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Paisley Rekdal

 03-04-2013

 
Paisley Rekdal
 
Why Some Girls Love Horses

And then I thought, Can I have more
of this, would it be possible
for every day to be a greater awakening: more light,
more light, your face on the pillow
with the sleep creases rudely
fragmenting it, hair so stiff
from paint and sheet rock it feels
like the dirty short hank
of mane I used to grab on Dandy's neck
before he hauled me up and forward,
white flanks flecked green
with shit and the satin of his dander,
the livingness, the warmth
of all that blood just under the skin
and in the long, thick muscle of the neck-

He was smarter than most of the children
I went to school with. He knew
how to stand with just the crescent
of his hoof along a boot toe and press,
incrementally, his whole weight down. The pain
so surprising when it came,
its iron intention sheathed in stealth, the decisive
sudden twisting of his leg until the hoof
pinned one's foot completely to the ground,
we'd have to beat and beat him with a brush
to push him off, that hot
insistence with its large horse eye trained
deliberately on us, to watch-

Like us, he knew how to announce through violence
how he didn't hunger, didn't want
despite our practiced ministrations: too young
not to try to empathize
with this cunning: this thing
that was and was not human we must respect
for itself and not our imagination of it: I loved him because
I could not love him anymore
in the ways I'd taught myself,
watching the slim bodies of teenagers
guide their geldings in figure eights around the ring
as if they were one body, one fluid motion
of electric understanding I would never feel
working its way through fingers to the bit: this thing
had a name, a need, a personality; it possessed
an indifference that gave me
logic and a measure: I too might stop wanting
the hand placed on back or shoulder
and never feel the desired response.
I loved the horse for the pain it could imagine

and inflict on me, the sudden jerking
of head away from halter, the tentative nose
inspecting first before it might decide
to relent and eat. I loved
what was not slave or instinct, that when you turn to me
it is a choice, it is always a choice to imagine pleasure
might be blended, one warmth
bleeding into another as the future
bleeds into the past, more light, more light,
your hand against my shoulder, the image
of the one who taught me disobedience
is the first right of being alive.

 

Ballard Locks

Air-struck, wound-gilled, ladder
           upon ladder of them thrashing
through froth, herds of us climb
           the cement stair to watch
this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;
           so much twisted light
the whole tank seethes in a welter of bubbles:
           more like sequined
purses than fish, champagned explosions
           beneath which the ever-moving
smolt fume smacks against glass, churns them up
           to lake from sea level, the way,
outside, fishing boats are dropped or raised
           in pressured chambers, hoses spraying
the salt-slicked undersides a cleaner clean.
           Now the vessels
can return to dock. Now the fish,
           in their similar chambers, rise and fall
along the weirs, smelling the place
           instinct makes for them,
city's pollutants sieved
           through grates: keeping fish
where fish will spawn, but changing the physics of it,
           changing ours as well:
one giant world encased
           with plastic rock, seaweed transplanted
in thick ribbons for schools to rest in
           before they work their way up
the industrious journey: past
           shipyard, skyline, playground;
past bear-cave, past ice-valley; past the place
           my father's father would,
as a child, have stood with crowds
           and shot at them with guns
then scooped them from the river with a net, such
           silvers, pinks cross-hatched in black:
now there's protective glass
           behind which gray shapes shift: change
then change again. Can you see the jaws
           thickening with teeth, scales
beginning to plush themselves with blood; can you see
           there is so little distinction here
between beauty, violence, utility?
           The water looks like boiling sun.
A child has turned his finger into a gun.
           Bang, the ladders say
as they bring up fish into too-bright air, then down again,
           while the child watches the glass
revolves its shapes into a hiss of light.
           Bang, the boy repeats.
His finger points and points.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

Paisley Rekdal grew up in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. She earned a BA from the University of Washington, an MA from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies, and an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of the poetry collections A Crash of Rhinos (2000), Six Girls Without Pants (2002), and The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (2007) as well as the book of essays The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In (2000).
 
In reviewing The Invention of the Kaleidoscope for Barn Owl Review, Jay Robinson observed that it’s “the razor’s edge that always accompanies eros that makes the poems of Paisley Rekdal fresh, intense and ultimately irresistible.” Rekdal’s work grapples with issues of race, sexuality, myth, and identity while often referencing contemporary culture.
 
Rekdal has been honored with a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, and a Fulbright Fellowship to South Korea. Her work has been included in numerous anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (2006) and the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology.
 
Rekdal teaches at the University of Utah.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading

A Mini-Review of Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye by Contributing Editor David J. Daniels

Years ago, back in graduate school while getting my MFA, the following line used to float in my head: “Accidents fuel accidents that are blessings, too.”

