Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal

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It seems telling of the virtuosity of Rekdal’s collection that the same week I sit down with a steamy cup of coffee and delve into her pages that my department at University of North Texas announces Animal Eye the winner of the 2013 Rilke Prize. The prize was created to support mid-career poets and honor a collection of outstanding artistry. Animal Eye, the fourth collection of Rekdal’s career, presents to readers a linguistic menagerie—a meditative culling of life’s earthly minutia of flora and fauna.

There is, indeed, a presence extremely primal about this collection. Rekdal is instinctually drawn towards little violences that portray compassion rather than how we, as humans, may typically understand them as acts of cruelty. This collection suggests what it is to maintain the animal eye—to perceive the core of what it means to be purely terrestrial and to exist as part of a web of growth and re-growth no different or better than the animals. A mentor of mine once said that a collection needs to possess a sense of purpose and this poetry, no doubt, conveys a sense of intention. With violence comes choice to enact or to refrain, with choice comes the ability to disobey. The speaker(s) in this collection chooses repeatedly to disobey conventions that inherently mark her with purpose, the intent to question what humans take for granted.

I turn again and again to “Happiness” to experience the speaker’s unremorseful nature to match life with death. I witness a speaker who seeks to create and destroy with unapologetic pleasure as she rips up dead and alive plants in one determined swoop:

Does it offend them to watch me
not mourning with them but working
fitfully, fruitlessly, working.
the way bees work, which is to say
by instinct alone, which looks like pleasure?

And further along in the poem, the speaker elaborates her lack of repentance at mourning death, which her neighbor witnesses and stands affronted:

If I could not have made this garden beautiful
I wouldn’t understand your suffering,
nor care for each the same, inflamed way.
I would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond
self-reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, and growing nothing.

Ironically, the experience of this poem is joyous, refreshing, and provides a chance to put life in perspective. The title of the poem stresses a very genuine emotion connected to the very purposeful acts. The garden, as the speaker admits, is a small thing to be proud of and, perhaps, we force it to carry more meaning that it is worth. It is beautiful, yet its existence, the little universe it holds, has no consequence if it were destroyed. This sentiment is something that the neighbor opposes, yet would the garden not be just as beautiful to “watch the grasses take up their colors in a rush / like a stream of kerosene being lit?” The disobedient intent of the speaker is riveting. It can awaken the reader to reconsider what is violent, why violence might be needed, and what is beauty. We are reminded by the end that sparrows drop seed as they fight and the garden will be replenished with new growth stimulated through nature itself. The poem’s efforts are concise and intentional. There is a suggested happiness with violence and the speaker basks in it.

In the collection’s final poem, “Closer,” we return again to choice—the choice to abandon and the choice to accept:

They are so fat and stupid these birds,

I cannot love them

for the little comma of feather bobbing

on their heads. I cannot love them

for the way they insist on running

as a means of first escape until,

at last, in one great muffled clap

they rise, and the sound

of their winging is a dull thunder,

a thousand bed sheets

pulled from the line and shaken together.

then I can love them, as I love the garden

with its pockets of stone, forgetting the warning

others would give of starting

what must be abandoned

too soon or too late, as we are ourselves

Perhaps here we can see violence arising from the rejection of what is typically determined as beauty. In the wake this rejection the animal subjects, the magpie versus the “fat and stupid” quail, represent what the speaker calls “the problem of beauty”—that beauty is something to be “taken apart.” It is “as if preference were all that marked us” the speaker continues. Preference, in this sense, appears as a restricting source. The speaker’s preference for the magpie, which the poem’s ‘you’ considers a “junk bird” highlights the frivolous labels that humans impose on the natural world. The speaker chooses to “abandon [..] the vision / [of the bird] that preens outside this window, calling itself / beauty, beauty as if I must name it.” Rekdal forces the reader to reconsider our scope as humans and what we consider inherent and what is actually a choice. The collection reads like a narrative with each poem presenting its own bit of connective tissue to comprise the whole. The speaker that sticks with me the most as I enter and reenter this collection lives in “Possibilities of Love”: “I am so used to not clearly looking.”

Trista Edwards is currently working on her Ph.D. in poetry at the University of North Texas. Her poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Journal, 32 Poems, Mid-American Review, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Moon City Review. She currently lives in Denton, Texas. More from this author →