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.
The poet takes a somewhat antagonistic stance toward her own art, alluding at various points to its potential for spectacle and voyeurism, and to the danger that trying to arouse empathy may lead us only into the “moral emptiness” of violence. “Perhaps this / is the defining feature of humanity,” one of her poetic voices posits: “the capacity to imagine / some small cruelty and take pleasure in it.” And yet, as so many others have done, the poet sings. To put it mythically, as Rekdal does in “Marsyas,”
Apollo, unthinking, binds himself
to Marsyas: the god taking from his rival
fear and desire, the satyr hardened by the god’s
cruel skill, until both songs
writhe inside each other, sung
by one who cannot understand death, and so
never understands what he plays,
knowing only how his hand
trembles over the plucked muscle:
adding, he thinks, something lower to the notes,
something sweet and infinitely strange.
Whatever it is that makes a poet sing, Rekdal seems to indicate, it’s got a cruel, dispassionate strain (the “god” part) and a hurting, muscular strain (the satyr). Those two elements work for and against each other in the resulting poem.
The entire collection centers around a piece called “Nightingale: A Gloss,” which, at seventeen pages long, is less poem and more fragmented essay, of the kind one might find in a poetics anthology. Comprised of short prose paragraphs separated by asterisks, the piece alludes to the process Rekdal underwent in writing one of her own lyrics (“Philomela”), and, in recurring sections, imbeds a first-person memory of a sexual assault, along with quotations from Elizabethan literary critics, Shelley, the Oxford English dictionary, etc., and the poet’s own reflections and poetics.
To give just a portion as an example of the difficult themes, but literate approach:
Sufferance: ME soffrance and Latin suffrer, patience endurance; the suffering of pain, trouble, damage, wrong; sanction, consent, or acquiescence.
Suffer: to cause pain; also, to endure pain.
That the branches of poetry are silence and sufferance.
In my poem “Philomela,” the woman who has been raped inherits—years after her attack—an antique sewing machine from her grandmother. She imagines using this sewing machine to sew a quilt on which she will embroider figures of the domestic life her grandmother ruefully noted she did not have: a house, a child, a man. But after a few minutes’ contemplation, she boxes up the machine, slides it high up on a bedroom shelf. What is she communicating? Who would she be speaking to? She can always return to the quilt, she tells herself, but in the unwritten rest of the poem I imagine for her, she never will.
Not rape, I say, meaning certain body parts and not others were used, meaning I do not cede that last ignominy to him, will never name how I lay in the dirt and ground my screams back down into me. But what is that word for what I experienced after? What is the word for how I awoke to fear and never went back to sleep?
Because the poet is aiming to communicate concepts like process, change, and—what is inseparable from them—suffering—one can see why she would feel the need for some length. She wants, it appears, to be very direct about her struggle and the kind of questions she asks herself, not to embed assault in allegory or symbol or any such artistic rendering without also speaking to it directly. The analytic handling, rich in quotations and sophisticated comment, may lose readers (I admit that my attention flagged somewhat under the self-conscious parlance), but this seems a risk the poet is willing to take.
It’s also illustrative of the antagonism I’d mentioned. This essay/poem stands in contrast to the lyric about which it refers, “Philomela.” Many of the more overt Ovidian rewrites are deliberately grim. But “Philomela” errs toward loveliness. This is the description of the protagonist viewing a sculpture in her cousin’s studio, a modern “converted barn:”
she stared a long while at what she thought
was a tree blasted by lightening
but the more she looked, the more clearly
shapes emerged. There
were a man’s hands gripping a slender figure
by the waist, the thin body writhing,
frozen in his arms.
In Ovid’s myth, Philomela’s sister learns of her rape through a tapestry she weaves. A parallel revelation occurs here, as this piece of art arouses in the character what seems to be a memory of an assault she experienced in college, more alluded-to than described. In a poetic turn that feels surprising, the protagonist later receives a sewing machine.
It was lovely, and for a moment
She considered sewing a quilt with it,
Onto which she might embroider
Shooting stars in red and saffron, the figure
Of a child, perhaps, or of a man
By a house’s courtyard, his hat
In his hands, his broad body naked, harmless.
Will this secondary (or tertiary, in the poem’s microcosm) Philomela weave her shooting-star tapestry with her vintage Singer sewing machine? Will she reimagine sex, domesticating it, or shelve it altogether? The symbolism may be heavy-handed, and yet for all that, the narrative of “Philomela” remains fresh, surprising, strongly voiced, a kind of tribute for the power of art to remove harm as much as to recreate it. The movement of the poem is easy to understand, its themes moving.
But this isn’t where Rekdal wants us, as readers, to dwell. The lyric loveliness of which she is so capable seems to dissatisfy her on some profound level. “Nightingale: A Gloss,” might be read simply as a depiction of a process; a kind of glimpse into a writer’s notebook, if you will. But I can’t help feeling that the poem/essay also has destructive aims: there seems to be an impulse in the poet to undermine her lyric, to tear off its careful outer garments and reveal its prosy, scholastic nakedness: the looping intestines of lyricism, as it were, put on display. She wants us to see that even about her most immediate experiences, even in regard to horror, she has a calculating, researching mind. She is Apollo and Marsyas, and Apollo tends to win.
