“Her story too was one of abduction and metamorphosis.”
– Roberto Calasso, from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony
So much classical mythology can be mapped out as an ever-forking family tree of rape and change, assault and transformation. The enduring power of mythological figures lies in their ability to echo, to repeat with variation, to pass a tragic baton down generations. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a book whose project of mapping out a history of the myths of antiquity can be seen as a modern-day counterpart to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, classicist Roberto Calasso explains that from a primeval sexual assault, that of Io, “history itself was born: the abduction of Helen, the Trojan War, and before that, the Argonauts’ expedition and the abduction of Medea—all are links in the same chain.” It’s not too difficult to feel, in 2020, that selfsame chain of linkages.
Enter Nightingale, Paisley Rekdal’s sixth collection of poetry, a book that recasts mythological figures from The Metamorphoses for the #MeToo era. As with her previous collection, Imaginary Vessels, Rekdal remains interested in acts of embodiment, the perennial power of speaking through vacated vessels, breathing life into personae. But instead of writing persona poems in Nightingale, Rekdal almost always approaches her mythological figures in the third person, leveraging that distance to create character studies in which the bridge from trauma to transformation is rendered with shattering objectivity.
Rekdal deftly updates a half dozen or so of Ovid’s myths, casting off any pretense of antiquity, and plunging these figures straight into our times: “Tiresias” is about a mother undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer whose daughter has transitioned and become her son; “Io” is about the sexual frustrations of a lesbian pastry chef who has become a quadriplegic after being hit by a car on her bike; “Pasiphae” is about a woman whose grief over her husband’s death manifests as an obsessive relationship with the dead man’s dog. The connections between these modern characters and their mythological equivalents are subtle, sometimes tenuous, but always present. In Ovid, Io is constantly stung by a gadfly; in Rekdal’s retelling, the allusion is quietly echoed in the “constant pain, a dim prickling” that afflicts the paralyzed legs of the pastry chef.
While Rekdal often reworks Ovid in the third person, there are two pivotal sequences in which she circumscribes herself, and her body, within mythology’s twin traditions of assault and transformation. The titular bird of Rekdal’s book is based on the story of Philomela, a woman who had her tongue cut off after she was raped by her brother-in-law—a woman literally rendered speechless by her trauma. In the myth, Philomela communicates the secret of the rape to her sister by weaving a tapestry that depicts the attack. In Rekdal’s “Philomela,” a woman who was raped in college (and has never told anyone about the rape) inherits from her grandmother a Singer sewing machine. The poem ends with the woman packing up the machine and putting it in the bedroom closet, beside “some books, old clothes, and college papers, / where she told herself it could wait”—where the assault remains silenced, a secret.
Rekdal follows this poem up with a literary-minded lyric essay titled, “Nightingale: A Gloss,” in which she meditates on her own sexual assault in the woods near Loch Ness in Scotland. The essay operates as a stunning counterpoint to the book’s nuanced character studies. A beautifully variegated and expertly woven tapestry, this gloss pores over “the dark seam of The Metamorphoses,” the patriarchal tradition of rape and literature’s quiet complicity in that tradition. It’s crucial to know that Philomela—after being raped, after weaving her tapestry and exacting revenge on her assaulter—is transformed into the book’s defining symbol, a nightingale, a vessel to escape her brother-in-law who has likewise been changed into a hoopoe, the two fixed in eternal flight and pursuit. Reckoning with Keats’s great oneiric bird and his dictum about “heard melodies,” Rekdal tells us,
the nightingale hovers between trauma and memory, its song meant to bring one into concert with the other, to integrate event into narrative, to bring pain out of the body and into language. But the song isn’t heard, it’s longed for.
For Rekdal, Philomela, and many women who’ve been assaulted, the song is longed for because “female nightingales do not sing. Only the males sing.” This distinction between who gets to speak, and who does not, seems to encapsulate Rekdal’s argument about the ways that the literary tradition has contributed to rape culture. Victimized characters endure a traumatic experience of private silence, while male authors command the communal expression of unchecked “desire.” Rekdal’s gloss, a paragon of the lyric essay form, is the most vulnerable and breathtakingly intelligent section in the book.
