Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal
Copper Canyon, 2019; 97 pages
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
We Are the Reason the Story Doesn’t End
We are told that all stories, in order to work successfully, must show transformation. Someone trying to get somewhere faces obstacles, which then she must surmount in order to arrive at a point where she wasn’t before. If nothing changes, it isn’t a story. That much, Ovid understands; and so in The Metamorphoses, he gives us over 200 instances in which mortals are compelled to change in form as a way to escape the unwanted advances of something or someone more powerful:
of a god who takes what he wants
and never gives it back.
~ “Four Marys”
Daphne is turned into a laurel tree, Io is turned into a cow; the Naiad Syrinx is turned into a reed which makes a certain music when the wind blows through it.
The poems in Nightingale can be thought of as a kind of project in re-reading Ovid. But in the hands of Utah’s current Poet Laureate, Paisley Rekdal, they most directly address the violence behind these narratives of sudden change, while also linking them to those that come to light almost everyday in our midst—from the #MeToo movement, to every other story of trauma and suffering, including illness and aging.
But what is the nature of change itself, and how does it affect the actors and those acted upon? Does any story or study of change account fairly for the dynamic in which it occurs? Rekdal’s poems bring a closer lens to the subject, for
“[r]ape is the dark seam of The Metamorphoses. To Ovid, a poet,
perhaps the ultimate dehumanizing act would bring the body
to a place beyond language.”
~ “Nightingale: A Gloss”
What is the poem’s, the poet’s, duty in the face of suffering?
“To insist on pleasure alone is a mark
Each poem is marked by precise attention to language—and rightly, since if art must bear witness to suffering, it must not look away. In “Horn of Plenty,” an artist procuring a goat to render a sculpture more realistic with freshly poured blood
as the farmer trudged into a muddy copse
with a pail to pull two thin animals into his barn.
Then he locked his knees around the smallest
one’s neck, its hips and triangular head
twisting in his grip, so he levered the blade
clumsily across the goat’s gullet, forced now to saw
through the tough neck muscles, the animal’s head
violently shaking no, no, no until the head
pulled free and was thrown upon the ground….”
Perhaps especially in the gorgeous eponymous sequence for this collection, but really almost everywhere in it, Rekdal’s poems are fearless in their application of extended muscular thought, at the same time that they brim with lyric exploration.
For instance, in “Psalm,” the poet’s ruminations on the virtues of restraint (“waiting”) as opposed to the wild recklessness of giving in to ripeness (“[a] gold, a lengthening of light”) never remain in the merely abstract:
“To believe only in denial
the fool’s prerogative. You hunger
because you hunger. And the tree calls to this.
But the fruit is real. I have eaten it. Have plucked
and washed and cut the weight, and stewed it
with sugar and lemon peel until the gold
ran rich and thick into jars. I have spooned it
over bread and meat. I have sucked it
from my husband’s fingers. I have watched it sour…”
In her rewriting of myths from the classics and from our own ordinary time, Rekdal reminds us that change is also the space where violence has rendered a scene silent. After Tereus rapes his sister-in-law Philomela, “he cuts out her tongue and tosses it, the bloody stump writhing at her feet.” But “[l]anguage is the first site of loss and [also] our first defense against it.” (“Nightingale: A Gloss”)
Philomela and Procne fly away, transformed as nightingales, with the Hoopoe ever in pursuit. Their trill, their new call, becomes the sign of a violence that needs to be replayed and somehow rearticulated.
What do we do
With memory, do we burn
Or do we embellish it, do we
Revisiting the sites of any violence or unfolding, language (and the poem) might attempt to enact a form of restorative justice. But because it must rely on the primary strategy of return through memory and the imagination, its utility as a source of comfort for the subjects of that same violence has its limits:
“The horror… is not
that she has changed but that she can’t change
entirely. Memory makes some part of her stay
always the same….”
In the end, the poet can only acknowledge the doubled edge of language, and by extension, of her task. Elegy ensues from endless remaking, as the elusive remains elusive.
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com