The poems throughout Nightingale, Paisley Rekdal’s sixth collection, contemporize the Greek mythological figures for which many of them are named. “Tiresias,” whom the gods transformed from male to female and then back again, becomes the mother of a trans* son. “Io,” whom Zeus transformed into a white heifer in an attempt to hide his philandering from his wife, appears here as a woman struggling with her erotic identity in the aftermath of a “bike accident . . . that left her / quadriplegic.” In Ovid’s telling, “Philomela”—whose brother-in-law raped her and then cut out her tongue—told her sister what happened by weaving a tapestry depicting the assault. In Rekdal’s version, Philomela’s rapist is “her last date in college” and, upon viewing a sculpture of Hades kidnapping Persephone, Philomela thinks back to “her grandmother’s Singer / sewing machine”—maybe the beginnings of her tapestry, her healing. Each of these ancient stories of transformation is again transformed by Rekdal’s telling, and it’s impossible to read their contemporized violence without the lens the #metoo movement has given us. So many of these early depictions of womanhood and desire are brutal. Nightingale asks how we heal from these violent beginnings when, as Io laments, “Memory makes some part of [us] stay / always the same”?
After Philomela’s assault, the gods mercifully transform her into a nightingale, thus the book’s title as well as that of the seventeen-page prose poem “Nightingale: A Gloss.” Definitions of “Gloss,” according to Merriam-Webster, include “a false and often willfully misleading interpretation (as of a text)”—which resonates, given the nefarious argument that women are incentivized to falsely accuse men of sexual assault—and “a continuous commentary accompanying a text.” Indeed, Nightingale orbits around the hot center of “Nightingale: A Gloss.” Initially, the poem’s sections resist chronological and narrative progressions; instead, they present several settings and concerns, interweaving them.
If “Nightingale: A Gloss” is the hot center of the book, then the story of the speaker’s sexual assault is the hot center of the poem. It begins:
It’s 1992 and I’m hiking near Loch Ness. . . . When the three men find me, the smell of beer and whiskey thick on their clothes, bait boxes and fishing rods in hand, I have just sat down with a book. The men are red-eyed, gruff. The first two nod as they pass me: it is the third who walks back. He has lank, gingery hair and black spots in his teeth.
Hello, he says when he reaches me.
The next section examines allusions to the nightingale from Virgil and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Then, “Are you an American? he asks. I always wanted to kiss an American.” Then back to the nightingale, with the sections alternating between narrative and commentary. Later the speaker contends, “Madness to insist upon narrative cohesion when the story is one of fragmentation, chaos.” With this fragmentation on the page, the speaker grants herself the ability to do what she couldn’t during the assault: reflect, have agency, and assert control.
Another narrative woven into “Nightingale: A Gloss” is the story of Lavinia’s rape as depicted in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Similar to Philomela’s story, the rapists “sliced out [Lavinia’s] tongue,” but also “cut off her hands.” In one of the most moving passages of the poem, Rekdal includes “several of the taunting lines spoken by Demetrius and Chiron” after they assaulted Lavinia, but she strikes them all out just like John Keats did “in his copy” of the play. The men who took Lavinia’s tongue may speak, but not without having their speech mutilated by Rekdal’s pen.
Toward the poem’s end, Rekdal admits, “I have spent my life devoted to an art whose foundational symbol is one of unspeakable violence. . . . some part of transformation is always a curse. I am what I always was.” Change always points to origin. Even so, there is no easy change here—whether from person to victim, from woman to animal, or from silence to poetry. For Rekdal, transformation is not simply progression, but fragmentation, and Nightingale stays honest to this truth.
Not all of the book’s poems take on mythological identities. In “Driving to Santa Fe,” the key to any transformative experience becomes voicing it: “I must say this. Otherwise, I myself / do not exist.” While behind the wheel on an unlit highway, the speaker’s headlights pick up the sheen of a wild lynx’s gaze just before the car strikes the animal’s body. The poem ends:
Once, I was afraid
of being changed. Now that is finished.
The lynx has me in its eye.
I am already diminished.
Rekdal makes so many masterful turns throughout Nightingale, but this one is perhaps my favorite. The speaker can only return to the moment by voicing it on the page, which is as much of a return as transformation is. The mode of healing that Nightingale exemplifies is this kind of return. With each writing and rewriting and reading and rereading of the narrative, we both return and bring everything new that we are with us: We fragment. Rekdal’s newest collection fragments the reader, across the cracks of which only our voices may bridge. This is a kind of healing to believe in, and write toward.
About the Reviewer
Katherine Indermaur is the author of the poetry chapbook Pulse (Ghost City Press, 2018). Her poetry manuscript "Girl Descends Asunder" was a finalist for the 2019 Gasher Journal First-Book Scholarship. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Alpinist, Bad Pony, Calamity, Coast|NoCoast, Entropy, Frontier Poetry, Ghost Proposal, Muse /A Journal, New Delta Review, Oxidant|Engine, Sugar House Review, Voicemail Poems, and elsewhere. She holds a BA from UNC-Chapel Hill and an MFA from Colorado State University, where she won the 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize. She lives in Salt Lake City.