Review: Imaginary Vessels by Paisley Rekdal (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) by Emilia Phillips

“We begin in beauty. What’s left is form,” Paisley Rekdal writes in Imaginary Vessels, her fifth poetry collection, a book that meditates on shape and structure, poetic and otherwise—a cage that holds a peacock, the date of a birthday, the path taken by comedian W.C. Fields on a walk, the boundaries of a garden—and, by extension, Rekdal probes the expectations others have about the functionality and purpose of those shapes and structures, those vessels. Perhaps no other sequence in the collection does this so forthrightly as “Shooting the Skulls: A Wartime Devotional,” a sequence of sonnets in ekphrastic conversation with “Andrea Modica’s portraits of skulls unearthed from the Colorado Mental Health Institute,” as the author notes. These illustrations do not, as many do in other works, add to the poems; rather, the poems seem to illuminate the photographs, providing imagined backstory and human emotion to the subjects. In some cases, the poems provide a third-person meditation on the images of the skulls, whereas others perform a persona, as in the entry titled “F20: Male, 29 Years Old,” which begins:

          Only we, the mandible and maxillae, are left:
          windup jaws dismantled for the joke. Stained
          with tobacco and calculus, we’re the fragile rest
          of him that feels most human. [73]

In this persona duet, the upper and lower jaws (all that’s left of this particular skull), speak as its own unique entity, somewhere between ghost and the rood, or cross, retelling the tale of Christ’s crucifixion in the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Dream of the Rood.” The poem unfolds across deftly chiseled syntax, each line full of the mouthfeel of internal rhyme and assonance. The most compelling portion of this poem’s craft, however, is the poet’s simple yet effective decision to split the poem into two parts, cleaving the sonnet into two seven-line stanzas, a “mandible” and “maxillae,” if you will. Across this divide, the poem turns from a competent, if not primarily expositional telling of details—“Our size suggests his brain / was malformed, body stunted”—to a biting (yes, pun intended) elevation of the human body’s capability of violence that praises the fact that the patient at the mental health institution “still had ways to defend himself.” This stanza begins:

          Fact is, you want him armed, each tooth polished
          as a bullet, the hope we clamped ourselves tight
          to strangers’ fingers, refusing to be diminished.

The idea here is that the patient, dehumanized by the institutionalization and neutered of much expression of selfhood, still had his teeth to decry himself an I, to create a “wound that defined his humanness.” It’s this kind of balance—between humanity and inhumanity, violence and inaction, beauty and ugliness—that compels this collection, stretching the binary ideas into a spectrum.

“Shooting the Skulls” spans over thirty pages of this collection, and about half of those pages are taken up with photographs, developing a kind of magnetism between image and word. Elsewhere, however, Rekdal’s sequence “Go West” embodies snake-tongued starlet Mae West and obsessively runs down tangents associatively linked to the actress, including the term Mae West, “British slang in WWII for inflatable life jackets” and a third-party speaker who connects to West’s pun-pocked zingers. In “Self-Portrait as Mae West One-Liner,” the speaker self-describes, even brags, through a tongue-twisting puff of double entendre:

                    I’m a tabu tuba mogul, I’m motile,
          I’m nimble. No gab ennui, no bagel bun boat: I’m one
          big megaton bolt able to bail
          men out. [38]

The poem ends with the imperative of “Untangle me, / tangelo” and then adds: “But I’m not angel,” as if the speaker suddenly paused her dance to see if the interest has taken a look before one last tail-feather fluff. The entry into the sequence on the opposing page, however, allows a more nuanced glimpse into the dynamic between the speaker and the object of her obsession, Mae West:

          Self-Help says strong women never see themselves
          defeated. They veil themselves in sateens, reheat
          self-esteem with rose-wreathed validations
          that never waver. Yet who doesn’t thrive sometimes
          on deviation, dovetail into others, see herself revealed? [39]

This poem, like many in Imaginary Vessels, meditate upon societal expectations of women (historical or contemporary) with the intent to nuance or, most satisfyingly, explode them, as if to argue against the expected bodily and psychological “forms” of women. In the above passage, we see the speaker celebrating deviation, the way that it, like the violence of the gnashing teeth in “Shooting the Skulls,” proclaims selfhood.

With these poems and other standalones that pay attention to the female form—real or skewed by problematic, patriarchal ideals—the collection’s title of Imaginary Vessels can’t help but be in conversation with some of the recent conservative punditry that women are “just vessels” for childbirth or, as Virginia State Senator Steve Martin remarked in 2014, women are a “child’s host (some refer to them as mothers).” This ideal, the book perhaps argues, is imaginary. Of Mae West, she writes, “it was her relentless nevers that preserved her.”