It comes from Paisley Rekdal’s poem “Fire,” which I’d encountered in a literary magazine and which later appeared in Rekdal’s impressive first collection, A Crash of Rhinos. There were two qualities I admired about the line, things I found instructive for my own poetry. First, perhaps obviously, was the allure of contradiction, that the accidental sometimes fuels grace. Secondly, that a poet, especially one as young as Rekdal, could achieve a moment of such stark argument in her work.

These were qualities I wanted to achieve, too – the close-up, complicated, restless vision; those opportunities for telling among the standard admonition to show. They were qualities I admired in poets older than Rekdal – Lynda Hull and Brigit Pegeen Kelly were among my go-to poets at the time; before them, Gunn and Hugo; and Dickinson, of course, far, far before them. The syntactical tautness and rhythmic velocity of the line – those are qualities I wouldn’t have understood as part of its power then.

But so, it floated there.

In her newest book, Animal Eye, Rekdal continues to enthrall me. She is among our most sensual poets, I think, meaning erotically attentive and physically alive, with a surgeon’s eye for detail. She writes long poems typically, stuffed with carnal fragments – animals, caged and bound; anatomical parts, in beds, on operating tables, or glimpsed on the x-ray screen; poisons, kisses, and illnesses; flashes of bodily torture and rioting in the streets.

The book’s most ambitious and lyrically charged poem, “Wax,” traces a complex terrain of body parts, both historical and familial, from Tussaud’s wax museum to an operating room that ‘turned // the human into map, drew bodies that could be / chart and information.” With a taxidermist’s concentrated gaze, with “little calipers and stylus,” Rekdal sets herself the task of refusing to look away from the body’s ligaments and tissues, a looking “so close it hurts the eyes to pinpoint // just where the light is coming from, to give it shape.”

There’s something terrifying about Rekdal’s concentrated looking; it’s a vision that aligns the beautiful with the dangerous, pleasure with violence. Such is the case with the book’s opening poem, “Why Some Girls Love Horses,” where Rekdal associates romantic love with a painful childhood memory of having her foot crushed by a horse. She begins by watching a lover sleep:

     And then I thought, Can I have more
     of this, would it possible
     for every day to be a greater awakening: more light,
     more light, your face on the pillow
     with the sleep creases rudely
     fragmenting it, hair so stiff
     from paint and sheet rock it feels
     like the dirty short hank
     of mane I used to grab on Dandy's neck
     before he hauled me up and forward,
     white flanks flecked green
     with shit and the satin of his dander,

                                       ... He knew
      how to stand with just the crescent
      of his hoof along a boot toe and press,
      incrementally, his whole weight down. The pain
      so surprising when it came,
      its iron intention sheathed in stealth...

And later, when Rekdal returns to address her sleeping lover directly, she offers a gorgeous, if chilling understanding of eros, of intimate love bound intrinsically with ache:

     I loved the horse for the pain it could imagine
     and inflict on me...

                                                I loved
      what was not slave or instinct, that when you turn to me
      it is a choice, it is always a choice to imagine pleasure
      might be blended, one warmth
      bleeding into another as the future
      bleeds into the past, more light, more light,
      your hand against my shoulder, the image
      of the one who taught me disobedience
      is the first right of being alive.

The grotesque rendered beautiful; the beautiful, grotesque. This is the sublime, of course, which inspires equal parts awe and terror. Often, Rekdal locates the sublime in the natural world of animals, or rather in the less-than-natural worlds of museums and zoos. In “Ballard Locks,” a poem packed with lush diction, tourists gather to watch salmon maneuver the industrial gateways leading to Puget Sound:

     Air-struck, wound-gilled, ladder
                upon ladder of them thrashing
     through froth, herds of us climb
                the cement stair to watch
     this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;
                so much twisted light
     the whole tank seethes in a welter of bubbles:
                more like sequined
     purses than fish, champagned explosions

Air-struck and wound-gilled – it’s difficult to imagine fiercer language, luscious on the tongue, plus that pun on awestruck as the tourists gather, themselves seething with eagerness at this display of dying. The poem ends with a child stepping forward, his fingers shaped like a gun: “Bang, the ladders say / as they bring up fish… / Bang, the boy repeats. / His finger points and points.” In many ways, Rekdal’s vision, too, is a gun, or a paring knife, or a surgeon’s scalpel, or a bird’s sharp beak and talons, an implement that insists on examining, that dissects to lay bare the savage. “Can you see the jaws,” Rekdal asks, “thickening with teeth, scales / beginning to plush themselves with blood; can you see / there is so little distinction here / between beauty, violence, utility?”

