Bowels and Tapestries: Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale

by Paisley Rekdal
(Copper Canyon Press, 2019, 96 pp., $16)

Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale might be read as a kind of working out of personal poetics, using Ovid open-handedly as a template for exploring strange transformations. The nightingale represents, as it did for Keats and countless others, the poet’s need to make a song from a violent encounter, even if the need troubles the poet. The poems are long and allusive—a style not, admittedly, to everyone’s taste—but also personal and confrontational; I was reminded more than once of the genre-blending in Ann Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” As one might expect in a retooling of Ovid, sexuality and sexual experiences establish the major tensions: Rekdal’s pieces imagine scenarios not only in which sexuality changes, but also in which a speaker’s perception toward, or attitude about, or memory of an encounter—or assault—shifts.

Left Wine

We turn into an alley, nearing the end of our walk,
and I straggle, sapped, by a massing of lost vines.
Someone has left their garden, a sure, deliberate planting,
spilling into the gravel, bins, a parked car.
Incongruently, panged, I think of a white goal
unmet in an ancient track: mēta. I’ve stopped short;
rancor enriches my throat. That where parents are bowed down,
the elderly hard to their limits, cultivation could hang abandoned.
These grapes are for no one’s taste,
though I’m touching them with my hand,
whose flourishing doesn’t belong, already turning the spokes
of the stroller, my children chiding from their aimless bicycles ahead.

Riverwalk, 37 Weeks Pregnant

Like the whoop of a student
tumbling from his dorm into January sun,
swaggering and young,…… spreads—

like the wide
scrawl on the concrete bridge:
I love Karin—…… …… (I love Nick!

look at those kids…… in their eloquent coats
aqua blue…… green as a jewel
shoving a boulder of grainy snow
through the rails of the bridge
crushing it…… …… SINK IT!…… …… no
it floats…… …… unstifled
those are my kids)

…… …… …… …… …… …… my cloud

sailing from my round sides
irrepressible omphalos…… …… overtakes everything:


They cross the threshold
of our humming house & we fold our wings, falling

drowsy as geese, nuptial
in the window’s evening flare. Your parents now:

at the couch, settling
the floor, shrugging their ghosts to the steaming tiles.

I could rise, fruit
in boxes mellowing the air behind. I could

be gone, not
sit, speaking, with the ones

you love, at our hearth,
brooding to dreams silent as the balm

of an apple, longevity
alighted, close, a roost, breathing, lying, at hand.

Inadequacy Battles the Immense: On Rachel Hadas’s Poems for Camilla

Poems for Camilla
by Rachel Hadas
(Measure Press, 2018)

Poems for Camilla works from the initially startling assumption that an ancient war text can serve as a natural meeting point between a grandmother and granddaughter. Hadas, however, focuses on the timelessness of the text, rather than its martial aspects. The Aeneid becomes, in her lyric poems, not just the means by which she can share wisdom with a beloved young person, but also a living, literary world into which she can insert herself past her own life’s boundaries, there for her granddaughter to find.

Momentum and Breath: on Elise Partridge’s The If Borderlands & Stephen Kampa’s Articulate as Rain

The If Borderlands: Collected Poems
By Elise Partridge
(New York Review of Books, 272pp., $16.00)

Articulate as Rain
By Stephen Kampa
(Waywiser Press, 96pp., $14.25)

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as riveted by a poetry collection as I was by The If Borderlands. Elise Partridge’s work is mostly new to me, but it possesses such meticulous, formally attentive understatement, such a range of subject matter, and such philosophical curiosity and wisdom, that it is surely the equal, to my mind, of poetic thinkers like Clampitt, Bishop, and Schnackenberg.

‘Mortal as I’d Always Been’: C.K. Williams’ Falling Ill

Falling Ill: Last Poems
by C.K. Williams
(FSG, 2017, 64 pgs., $23)

Those looking for consolation in C.K. Williams’ final book (Falling Ill, FSG, 2017), written after an end-of-life diagnosis, won’t find much of it. But there is spare beauty, control, honesty, mitigated terror, and love. Especially love.

Spring Hiatus

This house with the small backyard here it is I drowse. The wind strews
blossoms from the crabapple boughs; they catch in in the grass, in the vines,
like snow. In front, a tree, riotous and pink, fills
the narrow window I clap my eyes on. A garden,
alongside a street.
I am teaching nothing. When I wake,
the day lies before me as water to wash in. My children keep close to my body;
shade passes by. I have lost the sense of my century I am
a child myself I love my boundaries, dripping with green.
Why is my neighbor in exile here? A grasping that held me is gone.

The Beatitudes of Rowan

By Rowan Ricardo Phillips
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 61 pp., $13.00)

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is quickly making a name for himself, and for good reason. His second full collection of poems, Heaven, following in the footsteps of several successful verse essays, is something of an experiment. In it, Phillips rejects anti-poetics and opts for the landscape of high art (The Odyssey, the night sky, music, the ocean, Hamlet, a mountain peak), overtly engaging such canonical poets and theorists as Wallace Stevens, Derek Walcott, and Robert Frost (not to mention Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare). The volume offers a worldlywise and humorous—yet nonetheless honestly contemplative—perspective on what poetic bliss might mean for a readership of spiritual and intellectual cynics.