At over a hundred pages, the collection is also made up of just a little over twenty standalone poems, which, through their form and movement, will remind the reader of Rekdal’s poems in earlier collections, especially those in 2012’s Animal Eye. These poems often bridge across several pages in search of an associatively precise narrative conclusion. In “A Peacock in a Cage,” most notably conversant with the previous collection’s poems considering the ego and gaze of animals, the speaker begins with a lush description of the eponymous peacock in a cage:

          shaking out its corona of tail feathers is like light
          glowing in a bulb, a man
          dancing insight an elevator: the space
          too small to quite contain him, yet
          contain him it does; the way a cloud
          keeps some portion of the sea inside it or a box
          encloses air, encloses also
          the philosophical cat both dead and alive [14]

The poem plays leap-frog through its image narrative, from the peacock to the man in the elevator to the cloud to the box to Schrodinger’s cat. The rest of the poem moves in much the same way, finally landing on an indictment of woman as vessel as well as an acknowledgment of human perception’s imperfections:

          We think a woman shelters a house, husband and a child
          inside her, that a man might accommodate
          no one else. The party can hold its liquor
          only so long, as we can maintain faith that requires us
          to keep two contradictions alive at once, like day
          and night tucked into the same sunset or the sudden
          hatreds ignited by love: the patience
          with which we hold still for the camera, believing
          it will shore up time, and knowing it won’t. [15]

Just like the camera at the end of “A Peacock in a Cage,” it seems that Rekdal acknowledges the fact that a poem cannot fully contain an experience, an image, a moment, even though it tries. Each poem is like an hourglass unable to hold its sand, time running through it and finding itself beyond its container, just as the reader reads and is still there beyond the poem, remaining (maybe?) the reader even after having read. Rekdal likewise pays homage to this sense of self-as-reader, with her homage to and imitation of Elizabeth Bishop in her “At the Fishhouses.” Bishop’s poem, set at the fishhouses along the coast in Nova Scotia, ends with an epiphanic moment in which the speaker realizes that the sea, like knowledge, is past, present, and future, here and not here:

          I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
          slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
          icily free above the stones,
          above the stones and then the world.
          If you should dip your hand in,
          your wrist would ache immediately,
          your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
          as if the water were a transmutation of fire
          that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
          If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
          then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
          It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
          dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
          drawn from the cold hard mouth
          of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
          forever, flowing and drawn, and since
          our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Rekdal’s poem begins with the word “And,” as if that single conjunction connects the two poets across sixty years, as they look at that same sea:

          And the black water under the boats with their pools
          of bilge rainbowed out like rinds
          of steak fat, the salt thick
          in my nostrils, but pleasant, too: details
          I still keep from Bishop’s poem, everything
          else about it lost. [16]

Rekdal seems to feel the responsibility of adding an addendum to Bishop’s poem, one that present the ravaged world, with its “bilge [that] rainbowed out like rinds / of steak fat,” the debris of “black-and-orange / fishing barrels, the air with its tang / of rust and blood.” Rekdal’s poem might be considered what Joyelle McSweeney describes as the “necropastoral,” albeit it’s set at the seaside instead of the fields of war-ravaged Europe or over-developed tracts along American interstates.

Above all, in reading Rekdal’s new collection, the reader will discover a poet that’s very aware of her temporality, her place within the flow of time, the sinkhole of memory, its swallowing maw. She gives memory form, even as she uses form to question certainty, and she allows equal footing to her literary forebears as to anonymous mental health patients as to the sheep’s brains eaten on one’s birthday. “Perhaps the worst thing in the world / would be to live forever,” she writes, as if these poems were released into the world like doves at a graveside. “Otherwise, what would be the point / of memory, without which / we would have nothing to hurt / or placate ourselves with later?” [109]

Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, the hybrid-genre photo-text memoir, Intimate, and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope and Animal Eye, which was a finalist for the 2013 Kingsley Tufts Prize and winner of the UNT Rilke Prize. Her newest book of poems is Imaginary Vessels, and a book-length essay, The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam is forthcoming in 2017. Her work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Residency, an NEA Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes, the 2016 AWP Nonfiction Prize, and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Tin House, the Best American Poetry series (2012, 2013, and 2017), and on National Public Radio among others.  She teaches at the University of Utah, where she is also the creator and editor of the community web project Mapping Salt Lake City. In May 2017, she was named Utah's Poet Laureate.

Emila Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays appear in Agni, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Poem-a-Day, Poetry, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She received StoryQuarterly’s 2015 Nonfiction Prize, The Journal’s 2012 Poetry Prize, as well as the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lectureship from Gettysburg College and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary University.