While other reviewers have done excellent work in more comprehensively unraveling the various threads of Rekdal’s gloss, too little has been said about the book’s second-most daring and formally masterful extended meditation, “Gokstadt/Ganymede.” The tale of Ganymede, like the tales of Io, Europa, and Philomela, is also one of rape and metamorphosis. More or less a minor character in mythology, a footnote in Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Ganymede was a beautiful Trojan shepherd—so beautiful that Zeus, in the form of an eagle, abducted him, and carried him off to Olympus, where the boy became the cup-bearer of the gods. If you strip the luster off this myth, Ganymede is essentially a sex slave (and a bartender). In his recent collection, The Tradition, Jericho Brown also writes of Ganymede: “When we look at myth / This way, nobody bothers saying / Rape.” Like anyone doomed to be touched by a god, Ganymede’s transformation is indelible: he becomes immortal, eventually tossed into the sky as the constellation Aquarius, Zeus’s tip for good service. Rekdal invokes Ganymede as a mythological equivalent for a former lover who has recently died of cancer. This lover was raped as a boy by his cousin.
“Gokstadt/Ganymede” is series of fifteen sonnets/quatorzains, written in memoriam of “X, 1969-2016.” The Gokstadt of the title is an eighth-century Viking ship (yet another vessel) that the speaker and former lover both visited, though separately, in Oslo, Norway. Rekdal opens the sequence: “In this obituary your wife, now widow, / posts, I find a photo of you running a hand / along Gokstadt’s blackened bow.” This opening poem is the most formally strict of the series, with a clear rhyme scheme, and a recognizable volta after the ninth line, as the poem hones in on the details of the photograph: “I study your face as you peer at a joist: / one plank jutting just out of concert, forever / a flaw.” The flaw in the ship’s hull is symbolic of a flaw in X, his rape, a ripped wound “never to be smoothed back together.” Rekdal’s use of a smooth, received form here plays against the poem’s concern for flaws, joists jutting out of place—a clever, tactile irony.
The rest of the poems in the sequence are not so formally conventional. While many employ rhyme, these quatorzains seek to expand and subvert the sonnet’s tidy quarters. In doing so, Rekdal charts a topography of sexual trauma: the constituent relations of her own assault, X’s rape, Ganymede’s abduction, and Gokstadt’s centuries-dead commander-king. As in “Nightingale: A Gloss,” Rekdal here is concerned with how language frames, or fails to frame, our traumas:
You never told. Vowels dissolved inside the walls
of other vowels: a labyrinth of sound
from which a boy would have to spool
out thread to escape. Pain’s underground
of sense: shadowy maze where all language
is inadequate. What would you have said?
Like Philomela, X’s assault goes unspoken, and because it is only through language that we “might control how violence is experienced,” the trauma goes unchanged, locked up and hidden like the minotaur. Rekdal is hyperaware of her privilege as a poet to give her own violation a voice, in contrast to X, who gave his none. Inculpating herself, she writes,
As if a life could be defined by wound, sorrow
impelled only by desire—
I lay claim
to your private history, and by doing so chain
you once more to silence.
But Rekdal is never in danger of appropriating X’s pain because their pain is mutual, communion, “the place / our bodies might meet.” The whole series swells with a hard-earned pathos that manages to free us from the limitations of language.
Because mythology always links sex with violence, even when consensual (the Greek word for “seduce” is the same as “destroy”), Rekdal finds in these elegies the book’s most redeeming source of Eros. In one poem, Rekdal recounts the time she and X were working on their car, and the propped-up hood gave way and came crashing down on X’s shoulder. As with many of these poems, Rekdal uses the sonnet form as a vehicle for intense perception, for zooming in, looking at an image closely, whether it be a photograph, a ship, or a bruise— “livid, a chalk- / yellow fringed with green like the rind / on a peach’s blooming pink.” The vivid description here leads to something even more palpable, something we can feel in our mouths:
…Then that meaty
purple, rich as plums: a damson stain wine-
dark and velvet I put my mouth to, to taste
your skin’s heat, your blood so close as to come
up throbbing through my tongue.
