Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Paisley Rekdal: Animal Eye

The poems in Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye grip first with their keen attention to detail, as in the opening to the beautiful “Body of Stuffed Female Swift Fox, Natural History Museum”: “Nothing ever was this slinking, vicious, / glass eye embedded in its slitted red, skin / husked and sealed forever in a vacuum.” Though nearly all the poems here take animals of one sort or another as their ostensible subject—a childhood horse, a nightingale, salmon swimming upstream to spawn—they are also haunted by desire and loss, environmental disaster, family history, and the difficult legacy of American race relations.

As the first poem in the collection, “Why Some Girls Love Horses” demonstrates much of what’s compelling in Rekdal’s work. Instead of the easy sweetness often conjured by childhood poems about animals, Rekdal’s speaker instead loves what’s ultimately foreign and violent about the horse:

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 speaker insists on the unknowable, animal nature of the horse, “this thing / that was and was not human we must respect / for itself and not our imagination of it.”

This poem also illustrates one of the other things that make Rekdal’s work so compelling, the way the content and object and address shape-shift. The poem about a horse is also a poem about a lover, and so the horse’s unknowability is also the lover’s. About the horse Rekdal writes, “I loved the horse for the pain it could imagine // and inflict on me”; about the lover, a few lines later, “I loved / what was not slave or instinct, that when you turn to me / it is a choice.” The pairing of material world and mediation ensure that Rekdal’s work transcends lyric description.

Environmental disaster and its impact on the body is another frequent theme of the collection. “Arctic Scale,” for example, begins with a vivid description of a caribou being butchered:

He slits fat to membrane
as muscle is exposed to air, the blue cells
brightening, gleaming

under plastic tendons the man massages then peels
carefully away.

The poem turns, however, from a vividly rendered scene of butchery to a larger meditation when Rekdal zooms out to consider the larger scene:

In the distance, mountain ranges

where the text below it announces
oil rigs dip their certain needles
and the Inuit women’s breast milk has been declared
hazardous waste.

Just as quickly, we move back to landscape (“It is so beautiful here. Here is a wall-sized field of green / with patches of corn silk”), so that the ordinary and timeless natural world is juxtaposed against the all-too-modern ravages of human and machine. The theme of environmental devastation also returns in more personal poems about family history, as in “The Orchard,” which begins with a rich description of the speaker’s grandfather tending an apple orchard. Mid-sentence, however, the poem turns:

In the winter my grandfather ordered seeds
from a company out west, and all summer and partway
through fall sprayed the fruit with a thick mist
the catalogs recommended until, years later,
hard, berry-sized tumors grew in his pancreas
and his wife’s small breasts.

The theme of family history returns in the stunning long poem “Wax,” which interweaves gorgeous and horrifying descriptions of the preservation of cadavers with scenes of a relative’s surgery. (A note labels the poem “Family portrait with French Revolution and cancer.“) Rekdal dodges the overt confession, instead letting the horrors of civic violence, the plague, wax models of serial killers at the present-day Madame Tussaud’s, and an ultimately ineffective cancer operation sit alongside each other.

In some poems, particularly those like “Easter in Lisbon Zoo” that use the animal as a starting point for a meditation on larger subjects (in this case, the insidious influence of race and racism on a youthful almost-romance), I’m reminded of early Jorie Graham. Like Graham, Rekdal has the rare ability to be meditative and also keep us firmly rooted in the material world.

Paisley Rekdal
Animal Eye
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012