Paisley Rekdal’s sixth book of poetry, Nightingale, uses myth as a frame through which to engage the question of how violence, particularly sexual violence, remakes those who experience it. In the process, Rekdal interrogates the concepts of language, poetry, and beauty, unraveling attendant tropes and, ultimately, weaving something more honest and strange from their loose strands.
Myth has a particular lure to writers, especially poets—perhaps it’s the insistence on plurality, mutability, and strangeness that contrasts the orderly monotheistic culture we inhabit. And in Nightingale, myths are used to set human trials on a grand, elemental stage, as in “Io,” where a woman struggles to find her bearings after being semi-paralyzed in an accident. “The horror, she tries to explain to Jane, is not / that she has changed but that she can’t change / entirely.” Rekdal also brings gods down to our level, examining their actions and probing their emotions in poems like “Marsyas,” in which Apollo plays a harp strung with the tendons of a satyr—“it was the song / of someone who knew what it was like / to be alive, which the god could not bear / to know, or to stop playing.”
In one of the most accomplished poems in the collection, “Four Marys,” Rekdal draws parallels between the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Shelley, and Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The poem establishes birth as a liminal state, both a time of entering the world and—often for women—of leaving it. She compares paintings of both biblical Marys in which they appear suspended, simultaneously approaching and sinking away from the viewer, and illustrates the emotions these mythical women share with living ones: “Even if I did not believe / Mary’s joy, I would believe her pain.” The terror and the inevitability of birth is something that women have shared throughout history, even coming to view this existential threat with resignation: “they named their next, living baby / after the dead one because the name, at least, / was good.” Later in the poem, Rekdal references one of the most devastating passages from Mary Shelley’s journals, when she dreams her dead daughter was only cold. “And so we rubbed / it before the fire, and now it lives.” This bizarre, devastating image serves to illustrate how pregnancy and birth bring women into contact with mortality—tugging them back and forth across the boundaries of the living world and, if they survive, leaving them changed.
I find myself often returning to “Nightingale: A Gloss,” a long poem where Redkal lays out her project most clearly. The “gloss” is an explanation of sorts for the previous poem, simply titled “Philomela,” a contemporary reimagining of its namesake myth. Taking a central symbol of poetry and prying apart its historical, literary, and mythic connotations to show its intrinsic connections to sexual violence, Rekdal simultaneously embeds this intellectual exploration in the reality of women’s lives as the ongoing objects of that violence.
Women’s voices, speaking and silent (whether by choice, force, or coercion) are centered in “Nightingale: A Gloss,” including the speaker’s voice when she’s attacked and doesn’t scream for help, fearing the attacker’s friends are as dangerous as he’s proved to be. But language (and the narrativizing process it necessitates) is the only way to begin moving through trauma: “Only language, which orders time and gives experience shape and meaning, might control how violence is experienced. It gives back agency.” However, even as there’s the impulse to give voice to the traumatic experience, there’s a fear of losing of control, of giving the story over to others to interpret, to judge, to picture: “my silence, then, is not a revision but an invitation to imagine, to remember, this violence for yourself.” Rekdal’s ability to articulate this experience is further thwarted by the paucity of available language—the fact that most sexual violence exists outside or beyond accepted terms, and yet, “To live cut off from words is to descend into the bodily, the irrational.”
Violence can strand us inside our physical, animal selves, just as Philomela is transformed into a nightingale—beyond language, and suddenly having no need of it. Rekdal, on the other hand, is a poet and so craves language, otherwise she remains trapped within the traumatic moment. But she notes how the logic of poetry strangely mimics that of trauma: “lyric time is not progressive but fragmentary and recursive. Traumatic time works like lyric time: the now of terror breaking back through the crust of one’s consciousness.” Ultimately, these aren’t riddles the poem can solve, and Rekdal wonders, “I have spent my life devoted to an art whose foundational symbol is one of unspeakable violence. Did I seek poetry out for this? Or was I, that day in the woods, made into a poet?” Still, the impulse to speak, to sing, to write remains, even if futile, as Rekdal asserts, “Sing, for you are voiceless. Sing, for it cannot matter. Sing, for soon no one will hear you again.” Ultimately, although the dialogue between the poet and the reader is not a panacea, it transforms trauma into something different, something new. And, in the process of reading, we can’t help being transformed too, having been granted entry to a beautiful, violent world—where gods and mortals ping off each other; where everyone is constantly changing and being changed; where anything can happen, and does—our own.