It’s so smart for Rekdal to end the poem on the muscle that gives us both taste and speech, pleasure and the ability to express it. Elsewhere, Rekdal speaks of her desire to translate their bodies on the page into something more—to give their human vessels some chance at agential metamorphosis. When Rekdal writes of X’s body, she must do so in metaphor: “Your rock-rose, pale flames / burning beneath my palm, you the tree / bursting into flower, you the bird / finally taking wing.” Rekdal’s rendering of the lover’s phallus here—first a flower, then a fire, then a tree, and finally a bird—is a fused montage of transformational images, mimicking the ways that sex can make two bodies seem like one: “we grafted ourselves into one / another: my slow blush ripening between us as / something in us both, finally, opened.” The memory of the erotic flowering between speaker and X is perhaps the book’s most intimate moment.
There is only one poem in “Gokstadt/Ganymede” that actually speaks of the abducted Trojan boy, “the missing child / whose pain goes unremarked.” Offering a similar sentiment to Brown’s “When we look at myth / This way, nobody bothers saying / Rape,” Rekdal begins her Ganymede poem: “In myths, we call it love.” Once again, language (“we call it”) is closely allied with the ways we frame (or obfuscate) assault. Rekdal goes on, “Call it desire / to soften the god who finds a boy, leads him / far from home, claps a cup in his hand, and demands / Bend to my will, child, you’ll be adored—”. Because the language of mythology often “softens” appalling acts, Ganymede isn’t abducted by Zeus, but chosen. Rekdal implies that “desire” is more manageable because it renders a god “merely animal,” and more cynically, “a man / barely culpable.” Nightingale is a book that seeks to reverse this process, to remind us that rape is no gilded myth, that there is nothing to glamorize the narrative of a god “snatching a boy out of his life, / then making that boy serve him, forever.”
Though each individual poem of the “Gokstadt/Ganymede” sequence stands on its own, they are better seen as fragmented blocks, a wreckage of planks Rekdal is trying to piece back together, just as the ruins of a ship must be painstakingly reassembled if we are to see the whole structure. Near the end of the series, Rekdal asks, “What will make these unearthed / fragments whole?” Of course, the question is rhetorical, for the poet has (re)constructed something solid from these disparate shards, a sturdy vessel of language that gives the whole story of assault and change in each skewed joist. In the sequence’s final poem, she envisions a future in which any glorified stories of rape will crumble, “their violence erased / by our disuse of such symbols, deadened / by the fact these words no longer represent us.” If there is any optimism in this erasure of violent symbols, it’s quickly dashed by the poem’s closing lines, in which Rekdal foresees herself as another forgotten vessel, a “fragment from some mute, irredeemable past: / another mouth sewn closed against a tide of earth.” The sequence ends with the poet in a future repose of silence, lips sealed. And yet, we might find some consolation in the hope that these poems will endure, enter the canon of myth, and never cease to sing
Reading through Nightingale, one is struck by Rekdal’s marriage of the past with the present, her fusion of more old-school modes with contemporary, forward-thinking poetics. Figures from antiquity—those masks of learned, privileged poets—are rendered utterly contemporary, down to earth. Myth is not ornament here, but a means of understanding how ancient practices of disempowerment, subjugation, and rape, have traveled across time (and pages) to our modern moment. With its predilection for narrative and essayistic techniques, Nightingale runs counter to the grain of much contemporary poetry. Rekdal rewards patient reading, trusting the reader to go back and crack open Ovid for a full view of the book’s rich, tapestry-like allusiveness. In one of the most triumphant passages from the book, found in “Driving to Santa Fe,” Rekdal says, “Once, I was afraid / of being changed. Now that is finished.” The reader might take this as a mantra, a map to take us back into the mythological past, to see how far we’ve come from those ancient tales of rapacious gods, and to see how disturbingly familiar they remain.