Paisley Rekdal has never been afraid of the big themes, the overpowering issues. I remember a Hopwood Award-winning essay she wrote back in the 1990s, when she was in graduate school at U-M–“We do not live here; we are only visitors.” It became the opening of her first book, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, a collection of personal essays about growing up as the child of a Norwegian father and a Chinese American mother. The essay examined the perceptions of race but started and ended with the completely personal. Its author was obviously a poet.
Since then, she has published four collections of poetry, garnering many awards and a professorship at the University of Utah. But she continues exploring provocative subjects in her poems and finding new ways of approaching those subjects. Her most recent collection, Animal Eye, has poems that find their roots in history and others that spring from the personal and familial. She can write an homage to a dead poet or a travel narrative where race becomes the dominant theme. There’s often a subdued eroticism that charges the poems, yet they are unified by a meditative tone that allows the poet to move easily from exact observations to the thoughts that rise from them.
But these are first and finally poems. We read them to watch the play of an exceptional imagination, to hear the sounds captured by one practiced ear. Near the end of Animal Eye, in the poem “Dragonfly,” Rekdal describes a tiny diaphanous dragonfly until she arrives at “wings almost too thin / to be seen but still / must be believed in,” and the reader realizes this poet has taken him to a very different place. What had been a description of the mating odonates has become a way to confront some essential questions:
How to solidify
this barely imaginable:
to scrape and name and tear
until something inviolable
can be reached,
one point around which
everything else might fix
itself in opposition, calling it love
each time it happens,
pale yellow silvering
between bay leaves?
The yellow in the bay leaves comes back at the end of the sentence, reconnecting us to the real world that has dragonflies in it, while still allowing for the possibility of that “something inviolable” that we have to work so hard to grasp. Rekdal is able to find it more often than most; what’s even better is that her poems can convince us that the scraping and naming and tearing is worth the effort. Rekdal reads her poetry at the U-M Museum of Art on February 20.