By Charles Rammelkamp
Utah poet laureate Paisley Rekdal’s poetry deals with change, and not gradual, evolutionary change but the kind of drastic transformation often brought on by violence. To that end, many of these poems allude to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, those myths of capricious, aggressive gods driven by their selfish desires.
Rekdal channels such tales as that of Tiresias, the blind prophet transformed into a woman, in the poem “Tiresias,” about the mother of a girl who is undergoing gender transformation (“To remove / the breasts entirely, cut out the slick / dark bag of womb, stitch out from fat / and labia some length of skin / she’d learn to call a penis….”); the story of Pasiphaë, queen of Crete, who lusted after and mated with a bull, in the poem, “Pasiphaë,” which is about a widow’s attraction to the dog with whom she survives her husband’s death (“She wanted to make the dog feel / for her some part of what was powerful / about his grief for M.”); the myth of Io, the priestess of Zeus’ wife Hera, for whom Zeus lusts – never a good sign for any mortal! – and turns her into a heifer to deceive Hera. In the game of deception between Zeus and Hera that follows, Io is ultimately made to suffer the continual stings of a gadfly. In Rekdal’s poem, “Io,” a lesbian lover becomes a quadriplegic after a bike accident, transformed from an athletic woman into a cripple and thus transforming their love into something puzzling, indefinable.
The horror, she tries to explain to Jane, is not
that she has changed but that she can’t change
entirely. Memory makes some part of her stay
always the same, and when she looks at Jane
reading on the futon refolded back into a couch,
she cries. Jane, to comfort her, insists
her desire for her is exactly the same, but it cannot be
the same desire. It is an old desire locked
inside a new body, one of clumsy,
twisted fingers, shriveled legs,
bedsores. Even Jane is not Jane anymore….
At the heart of these poetic reflections on the implications, agency and effects of transformation is the story of Philomela – the nightingale. Briefly, Philomela was raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus, who then cuts out her tongue. She weaves a tapestry to illustrate the rape, for her sister, who, incensed, kills the son she had by Tereus and feeds him to her husband. Enraged, Tereus goes after the sisters, who flee and are transformed into the swallow and the nightingale respectively.
In Rekdal’s poem, a girl, whom we understand has been raped, is spurned by her grandmother, her inheritance given to a cousin, a sculptor, whose work (Persephone) actually depicts a rape. A month later the girl receives her grandmother’s Singer sewing machine in the mail – perhaps the tool with which she might make her own revelatory tapestry? – but she hides it away in a closet.
In a brilliant poetic essay that follows the poem (“Nightingale: A Gloss”), Rekdal reflects on language and art and how they transform and explain the very things (like “rape”) that precede it. In the midst of the essay, she tells the story of her own violation while hiking near Loch Ness. Is it “rape”? What to label the assault is one of the vexing problems she addresses. (“It is not rape and yet. Sexual violence has been historically difficult to articulate.”)
Rekdal cites history and literature and etymology to flesh out the implications and asks, “If art is the eloquence left Philomela, what answer does it inspire?” Silence? Madness? “Is the metonym for Philomela art, or silence, or raving?”
And the nightingale, whose sweet, sad song has bedeviled poets for centuries? She cites Pliny the elder: “In poetry, the song may be one of suffering and loss; in nature, it is simply one of life.”
Another brilliant poem, “Gokstadt/Ganymede,” composed of fifteen sonnets, alludes to the story of the boy Zeus abducted for his beauty (from which the Greek custom of paiderastia was modeled) and tells the story of the endurance and effects of pain through the years in a frustrated love. Nightingale is dedicated to the memory Gregory Beckelhymer, who died from cancer at only 47, and this tender poem more or less reflects his struggle. “I lay claim / to your private history, and by doing so chain / you once more to silence.”
In these fifteen elegiac sonnets, Rekdal weaves ancient Norse mythology, symbolized by Gokstadt, the 9th century Viking ship on display in a museum in Oslo. In his online obituary, posted by his widow, the subject of the sequence is shown “running a hand / along Gokstadt’s blackened bow.” She later writes:
Somewhere grief’s oceanic murmur sounds:
the faint snap of linen sails, or the prayers of mourners
hungry for ritual. I imagine your fingers
scrolling these hieroglyphics carved in rounds
through Gokstadt’s keel: an untranslatable lace
of beasts and love knots, maps of borders,
the king’s own scrawled, brutal wars turned
quaint and historical….
Other poems in Nightingale, like “Knitted Thylacine,” “Psyche” and “Marsyas,” address the role of art in transformation. In poems like “Pear” and “The Olive Trees of Vouves” she meditates on nature, the thing that precedes art and requires no interpretation (but gets one!).
About the very phenomenon of transformation that drives this whole, lovely collection, Rekdal writes in “Nightingale: A Gloss”: “If we become the thing that symbolizes us, it is not change then, but revelation.” The poems in this collection are revelatory.
by Paisley Rekdal
Copper Canyon Press $16.00
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.