Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Paisley Rekdal's Animal Eye

Animal Eye
Paisley Rekdal
86 pp., University of Pittsburgh Press
ISBN: 978-00-8229-6179-6

This is the first book I have purchased written by Paisley Rekdal, but I can assure you it won’t be the last.  From the beautiful, startling first line of the first poem, “Why Some Girls Love Horses,” through the dizzying splendor that is contained in the long poems “Wax” and “Easter in Lisbon,” I have been captivated by the sheer confidence and energy of Animal Eye, and I want more.  Set partially in the context of questions, Rekdal moves quietly along to satisfy her own curiosity while sparking that of the reader. Coming along for the ride is her wonderfully unique phrasing and diction, which is a pleasure all on its own.

My initial reaction to this book is to its immensity, its dense language, how each poem asks the reader to immediately go deeper than one might imagine or think necessary.  For example, in the poem “Nightingale,” Rekdal wastes no time in setting the scene.   There is a boy at a window at night waiting for a bird and the next moment we are waiting with the boy as the poet makes allusions to Odysseus.  That isn’t to say Rekdal ignores the precise and new image in favor of transporting the reader.  Read how she describes the bird, folding the specific imagery into the poem as a whole:

        I can sense its gold eye,
the throat encrusted with glass.
I can hear the water slapping
the white sides of the shore.

In other places Rekdal employs, as the title of the book suggests, animals (and specifically the eyes and how they might see the world).  However, she is mindful not to belabor the point, only using the imagery when it is best.  For example, in the poem “Voyeurs,” which discusses a thoroughbred, I cannot help but see the large black, glassy eye of a horse, though no such image is used in the poem.  It is as if Rekdal knows what we will see on our own and knows when she does not need to take us directly to an image.

Travel is obviously part of Rekdal’s vocabulary as a poet.  Two of the poems, those mentioned above, constitute entire sections of the book, and while they are not by any means traditional narratives, the reader should immediately sense important stories (and questions) are being shared.  The poem “Wax” begins in ekfrasis, a reaction/discussion of the wax figure of Jean-Paul Marat created by Madam Toussad just after his assassination, but according to Rekdal’s formula, the poem quickly moves into a much deeper contemplation while still holding to the narrative as a guide for the reader. 

For too many reasons to mention, my favorite poem in this book is “The Orchard.”  I admire most everything about it.  It is about family, it is about honesty, it is about the culture clash evident between the generations, and it is about memory.

                                      My grandfather was good,
I remember, at fixing bicycles and shelves,
he could replace a car clutch and once
devoted an entire basement wall to a series
of aquaria he’d built himself and stocked.
None of these interests did he pass on to his children.
He sat instead quietly through dinner,
fingering his dish of salt plums, slipping each
from its waxed wrapper to suck the meat to a pulp
full of the brined tart juice of summer.

Coming away from these poems, this book, I am pleased there is more than enough reason to return again.  One reading is certainly not enough to fathom the wonderful depth here, and I would put it to you to commit yourself to knowing this before you start.  These poems will demand of you something more than a lot of what is newly available in the poetry world.  Still, you should not fear that commitment because Animal Eyes will welcome you, treat you as a worthy participant in the genuine curiosity and wonder expressed here.  The real question will be which, if any answers you come to, and if in turn you are willing to share.  You should get a copy of this marvelous book and see for yourself.

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