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading

Beauty and Violence: Paisley Rekdal's poetry explores the effect humans have on the natural world-and vice versa by Jonathan Farmer for the Slate book review

Most poets start out in a kind of Eden, one that typically coincides with adolescence. Convinced of the great importance of everything, their own thoughts most of all, they name the world and find it beautiful. But poets eventually grow up, and these days they tend to learn a few lessons along the way—that the most important thing about many of us is the harm our way of living does; that not only is our self-importance suspect, but so is the idea that we have a stable self; and that beauty may be truth but truth is relative. Many of the best poets find ways of turning lessons like these into new sources of energy, creating new Edens teeming with predators and weeds.

Paisley Rekdal, the author of three previous books of poems as well as a smart and entertaining memoir-in-essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, has stocked her latest collection, Animal Eye, with plenty of bad news—ecological corruption, a death from cancer caused by pesticides, a relationship suffocated by race. And yet this is a book built on pleasure, a convincingly, if subtly, joyous engagement with a world where “there is so little distinction … / between beauty, violence, utility.”

Take this excerpt from her poem “Ballard Locks,” where she writes of salmon passing through man-made protective tanks as they head upstream to spawn. They are, she says:

            more like sequined
      purses than fish, champagned explosions
             beneath which the ever-moving
      smolt fume smacks against glass, churns them up
             to lake from sea level, the way
      outside, fishing boats are dropped or raised
             in pressured chambers, hoses spraying
      the salt-slicked undersides a cleaner clean.
             Now the vessels
      can return to dock. Now the fish,
             in their similar chambers, rise and fall
      along the weirs …

It’s a poem in part about the fact that we so often understand nature at one remove—through glass, through associations with other man-made things (purses, champagne bottles, boats). Later on, it’s also a poem about our desire to get closer and the degree to which that appetite is fueled by violence—we want to get closer to nature so we can kill and consume.

But poetry is its own remove, and Rekdal’s description is full of barely contained excitement, the adjectives reaching over line-breaks for their nouns twice in the first three lines, runs of heavily stressed syllables rattling against each other, as in “smolt fume smacks against glass,” with its intricate networks of matching and opposing consonants and vowels. (Say it out loud, paying attention to the ways your lips, tongue, and vocal cords move.) And then the relief that starts to set in after “the way,” including a few runs of iambic regularity (“the vessels/ can return to dock,” “rise and fall along the weirs”), an orderliness that’s much more vibrant than the sanitizing order it describes.

Like pretty much all collections, Animal Eye doesn’t always live up to its best moments. (Not coincidentally, most poetry books also feel too long.) The weaker poems here aren’t bad, and they often include good stories, including Rekdal’s painfully funny account of (accidentally) inciting a lemur escape in the Lisbon zoo. But in telling these stories, Rekdal loses some of the richness that defines the lines above. It feels like the obligation to get to each detail in the proper order distracts her, and instead of the poetic rhythms enriching the prose, they seem, at times, to run in uneasy parallel.

In a lesser book, these same poems still might be standouts, but they lack the physicality of Rekdal’s best writing (which, for readers of Elizabeth Bishop, may also spur a thrill of recognition). You can hear it again in this passage from “Arctic Scale,” a breathtaking stanza that appears immediately after the disquieting lines “oil rigs dip their certain needles/ and the Inuit women’s breast milk has been declared/ hazardous waste”:

      It is so beautiful here. Here is a wall-sized field of green
      with patches of corn silk. Here is a miraculous range
      seamed with what I have to be told is coal,
      the enormous, glassy sea chattering its blue
      to the sky, the glacier clasped between them
      quietly disappearing.

One of my favorite poems in the book is titled, simply, “Happiness.” It’s a risky poem in a way, one that chooses joy when others are suffering, and if it were any less well-written—any less full of joy to be had by anyone who finds it, any less adept in enacting the appetite that underpins our joy—I suspect it would feel cheap or even grotesque. At the poem’s end, Rekdal writes of unhappy neighbors, and of her garden, which “lives alongside their misery./ It glows each evening with a violent light.”

Writing gives us a way of living beyond our means. “The magpie comes and all I can think is/ beauty, beauty,” Rekdal exclaims in “Closer,” “though you said/ it’s a junk bird, though its commonness/ makes most ignore it.” In acknowledging the disappointing facts of our existence and singing her way into its amazement, she has created poetry that lives alongside the misery we sometimes witness—and sometimes cause.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

An Interview with Paisley Rekdal by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Why Some Girls Love Horses” feels almost as if it opens in the middle of a thought or the middle of the poem itself with that “And then I thought, Can I have more / of this…” It reminds me of the way Larry Levis enters into some of his poems or the way fiction writers begin the story in the middle rather than after a whole bunch of exposition. What effect are you going for by starting the poem in this way?

