divides us, sometimes / in God's name, sometimes in the name of History." I have wondered if "happiness vends a kind of generosity / that keeps it distance and wants nothing ..." I have wondered if "Exhaustion is a last line of defense / where time either stops dead or kills you." I consider the responses. I am not anxious. I work through the thoughts and then I find myself writing, just as Revell might have done when he wrote New Dark Ages. Here is a thought and now another and there is the thought again. There is no escaping it.
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