Donald Revell: “The Northeast Corridor”
William Butler Yeats insisted that artists become their own opposites, assimilate what seems most remote. Otherwise, he thought, happiness would escape them: “all happiness,” he wrote, “depends on having the energy to assume the mask of some other self, that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth.” Donald Revell has followed Yeats’s prescription more than once, changing his style, his tone and his “mask,” with each decade of his 25 years of published work; the changes chart a man moving from gloom to happiness by way of multiple rebirths.
Each change in his style and mood reflects a changed locale. His early poems reflected his grim memories of the Bronx, where he grew up, and of industrial decline in upstate New York, where he lived as a young man. Soon after the poet settled in Denver in the 1980s, he became opaque, abstract, and mystical, as if his new residence demanded a divorce from places he had once lived. His most recent style reflects a happy second marriage, a newly confident Christian faith, and—not least—a move to the desert Southwest: his clear lines and joyful prospects match its stark, vivid colors and open skies. To read Revell’s best poems in the order in which he wrote them is to partake of the pleasure of self-reinvention, and to watch a man’s outlook rotate 180 degrees, from lost and disappointed to unlikely joy.
Most of Revell’s new book of prose, The Art of Attention, describes the style and the beliefs he holds now. The Art of Attention does, however, mention his early poems of the 1980s: Revell calls them, slightingly, works of “dogged precision,” cast in “dour iambics.” He also writes in that same essay that “Location’s inescapable.” Indeed, the 1980s poems reveal a man who often seems depressed because he cannot escape his locale: the poems are durable versions of a particularly Northeastern discontent. They are Rust Belt poems: poems of intense dissatisfaction with the poet’s own body, with his life’s limited options, and with a built environment that seems to speak, constantly, of empty choices and exhaustion, a place where all words and all structures point grayly and insistently to the past.
One of his best, and last, poems in this early style is “The Northeast Corridor,” a two-page poem from New Dark Ages (1990). Revell has written that this poem began in a bar called the Iron Horse within the old, grimy, unrenovated Grand Central Station, but it’s important to the poem that we don’t know exactly where we are: “the bar in the commuter station” could be any of a dozen-odd uneasy spaces to drink while awaiting Amtrak or MARC or Metro-North. It looks, to Revell, like a theater showing a failed play:
The bar in the commuter station steams
like a ruin, its fourth wall open
to the crowd and the fluttering timetables.
In the farthest corner, the television
crackles a torch song and a beaded gown.
She is my favorite singer, dead when I was born.
And I have been waiting for hours for a train,
exhausted between connections to small cities,
awake only in my eyes finding shelter
in the fluttering ribbon of shadow
around the dead woman singing on the screen.
The “fourth wall”—the invisible partition between audience and actors, which protects the suspension of disbelief—has failed; the stage is “open / to the crowd” and to the timetables. The drinkers are here not to have fun but to kill time. Once, this Northeast held genuine pleasures—the pleasures of pre-rock popular song, preserved in frustrating imperfection by a “crackling” television—but such pleasures are not part of his life; they could never have been: “my favorite singer” was “dead before I was born.” In such a place, the succession of hours, days, years, the forward movement of time, can bring nothing but trouble:
Exhaustion is a last line of defense
where time either stops dead or kills you.
It teaches you to see what your eyes see
without questions, without the politics
of living in one city, dying in another.
Suppressing questions, imposing a Lethean forgetfulness, this bar in New York City or Stamford or Baltimore becomes a kind of failed afterlife (as in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh): commuters are shades, paying homage to “Exhaustion,” too tired even to ask questions, certainly too tired to understand “the politics” (that is, the social and ethical causes) behind what looks, right now, like a meaningless life.
Few page-long poems have sounded more so. That first stanza contains few full stops at line endings (five in 16 lines), few places to pause and catch your breath, and even fewer suspenseful enjambments. Instead, Revell’s music is an intentionally grinding plod, ending line after line at the end of a phrase, and ending eight of 16 lines on unstressed syllables (“open,” “cities,” “politics,” “another”): nothing seems ready to move.
While waiting for this train, in this decrepit environment, a tired-out Revell dwells on that time before his birth when life in Northeastern cities felt authentic and hopeful:
How badly I would like to sleep now
in the shadows beside real things or beside
things that were real once, like the beaded gown
on the television, like the debut
of a song in New York in black and white
when my parents were there. I feel sometimes
my life was used up before I was born.
My eyes sear backwards into my head
to the makeshift of what I have already seen
or heard described or dreamed about, too weary
not to envy the world its useless outlines.
He is the shade in Acheron, presenting a nostalgia for “things that were real once.” He feels “too weary / not to envy the world its useless outlines,” viewing the present as a collection of line drawings, all black-and-white. By the end of this second verse-paragraph Revell seems to have boarded a train (perhaps during the stanza break), but though he is bone tired, he cannot sleep: instead, he feels as if he had already died, his eyes rolling backward into his head as his consciousness turns, with searing inevitability, toward the past. However fast his train moves forward, he cannot escape the feeling that he is moving backward, through urban history and through his own life: he seems to see, as the stanza continues,
Books of photographs of New York in the forties.
The dark rhombus of a window of a train
rushing past my train. The dark halo
around the body of a woman I love
from something much farther than a distance.
What is “farther than a distance,” more remote than a physical remove? It must be either the separation imposed by death, or else the psychological separation imposed when a woman says to a man “I never want to see you again.” The “woman I love” exists at a more than physical remove either because she has died (as Eurydice dies to the backward-looking Orpheus) or, more likely, because she is “dead to him.”
We are reading a breakup poem, a poem of nearly metaphysical despair, and a poem of appalled reaction to a used-up, rusted-out, exhausted regional landscape: a poem similar to, but much more intellectually ambitious than, Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” Revell avoids Hugo’s local consolations, avoids Hugo’s moderately happy ending, and pursues instead a hallucinatory escape from any landscape or cityscape we could actually see. As the train seems to leave its underground station and chugs toward its challenging end, it also moves away from literal description, toward general claims such as the line with which the last stanza begins:
The world is insatiable. It takes your legs off,
it takes your arms and parades in front of you
such wonderful things, such pictures of warm houses
trellised along the sides with green so deep
it is like black air, only transparent,
of women singing, of trains of lithium
on the awakening body of a landscape
or across the backdrop of an old city
steaming and high-shouldered as the nineteen-forties.
The world as seen from a Northeastern train makes your legs hurt (“The world is insatiable. It takes your legs off”). The seats are cramped, provoking heavy drinking (getting “legless”), making Revell hunger for things and people and experiences he can no longer have. The attractive houses seen from a train must be only “pictures of warm houses,” as remote from the present as dead singers in pearled gowns. The world in which they fit, the world in which Revell may find himself satisfied, is an impossible and hallucinatory past, a druggy “black air.”
Revell could have ended the poem in a moment of gloomy, smoky nostalgia. Instead, it ends this way:
The world exhausts everything except my eyes
because it is a long walk to the world
begun before I was born. In the far corner
the dead woman bows off stage. The television
crumples into a white dot as the last
train of the evening, my train, is announced.
I lived in one place. I want to die in another.
The poet never reaches that place of “black air”: he hasn’t even caught his train! Though the poem has already portrayed a journey (and though it participates in a line of good poems about bad train rides—see Philip Larkin’s “Dockery and Son,” for instance), it has been stuck in the bleak bar all this time. As his train finally pulls in (or at least “is announced”), his last links to an imagined past disappear. Rather than conclude with the same harshly piled anticlimaxes that have characterized the poem thus far, Revell ends with an isolated, quotable line: “I lived in one place. I want to die in another.”
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...