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Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal

W. M. Lobko

Paisley Rekdal opens her fourth book of poetry with the following salvo: “And then I thought, Can I have more / of this, would it be possible / for every day to be a greater awakening, more light / more light…” This is a limber, confident announcement that whatever domestic or intimate settings this volume explores, it will not be constrained by them. The poem, “Why Some Girls Love Horses,” goes on to relay the narrative of an accident with a horse when the speaker was young; it confirms for the reader that we too will need to grab “the dirty short hank / of mane… on Dandy’s neck / … white flanks flecked green / with shit and the satin of his dander, / the livingness, the warmth of all that blood just under the skin…”. Through rhythm and lineation, Rekdal acquaints us immediately with the long stride and languorous reach of her voice, but also always avoids letting the narrative line go slack. We are in for quite a ride.

Not a mounted one, however. Animal Eye can indeed feel at times like a passing menagerie of creatures great and small—there are prominent appearances by the anemone, the octopus, the fox, the bat ray, the sun bear, a collection of brash and famished lemurs, a caribou herd, spawning salmon, & one unforgettable tiger. Still, it is significant that in this volume, the animal is not positioned as an alien “other” life with which the speaker really trafficks or interacts. Unlike the encounters—confrontations, even—in poems such as Stanley Kunitz’s “The Wellfleet Whale,” Mark Doty’s “Source,” Sylvia Plath’s bee poems, or, more recently, Stephanie Pippin’s poems in The Messenger, Rekdal’s meetings with the animal world are informed with admiration but also a sense of confirmed separation. Our fundamental humanness is a given, and not something that requires questioning or will yield much further understanding. In this way, Rekdal’s animals are vehicles for thinking about hungers, desires, thoughts, memories, and hurts that are distinctly human; the (idea of the) animal is a tool or occasion to be used in other investigations (familial, interpersonal, philosophical). See, for instance, the bald statements that round out “A Small, Soul-Colored Thing,” a vision poem in which the speaker observes a dog and a deer play out their instinctual roles before horribly morphing into hunter and hunter, alive and dead: “And I watched it. / I was the human that could watch it. I was the small, soul-colored thing that wouldn’t change”. The speaker here knows precisely what she is and is not.

Luckily, that speaker has chosen a role, and knows how to fulfill it whole-heartedly. The powers of observation at work in these poems astound. Consider these opening lines from “Ballard Locks,” in which those aforementioned salmon struggle home:

Air-struck, wound-gilled, ladder

upon ladder of them thrashing

through froth, herds of us climb

the cement stair to watch

this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;

so much twisted light

the whole tank seethes in a welter of bubbles:

more like sequined

purses than fish, champagned explosions

beneath which the ever-moving

smolt fume smacks against glass, churns them up

to lake from sea level, the way,

outside, fishing boats are dropped or raised

in pressured chambers, hoses spraying

the salt-slicked undersides a cleaner clean.

from “Ballard Locks”

Has there ever been a better image for leaping salmon than “sequined / purses”? Than “champagned explosions