Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 110 pages. $17.00.
“I’m the architecture / for an elegy you can only guess at.” Late in “Shooting the Skulls,” a sequence of sonnet-length poems based primarily on photos of skulls “unearthed from the grounds of The Colorado Mental Health Institute,” one of those skulls mocks the author, Paisley Rekdal, for trying to make sense of it. And yet its voice, its pride, its defiance, even its spoken silence, are all (to state the obvious) Rekdal’s creations—as is the sense it makes.
There are plenty of ways to deal with that contradiction. If you were so inclined, you could treat it as a fatal or moral flaw in the poem. You could also read it as a deliberate irony that further registers the impossibility of knowing anything about the formerly voiced, violently-and-often silenced (we can safely assume) person whose mind flowered, however painfully, in the brain this skull surrounded once.
But I’m more inclined, after reading those poems alongside the others in Rekdal’s newest book, Imaginary Vessels, to imagine it as a kind of health, a willing investment in art that fosters illusion in pursuit of a more generous image of the world, and an ability to stand inside that contradiction without any irritable reaching after awkwardness. It’s worth noting here that health, like talent, is more fortune than achievement and that unlike talent, it is not essential to good or great art. But it can, like any gift, be shared, and its presence in poetry seems undervalued—too likely to be mistaken for indifference or unseriousness—and, probably as a result, too rarely cultivated, too rarely shared.
More than most poets, Rekdal seems willing to stand in her poems as someone who lives a fortunate life amid misfortune and injustice. In an interview earlier this year, she talked about a poem by Jack Gilbert, paraphrasing:
If you don’t spend time with some level of delight then none of the suffering makes any point; it just makes it far more brutal. And I think that’s true, both those things have to be held as possible truths, real truths, and both have to be equally paid attention to.
The ballasted happiness I often feel while reading Rekdal’s poems comes in part from her ability to make the world, in its complexity, abundance, injustice, despair, and delight, more intelligible without inflicting more damage along the way.
Rekdal writes, by and large, narratively, an approach for which she claimed political significance in that same interview, noting the significance of a bi-racial poet presenting her life coherently. And though I think she’s right, it would be easy to carry that argument too far. The quick, rangy continuities of Rekdal’s poems don’t present themselves as images of an underlying order—either in the poet or the world. They are rather a way of moving through the world by making, an image of interest, in both senses of that word—the investment of imagination in the experience of others and oneself paid back in greater occasion to be interested. The poems themselves often feel like the imaginary vessels of the book’s title, with its allusion to Marianne Moore’s quotation “‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’”
Rekdal is nimble enough that those containers can and often do hold concerns about the ways we hold things in our imagination, but that never precludes her commitment to imagination’s potential. In a poem that bears half the book’s title, “Vessels,” she turns her eye to mussels:
winged open: yellow-
fleshed, black and gray
around the tough
“It hurts,” she continues, turning away from that unlikely lyricism of sometimes technical terms, “to imagine it, regardless / of the harvester’s / denials.” And then, later in the poem, thinking of pearls strung on a necklace, she addresses for the first time “you,” her sense of self-fracturing while the poem remains whole, her tone even more authoritative now:
by what you think
is pain. Nothing
could be so roughly
handled and yet feel
so little, your pity
turned into part of this
with your small,
shyness, hungers, envy: what
could be so precious
you would cleave
another to keep it
An appalled awareness of the human capacity for violence, including the violence men do to women, runs throughout the book. At times her poems tangle with both marvel and dismay at the ways creativity gets entailed in violence, in fixed roles (as well as resistance to these roles) for women, and in the violent, enduring marks humans make on each other. A sequence called “Go West” takes Mae West’s ingenuity as inspiration for its own careening, sometimes-slapstick, barely-controlled recklessness. (You can read one of the poems here.) Along with the unnamed skulls, “Shooting the Skulls” pulls in a half-century of American wars, as well as their effects on members of her family whose tenures as soldiers turn into emblems not only of violence but of the ways American identity is still apportioned according to race. Other poems work from the history of American expansion and enslavement, as well as antecedents reaching as far back as Cato, of whom she writes:
Still, how wonderful it must have been
to have listened to him once: the outrage, the force
of that mouth describing the African palace
where a dead queen’s shade still wept
in bed, while the soldier who loved her slipped
into his abandonment, pocketing a necklace of stones
and her palace animals’ teeth.
It’s not a feint, that initial claim. She means it, as well as meaning that the wonder of it would not (could not) redeem what it intended and achieved. One of the gifts of life, according to these poems, is the chance to encounter and contain complexity. The poem “Irises” begins, “How surgical the appetites / to have cleared the deer / to its skeleton,” continuing to imagine the scene as it had been:
in a ring of abandoned
miner’s cabins: hawks
and crows and wild dogs coming
to pick bones clean
among the remnants,
planks of roof and ellipses of iris
where once a garden stood.
An air of distrust wavers under the lines, Rekdal wary of her fascination with the scene and the ways in which she interprets it, the “as if” of the following lines unlocking a fantasy the poem goes on to invest in:
the work was done: the shape
of the deer intact, as if the object
was to make the animal
apparent as possible. Anyone
could have seen it, the form
from which the rest of the deer
was mere corruption.
Like that “as if,” the assertion that “Anyone // could have seen it” feels like a defensive gesture, an awareness of the problems with what she’s saying, doing, here. But those are blips, and she’s enraptured, “the fine nub skull, chinks of spine / unlocking perfectly / from each other,” the mystery of being too marvelous to let actual being interfere. It does, of course, in small ways, throughout: “I wanted only to tear // one sense of use / out of another,” she explains, still carried on the current of that want. The poem ends in professed fiction, the family she’s “filled in” from the time when the cabins were still in use. Their lives, though she doesn’t say it, would have been difficult, miners living on company land, doing dangerous work, living in homes whose illusion of belonging tied the demands of the work deeper into their private lives. “. . . its irises,” she writes at the poem’s conclusion, the illusion now that detailed
in flames of white and purple
someone planted, digging
into the cooling ground
so each spring
might be realized again
the effort it takes to make
even the possibility of ourselves
There’s no mistaking the comparison to art—the argument for art—in those lines. Characteristically, there’s no sense that art might save us here. In an interview with Carl Phillips, Geoffrey Hill once praised what he referred to as “the sensuous intellect,” and that seems to be what moves Rekdal (in both senses of the verb) most often in these poems. I wrote earlier that I perceive a kind of health in them. Health is not perfection; it is instead, as Maggie Nelson argues in The Argonauts, drawing heavily from D.W. Winnicott, an ability to function in the face of imperfection—an ability to encompass our imperfection, to make the most of it. One of my favorite poems in the book, “Baucis and Philemon,” uses the ancient myth to tell a contemporary story of parents whose exceptional love for each other is taken on as a torment by their troubled son. The poem ends in generous, small deceptions, uncertain transformations, and beauty. It’s the kind of thing we might get from a short story but that our notions of poetry too often seem to preclude (Rekdal’s poems, while unmistakably poetry, often excel at prose virtues)—a commitment to illusion based on its potential to hold something valuable and true.