Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. 96 pages. $15.95.
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“By no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar,” writes John Berger in “Why Look at Animals?” Berger’s comment returned to me while reading Paisley Rekdal’s fourth collection of poetry, Animal Eye. Berger glosses, “Other animals are held by the look,” but man “becomes aware of himself returning the look.” In her poems, Rekdal becomes aware of herself as Berger describes, returning the gaze of animals. Then, Rekdal goes farther. She initiates the gaze with animals—especially the hooved and avian—later with other humans, and, with mesmeric authority, the reader. In those moments when the eyes meet, the poet finds something familiar in each being, finds that she can become another, can lock into its point of view, if only she wills it.
In “Easter in Lisbon,” Rekdal describes the release of the animals from a “terrible zoo”:
Fang and claw, fur and feather,
all of them rushing past the gates, down
the path leading into town
to dissolve into the backdrop of Lisbon’s
neighborhoods, where a man and woman
sit at home
From here, Rekdal turns out the window, to a tiger:
slipping past them on the walk: its stripes,
against the dark gold hide and white underfur,
like black icicles; its pink mouth glassy, opened wide.
The couple starts, the tiger stalls
and now they stare at each other, eye
to eye, animals to animal
Perhaps through projection or, in some cases, intuition, she recognizes at once something familiar and the ineffable in each of her co-gazers. In doing so, she tests the limits of empathy. In the next line, Rekdal allows both the couple and the tiger to filter the moment in the same way: with meaning. All three are “struck dumb not by fear of each other / so much as the unlikeliness of it all.”
Is the tiger actually struck dumb by the “unlikeliness of it all”? Grammatically, it seems the poem suggests as much. In fact, the poem takes the couple’s point of view. Prior to this moment, the poem recounted the speaker’s trip to Lisbon, a love affair, and then swept over the city like an aerial shot in a film. Then, the gaze settles in the apartment. The players here project meaning onto the tiger, now more symbolic than real. The humans recognize the animal’s look as familiar because it is a tiger fathomed by a human.
“[T]his thing / that was and was not human,” she writes in the collection’s opening poem, in reference to a horse named Dandy, “we must respect / for itself and not our imagination of it.” Rekdal resists her own claim even as she honors it, consciously developing the imagination of her subjects, animal but trying not to invade their point of view as she presents evidence for their sovereignty as beings, real outside of her verse.
Larry Levis, who Rekdal later evokes in “Homage for Levis,” speaks of the role of animals in contemporary poems in the title essay of The Gazer Within: “[An animal] exists before it means, or can mean, anything” but
In many poems, of course, the animal is not natural, because in a poem the beast may be wholly imagined, and therefore altered from the prison of nature, and paroled, briefly, by the poet itself, and by the poem.
There are many moments in Animal Eye where Rekdal indulges in the imagined, the speculative viewpoint. From the near magical realism of the zoo breakout in “Easter in Lisbon” to turns of dramatic irony like
a woman thinks, What now?
before the unflattering glass,
while the one she loves, behind her, grins,
and asks himself, Who else?
to entirely imagined dramatic situations, as in “Yes.” “I used to imagine all kinds of stories / for myself,” the speaker says and then admits,
or, more simply, the body
of the other man I could imagine
Then she leaps further into the scenario, “seeing my lover at a restaurant with his wife / and two children.” As the poem progresses, the speaker begins to imagine herself imagining: “My mind has become the lover I do not visit,”
Now there is only one story.
When the mind asks for it, I tell it, Yes.
I go back to that table and put another face
On the lover, the wife
Later, she journeys deeper, like Orpheus after Eurydice, to have the lover and goes so far as to become the lover. “I put myself / at the table,” she writes,
I am sitting and nodding. I am looking
at my hands that are my lover’s:
square and long-fingered and red
at every knuckle. I am eating
with my lover’s mouth, I am not listening
with his ears and brain:
I don’t know what will happen
when I get up from that table
By the end of the poem, the speaker has totally possessed the body of the lover. Even as she claims “I want to be in my own mind now,” the poem’s language locks her into the point of view. The possessive “my lover’s” becomes “my” while “he” becomes “I.”
Water runs into the lines
of my mouth. It trickles down my chin,
through the beginnings of my beard.
When she digs her nails into my shirt, I don’t reply.
I don’t ever want to turn and look at her.
I have no idea what I’ll find.
Often Rekdal slips into new perspectives via a close third or, in cases like “Yes,” first person point of view. Among these figures Rekdal follows are Madame Tussaud, in the long poem “Wax” that comprises the entire second section; the Arctic photographer Subhankar Banerjee; and a taxidermied fox. Elsewhere, she postures herself as a mere observer, a literal and metaphorical birdwatcher, always curious and bewildered, often afraid.
Rekdal has always been concerned with looking, the means of seeing, particularly in her previous collection, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007). Animal Eye, however, expands upon and complicates Kaleidoscope’s concerns—there’s more at stake here: a marriage, the life of a mother, the fear of losing one’s own identity to another.
In “Intimacy,” Rekdal describes a scene in the Cronenberg film The Fly in which Jeff Goldblum’s character has been genetically merged with a fly, so that there are “bits of the man emerging // gooey, many-eyed.” In each of those many eyes, do see differently? Or do we, as viewers, only recognize “one soul blurring forever / into another body”? Animal Eye reminds us that we don’t know the limits of empathy, that we can’t presume we’re the only beings who recognize the familiar in another’s gaze. What we recognize as familiar continually changes as we change, and we change by looking. And what is looking but the taking in of reflected light?