Paisley Rekdal: I was trying to re-create, as best I could, the process of thinking, to enact in syntax the way the mind formulates thought through feeling and memory.

AMK: The lines in this poem move around quite a bit. You obviously aren’t going for line lengths that mirror one another the way many poems traditionally do. Sometimes you use a succinct, enjambed line like “like the dirty short hank / of mane...” Other times you use highly-packed, musical lines such as “white flanks flecked green” and longer lines arranged according to breath or phrasal units such as “the slim bodies of teenagers / guide their geldings in figure eights around the ring…” Talk to us about your line breaks. Why not be more regimented with them in this poem? How do these different approaches to the break affect your reader?

PR: I like an iambic pentameter line, but I didn’t want the blank verse line here because, though its form tends to work well with exposition, it would put me in too “regimented” a space for the way associative or free(er)-flowing thought moves. I wanted a line that would break where I heard it break when I thought it. I read every draft aloud, even if I only change a word. The lines are broken according to where I wanted to change the poem’s rhythm and emphasis.

AMK: What’s going on with the dashes and colons in this poem? It seems that the dashes act as periods and the colons like commas, but it’s not as if you’re not using periods and commas throughout the poem…

PR: I needed breathing moments within the poem that are visually or rhythmically stronger than a comma, but still allowed for the poem to be moving forward. The colon accommodates this, and the dash works the way an ellipsis might.

AMK: “More light, more light” (a nod to Hamlet) appears in the first few lines of “Why Some Girls Love Horses” and then reappears in the last few lines, which I just love: “the future /  bleeds into the past, more light, more light, / your hand against my shoulder, the image / of the one who taught me disobedience / is the first right of being alive.” What’s going on there?

PR: Do you mean why did I quote Hamlet? I have no idea. If you are referring to why I repeat it, it’s to help wind the poem back to its starting place: to connect beginning to end.

AMK: The first five lines of “Ballard Locks” does a wonderful job of making it clear (even as it is so lyrical) the setting of the poem and the characters within it: “herds of us climb / the cement stair to watch / this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;…” I think this immediate establishment of where and who allows you to write a very lyrical poem that, without these narrative elements, would be harder to follow. Can you talk about how you utilize elements of both narrative and lyric in your work, in this poem but more broadly as well?

PR: I’m pretty naturally narrative: I think the straight lyric is harder for me  to do, though I do write them occasionally. What I love about narrative is that it allows me to explore the psychological aspects of the world I’m trying to describe: to write character, but also to think about story, which I love. But lyric allows me to leap between stories, to move quickly between time periods. I like poems that put the personal event alongside historical events or narratives, and the lyric allows me to move between what might seem like wildly different moments in time and meaning.

AMK: What’s going on with the indented lines? I recently taught the line break to my intro to creative writing student and found my only justification for the question “Why do some poets indent lines in a formulaic way like that” (we were looking at this very poem) was similar to the answer James Kimbrell gave me when I asked the same question of him a number of years ago: “To break up the monotony of the left margin.” I’m not sure that’s a very good answer…

PR: Probably not, and my answer is going to be worse. I’m not convinced that we “hear” visually, but for me I feel like the poem gains two tensions: the end of the line and the front of the line become equally sonically weighted. The shorter line is also a bit tighter sonically, which makes me feel as if it spins the reader into the following longer, left-margin line.

AMK: You use internal rhyme quite a bit in both these poems. One of the few end rhymes in “Ballard Locks,” however, comes near the end: “The water looks like boiling sun. / A child has turned his finger into a gun.” While the lines earlier in the poem about the abomination of nature via man for his pursuits, I feel like the poem markedly turns here, much like a sonnet, and that this end-rhyme punctuates that turn. Does this make sense to you?

PR: Yes. Sometimes a cheap way for me to end a poem is to end with a strong rhyme which makes the poem “feel” as if it has achieved closure without necessarily resolving its theoretical or emotional issues. (How psycho-babble did that sound?) But I am very fond of this poem because here the rhyme is not doing that and, for me, feels more necessary. The rhyme and rhythm are different because these are two short, syntactically simple lines that break up what is, before them, a long and spiraling series of only four sentences. It brings the poem up short to give the reader a resting place, and to highlight the child’s position in the poem: these are childish lines and rhymes, and here’s a childish act that, when paired with the sense of natural destruction/renovation that comes before, ceases to be “merely” a child-like action. The turn here was surprisingly natural for me to reach (which is why I like it) but I honed it in revision because I found it was also apt.

AMK: Thank you!

PR: Thank you.

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Listen to Paisley Rekdal's interview and reading with NPR here

 




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