Paisley Rekdal is a very, very good poet who should be better-known to people who like poetry — even casual readers — but who don't know where beyond the famous names to look. She's frighteningly intelligent yet easily understood. Her reasoning is clear and precise — her poems think as well as sing — and fans of, say, Elizabeth Bishop (whose famous poem "At the Fishhouses" Rekdal rewrites in this new book) will find many of the qualities they prize in her poetry, but updated with more candor and severity. "Imaginary Vessels" is Rekdal's fifth volume of poetry, and it deserves to be her breakout book.
Her poems tend to reason their way through ideas or presuppositions, such as the notion that all women ought to have or at least ought to want to have children, as in the revelatory "Bubbles," a major poem on the topic of child-having, child-wanting, contemporary womanhood and on battling through complex feelings in general.
Over three pages — Rekdal tends to write long — the poem narrates an afternoon spent with a friend (who happens to be an academic theorist) and her young son, for whom the speaker has bought some bubbles. The billowing bubbles he blows become a metaphor for the gentle push-pull of longing and revulsion that may be the truest form of strong feeling: "Through the stream of bubbles/ I watch her wipe her son's streaked face, recall/ my washing machine at home which has a setting// labeled 'Baby Clothes.' The store model/ wore a pink-and-blue sign reading,/ Don't You Want One?"
After wandering through thoughts on a painting, her friend's academic work, and a great deal more, Rekdal ends with a line that recalls Robert Lowell's famous conclusion to "For the Union Dead," ("Colonel Shaw/ is riding his bubble,/ he waits/ for the blessèd break"). As her friend packs up to leave, Rekdal writes, "A world blows up.// The mother and child float by in it."
Her relinquishment of the dream of motherhood in "Bubbles" is both passive and filled with a quiet grief. This capacity to balance contrary emotions is what I prize most in Rekdal's work, what is most useful and vivid in her poems. The consciousness behind these poems is hard on itself, hard on the world, refusing to suffer fools and foolishness. The severity of Rekdal's vision — the word "unflinching" is sometimes carelessly applied to poetry, but it's the right word here — is at times frightening. Her "Birthday Poem," perhaps a nod to Bishop's "The Bight," is both hard to stomach and, er, delicious:
It is important to remember that you will die,
lifting the fork with the sheep's brain
lovingly speared on it to the mouth: the little
piece smooth on the one side as a baby
mouse pickled in wine; on the other, blood-
plush and intestinal atop its bed of lentils.
Is "a baby/ mouse pickled in wine" also a delicacy? Oh, dear! But Rekdal means to report honestly on those "boring … poignant" things that remind one of mortality, and she upholds Bishop's commitment to making life's strangeness familiar. "Otherwise, what would be the point," she asks, "of memory, without which/ we would have nothing to hurt/ or placate ourselves with later?" She offers a harsh but accurate assessment of what makes time precious.
Two sonnet sequences punctuate the volume. One, a tribute to Mae West that bounces along in musical language and sharp wit ("Mae knows wit's a waste on those who think/ a woman is a sink of mind"), leaves me a bit cold. The other, a series of ekphrastic responses to photos of fractured skulls dug up under a Colorado asylum, presses Rekdal's descriptive powers to pure insight. The poems, printed beside reproductions of the photos, are bracing meditations on the fragility of life, notions of personhood, and what survives time's weathering.
A photo of a set of jawbones becomes "windup jaws dismantled for the joke. Stained/ with tobacco and calculus, we're the fragile rest/ of him that feels most human. Our size suggests his brain/ was malformed, body stunted: we were his best defense." A perplexing cranium suggests "the armadillo's/ self-protective hunch." A swirling bit of bone recalls "the sonogram/ a friend has sent, her first child flickering/ in the blizzard of her womb," another reminder of hope and loss. These sonnets manage, through imagination, to reanimate these lost lives and stand as warnings against quick assumptions about who people are and what their lives ultimately mean.
Rekdal is a poet of observation and history, one who carefully weighs the consequences of time. She revels in detail but writes vast, moral poems that help us live in a world of contraries in which "we hold still for the camera, believing/ it will shore up time, knowing it won't." These are some of the best lyric poems being written today.
Teicher is the editor of "Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz." His next book of poetry, "The Trembling Answers," will be published in April.