In the end, I prefer the pieces that don’t make too much of their counterparts in Ovid, but instead follow Ovid’s mode in unfolding their narratives, one story of transformation becoming another, as it were. We see this at its best in “Four Marys,” a loosely ekphrastic work unfolding over more than 140 lines that interplays two painted Marys (a Magdalene and Madonna of Piero della Francesca’s) and two literary ones (Mary Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft). Each of these can easily be made into symbols or figureheads, but the poet is trying to reveal them as actual and traumatized.
“Even if I did not believe / in Mary’s joy,” she writes,
I would believe in her pain, the quick flick
of her thoughts turning to the sister, or the cousin,
or to her own mother who’d died giving birth,
the baby, too, not making it, for the birth
was in winter: ice clogged the village’s
deep ruts that the midwife’s cart slipped
into the soaked dike, splitting the wood wheel
in two, and by the time the woman could walk
the steep hill up to the villa, the mother had torn,
and in the rush to save her, no one worked
quick enough to cut the cord wrapped
around the baby’ s throat. Or the baby came out
strong and fine, but died two years later
when it stumbled into fire, or was bitten by a rat
and sickened and starved, or caught the fever
that spread through town when all the animals
where stabled inside the houses for the winter.
Dreamlike, then, not because the poet is romanticizing, but because the poet allows her imagination to range so freely over the physical and emotional grotesqueries of birth in another era, phantasmagoric relationships taking shape as she goes. Intellectual, not just because Medieval frescoes and Victorian novelists are the kind of material a scholar would find interesting, but because she cannot seem to help but further and further unpack cause, effect, and significance. The “embroidery of pomegranates” on the painting’s tent launches the poet into a scene in which a midwife feeds a duke’s wife “pomegranate seeds to sustain her.” This imagined midwife
………………………………………… took the fruit home
and split it with her husband and tried not to think
of the bed of the girl she’d just left, its stains
that looked almost black in the dawn light,
which reminds this poet of something Mary Wollstonecraft said before she died, which in turn leads the poet to consider the frescoed Magdalene,
………………………………………………. her curled hair wet
with the tears she used to bathe Christ’s feet,
her body a swollen green swathe of dress, the red cape
folded to accentuate the pendulous belly
and thick thigh,
and who, Rekdal implies, both as a symbolic and actual figure, is as worthy of reverence as the Madonna. And, if the reader is still more attentive, there’s a jewel of comment there, too, for the taking:
………………………………………… It is wonderful
when time accentuates something of the truth
already within us: the frank look, the unabashed
leg with which the woman kicks off the covers from the bed
of the man to whom she is not married; the neat,
round muscle of his shoulder pressed against hers
in the dark, his body over and over coming alive
under her hands, a dream or a nightmare
Mary Shelley once had of Clara.2
This is a good deal to take in: establishing, digressing, vivifying, confronting, commenting upon, and looping back and forth across centuries. But the poet handles it with elegance, propelling forward with easy, thoughtful pentameters, and wisely choosing to underplay the transitions between her themes (she persistently tacks to a new Mary in the middle of a line, not allowing even a line break to slow the reader for the turn).
The truth is that I began reading these poems in a peaceful autumn, when, as Rekdal writes of a voluptuous plum tree, there was “so much abundance, and the only cost / waiting.” But I am writing in a different time, in moment when thousands are dying and many more, relegated to their homes, are quietly suffering. How can I not judge a book of poems by the kind of sustenance it offers in a time of sadness? What sense of perspective does it offer? What beauty does it relentlessly cling to? How well does it articulate lament? And in spite of its intelligence—for Rekdal is truly an intelligent scholar and a thoughtful poet—such a heady and deliberate project as this one cannot, for me, hold up. It is too studious and self-conscious; too dutiful to the scholarly conventions of the moment; under its front of sexual frankness, too careful and correct. Fair assessment or no, I would never reach for it in a crisis.
And yet I still believe that Rekdal is a remarkable and worthy poet, particularly when she directs her scrutiny to the mystery of love and life itself, rather than the process whereby it’s rendered. “I wish I could have made / our bodies one only of delight, never of suffering” she writes in “Gokstadt.”
I wish that ivy dress had come softly twining
to our feet as we grafted ourselves into one
another: my slow blush ripening between us as
something in us both, finally, opened.
Of course the ivy dress didn’t, and doesn’t. But may that longing for wholeness and healing always result in more poems.
1. In “Io,” a sudden quadriplegia worries about her same-sex marriage; in “Pasiphae,” a grieving woman recalls secret anti-religious sex habits on her way to developing a strangely symbiotic relationship with her dog; in “Psyche,” a mother poses her teenage son for uncomfortable, almost necrophiliac photographs; in “Tiresias” a mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer both enables and is astonished by her child’s gender transition as she processes her own bodily changes. And so forth.
2. Emphasis mine.