Lyric Essentials: Leslie Miller Reads Paisley Rekdal

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Here Leslie Miller and I talk about poetic range, how influential place is, especially that place where a poet started out, and Elizabeth Bishop (it always comes back to Bishop!) and James Wright. Thank you for joining us.

Leslie Miller reads “At the Fishhouses” by Paisley Rekdal

It’s so apt that you chose “At the Fishhouses,” because it’s exactly in the spirit of this series. The poem even begins with “And!” How has Paisley Rekdal’s poetry influenced yours?

Very simply, Paisley Rekdal’s poems give me faith in the future of the art—and that’s something we all need to go on producing it. Her poems, as you can see here, have tremendous range; they are keenly aware of the poems and stories of the past on which she builds, and they break new ground while honoring the work of poets gone before. And this: they not only make poetry feel vital and new, but they carry out the important work of feminist critical positions with the tremendous range of emotion necessary to the complexity of the issues.

I taught Imaginary Vessels (2016) in a women’s literature course, and when I chose it, as with many books I love, I worried my students would not love it as much as I do. Maybe I secretly suspected that as budding feminists in their late teens and early 20’s, they would find Rekdal’s allusions hard to reach. Many of them did not know who Mae West was, for example, but we had a pretty good time looking at YouTube mashups of Mae West one liners, and then watching Paisley’s film of her poem “Self Portrait as Mae West.” I also worried that Rekdal’s work might strike them more as a poet’s poetry—by which I mean the way poets love other poets for their astonishing dexterity with aspects of craft— images, sound, form. General literature students can sometimes seem less wowed by these craft details that creative writers love. Rekdal’s over the top sound devices are so much fun—because even as they go overboard and get some laughs for their absurdity (as in “Dear lacuna, Dear Lard”), they manage to haunt, to maintain an edge, a tone of serious inquiry. In the end, I think the book went over well with my class because I loved it so much (or maybe my students were too kind to admit that my love for the book was itself an entertainment).

These poems are so different from one another! “At the Fishhouses” deals with how slippery memory is, and it uses long lines and a sort of associative logic, whereas “Vessels’” focus is intent on its very specific subject, and its thinking seems to be more controlled. You said in our emails that you had a hard time choosing which poems to read – what made you choose these two?

I had a hard time picking poems of Rekdal’s to share because I like them so much in the context of the book as a whole. If I could have chosen a poem of hers that I think most representative of what I admire, it would have been the long “Nightingale: A Gloss” that appeared in APR recently. That’s the poem I have been handing over to smart young feminist poets lately, and I’m still marveling at its range and power. But I chose two from Imaginary Vessels, one lyric and one more meditative/narrative because one of the things I admire most in Rekdal is the ease with which she moves among the various modes. “At the Fishhouses” has another signature Rekdal feature—the layering of other poetry, other traditions, stories, pop icons, and yet doing this without fanfare, without having to pound down a conclusion about what that allusion means or lends to the poem. I suspect she knows, and hopes we know too, but that she’d also wish our knowing differs from hers.

It’s something we love Bishop for, especially in her poem of the same name, or in her famous poem, “The Fish,” the way the elements of story are so clearly delineated and yet not driving at a single “meaning.” A dozen critics can all come up with a different read on it, and none of them is really any more “right” than the next. The ability to make a poem that observes the world and includes elements of story so precisely that the reader buys into it at the same time that the reader cannot be sure of a “point.” You’re constantly asking yourself as you move through the poem whether you’re tracking the story or the images, and sure, you are tracking both, but one dissolves easily into the other and back again, so that when you reach the final image of the taste of the friend’s mouth in Rekdal’s poem, it isn’t exactly a kiss so much as it is an amalgam of kissing Bishop, the grandmother, the berries picked with the grandmother—it’s all those things, and none of them alone, so you understand that you have to rest on that perilous place between close observation and story and just be there, be present to the way those things mix in the mind.

At the Fishhouses” is at once a complex and entirely clear trajectory from an initial moment that is both the here and now of the poem and a memory of Bishop—from the start, it’s not cleanly one or the other. The story of the friend follows on the establishment of place/time, so the friend is set in the memory/literary allusion fusion as well. The friend quickly segues into a memory of the speaker’s grandmother in a way that fuses, yet again, a past memory and a present character, and Rekdal brilliantly gets us out of the impasse with the image of the raspberries:

were raspberries. Very red, very sweet, furred
like my friend’s upper lip I remember
between my teeth as we stood
on the docks. The smell
of iron and winter mist, her mouth
like nothing I have tasted since.

There is no line at all between what is happening in the now and what is happening in the mind. Rekdal has prepared us incrementally for this moment of sheer erotic joy in a taste and texture that is neither here nor there but a fusion so precise that we’re there tasting it too.

It’s almost as astonishing as Bishop’s close:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.   

But Rekdal has made it her own, rearranged the elements, feminized the memory from a grandfather to a grandmother and held on to what is most fetching in the original: a moment of fusion between the self, the past, the erotics of the present environment—and, of course, it’s a moment of transcendence that is gone as soon as you’ve noticed it because it was made of all these contingencies, the ugliness and the beauty, the real and the remembered, and nothing else will ever again quite match it.

