Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye has been described as “pastoral” by a literary critic in the press release that came along with my review copy of the book, and while that’s a very good place to start with this volume it’s not an all-encompassing description, either. Rekdal uses pastoral motifs to engage discourse on life and love—as many poets from Wordsworth onward have before her—but she also constructs full models of life in this book. It is as if a scientist is at work in the basement of the museum of natural history, building a diorama of an entire ecosystem via words. She seems not only interested in using the natural world as a metaphoric lens in her poems but is set on building them item by item into natural worlds themselves. Her poetry—though in most cases short, tight, poems—can overwhelm the reader, though in a very good way.
For example, take a look at the opening of her poem “Nightingale”:
There is a bird that comes at night, he says,
that makes the most beautiful music.
The “he” described is a boy, seated at the kitchen table—we’re given that much—and then he launches into the reason for the title of the poem. “Nightingale” is flowing, bittersweet, and adroit in every capacity—possibly my favorite poem in the entire book. It also prepares us for the longer poem “Wax” that earns its own section in the book: when “Wax” comes on the scene, all else grinds to a halt. The parade of powerful yet compact poems is over for a spell, and instead we have a massive missive about wax museums and thus about the celebrities re-created in wax form therein. Here, in literal terms, Rekdal is working as that museum tech down in the basement and building displays to entertain and inform the public. And when that public reads of her tales, to this museum of melodrama, you know they’ll come in droves.
But before all that, I want to return to the boy and his nightingale:
The field is wet and full of stars.
The boy cocks his head toward the dark.
I won’t give away the full tenor or meaning of this poem, but it’s sublime and filled with language as lush and leading as these fine examples. This kid is describing an event; this boy is telling a tale; this kid is constructing a reality; this boy is cut like a stencil from the Boy Scout ideals of an America that hardly was; this kid could be Ohio, North Carolina, or Detroit. He is rural, he is suburban. He is in from soccer on a November night or bored to tears in the heart of the hot summer. Rekdal provides us with a whole person—she put him together from straw and lumber in the basement I suppose —not just the image or narrative of a person. She offers a character able to tell his own tale as if being interviewed on the nightly news. There is her magic: Rekdal’s boy at the kitchen table is now real, set loose to offer his own commentary, seemingly no longer a voice of the poet but one fully of his own.
In other instances, Rekdal’s work is of the same level of raw craft but somehow the end result is not of the same caliber, such as in “Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce”. Though well-written, even the title is somewhat an example of trying too hard. There is an air of the set-piece to it, a sense of knowing exactly what to expect and just waiting to see the poet draw it all out. These poems though number few in her book and they are even above the level of many contemporary poets, offering sound construction and pithy, ready, emotions. Indeed, were it not for poems such as “Nightingale” or “Ballard Locks” in this volume, even the weakest of Rekdal’s efforts would appear exceptional, but these poems push the standard even higher.
What Rekdal does over and over in this book and does always very well is to interrogate the lives of a variety of people via her pastoral references as seen perhaps by some small mammal or bird—something with that “animal eye”—from a short distance away. She asks us to come to know otherness by firstly becoming the other. If inside the same society as the subject of the poem, we are too insular to these often-cloistered subjects, so she allows us the benefit of being someone else, perhaps even someone/something not human. She allows us removal even beyond being a party foreign to the subject, in a sense doing the opposite of what every author of fiction who tries to make his reader feel like the reader is in fact one of the characters in the narrative; instead of putting us in the same social circle as her characters, Rekdal puts us one step more removed than normal and thus allows us a specific formulation of understanding which is unique to the most different, most foreign, most exotic.
The question of “character” development in contemporary poetry is one too seldom asked or approached in criticism: the way many of us write today involves the creation or replication of personages different from the poet and thus, really, characters in any sense of narrative. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have names, if they don’t extend for five pages of activity or have concrete backstories. They can, like the boy at the kitchen window and his nightingale, be momentary but they’re no less powerful when crafted by skilled hands. Rekdal certainly has this sense of craft down pat: she draws us into these poems via characters who are full, lush, evocative, and compelling—so much so, in fact, you don’t realize at times they are nameless or you are unsure whether they are the poet herself or someone else. Many readers—even those dedicated to contemporary poetry—seem still to presume that any figure introduced in a poem is a real person and thus, ever poem is a chronicle of the poet’s actual life in verse. Not so, of course, as poets can as adeptly create fictional or fictionalized portrayals as readily as any other writer. This is not to say the genesis of Rekdal’s poems is one of only her powers of imagination, but her work is able to expertly weave in so many colors of description aside very compelling and ready characters that I have to wonder of their full origins. Whether fully true to life or truer to a masterful sense of fictional creation, these poems are filled with people we want to know. The boy in “Nightingale” alone could go on to star in an entire novel, just as some scholars claim that Bloom was first seen in a story in Joyce’s Dubliners long before starring in his masterpiece.
Rekdal’s approach to developing atmosphere is no less comprehensive than her ability to flesh out characters of substance: her descriptions of place are stark when need be to allow the focus to fall elsewhere but can be lush and affirming—glossy even—when desired. That “pastoral” quality another reviewer noted is very apparent in places and the development of place can be nonspecific yet realistic, broad, and wide-ranging in scope. Rekdal’s summer-filled or autumnal-flavored spots on the page resonate like vintage landscape postcards and it’s much to her credit that when required, she can draw in these lush string and brass sounds of the pastoral and have her orchestra play a smaller tune devoted to specific human emotions. It’s a treat though when Rekdal fully unleashes her orchestral overtones and depicts a place in such painterly terms, reminding us of one of the most-valued of traditions in Western canonical poetry—that of breathtaking landscape.
More than simply pastoral I would praise Rekdal’s writing in Animal Eye as verdant, as lush, as filled with dreams but not normal dreams—ones that creep out of the skull and remain deep in the carpet until their seeds bloom into actuality. Her praxis here is at such a high level that even her shortest poems are full and never suffer for their economy on the page. When she turns to something nearing long-form, she provides us with “Wax” and after reading this poem, you’ll never look at a wax museum the same again, I promise you. This book is necessary: it is a step in a more consummate direction of contemporary poetry that openly acknowledges the debt poetry has to fiction yet also the multiple debts it has to its naturalistic past. More than a book-length pastoral, this is an eclogue and a fine one at that.