Do I love the Rekdal because I love the Bishop so much? Maybe. But I also love that she doesn’t damage the beauty of the Bishop in channeling it for her own. It’s a beautiful homage, and I love Rekdal for loving Bishop exactly as I think Bishop ought to be loved. If I were truly picking a poet whose influence over my own work has been long and deep and ongoing, Bishop wins every time—but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that, so I wanted to pick someone writing now that everyone could go out and read!

Leslie Miller reads “Vessels” by Paisley Rekdal

I love that the first sentence in “Vessels” is, “Shouldn’t it ache…,” and then the very next sentence begins, “It hurts/to imagine it…” Rekdal asks a question, and then almost answers it, until we read across the line-break. Can you point to a couple moments you particularly admire in this poem?

Vessels” is a very different poem, and yet a few of the tactics of slide and fusion happen here too, but I chose “Vessels” for its lyric qualities. Rekdal has dozens of poems that play sound devices forward, and truth be told, I’d love to read them all out loud (we did in my class, and maybe that was part of their success with my students), but Rekdal herself must have thought of this poem as special, key to the collection with which it shares part of its name. Like “At the Fishhouses” “Vessels” turns on a single image, only in this case with a bit less narrative, and reprises that image in ways that allow it to be simultaneously lovely, vulnerable, ugly, wounded . . . The poem’s subject is an oyster, though it isn’t named right away, and, in fact, the short lines here allow her to feature “slit” at the end of the first line in such a way that we who own these body parts know instantly in our flesh that it is our own genitalia we are seeing/feeling, even as we are watching the oyster be parted from its “vessel” and understanding our own bodies as vessels as well—as entities that both contain and are contained. The sound here, though, is amazing, because the word “slit” is harsh, and that harsh sound gets picked up again fast in all those following “t” sounds, “sweet,” “salt,” “water,” “meat,” “hurt,” “abductor,” “harvest,” “cyst”—the violence just keeps hitting as it morphs into different iterations of the same sound, even as what we’re seeing is undeniably beautiful.

I also admire the precision of diction in Rekdal’s poems. In “Vessels,” words like “adductor” and “caisson,” are not only precise terms for the mussel’s parts, but even if a reader doesn’t know their meaning the first time through (I had to look them up myself), their sounds give us just as much to go on—“adductor” sounding so much like “abductor” and suggesting female abduction, “caisson” sounding so much like “case-on.”

Do you have a poem that is in as close a conversation with another poem as “At the Fishhouses,” that you can excerpt for us? Or, what are you working on now that you’re excited about?

Oh, this question is so hard to answer after having spent the last few questions in the minds of Rekdal and Bishop! I certainly have written a lot of poems that work in conversation with poets of the past, and to some degree, it’s hard for me to imagine any strong poem that isn’t, even in some very sublimated way, having that kind of conversation.

One recent poem of mine that is more direct in its conversation with an existing poem might be one called “Sumac.” I love that moment in autumn when sumac turns bright red, and when I see it, I always think of the poet James Wright. I grew up in Southeastern Ohio, not far from where Wright grew up, and though I didn’t discover Wright until after I’d left Ohio for good, his poems have always held a special place for me because they’re so good at evoking where I came from—and sumac is common in Southeastern Ohio river valleys, so it shows up in his work more than once, particularly in his prose poem, “The Sumac in Ohio,” which uses sumac as a metaphor for the particular beauty and toughness in the landscape and people of the region. The final sentences of the poem are a signature Wrightian declaration: “ The skin [of the sumac] will turn aside hatchets and knife blades. You cannot even carve a girl’s name on the sumac. It is viciously determined to live and die alone, and you can go straight to hell.”

Though I’ve loved that poem and those lines for years and felt deeply attached to the vision of my geographical home offered by Wright, recently, I reread those lines and saw them differently– as a woman who grew up in that environment and ran as fast as I could away from it, even though I retain a very complicated relationship to it, as to Wright. It’s hard to excerpt from my response poem without giving you all the dimensions of that complication, but here’s a snippet:

and when
I came of age in words, I married
his enduring spell of rivers, mills,
our hills scraped white by monster
draglines, and dusted in the mist
of steel spit and soot.

You could say I had a bit of feminist awakening about the need to give the sumac a different reading, also a loving but stern critique of a poet and generation of poets, really, that was ultimately a boys’ club. There was something about that “You cannot even carve a girl’s name on the sumac” that made me wince. For one thing, it absolutely assumes a male reader, and for another it conjures a place and time in which casual violence against women was commonplace. I can’t read these lines anymore without thinking about the women, girls really, who got stuck in it—as an actual place and as a way of thinking about place. I might have escaped the former, but I didn’t escape the latter!



Leslie Miller’s sixth collection of poems is Y from Graywolf Press. Her previous
collections include The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See (Graywolf
Press), and Yesterday Had a Man In It, Ungodliness and Staying Up For Love (Carnegie
Mellon University Press). She has been the recipient of the Loft McKnight Award of Distinction, two Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowships in Poetry, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and the PEN Southwest Discovery Award. She has also held residencies and fellowships with Le Château de Lavigny, Fundación Valparaíso, Literarisches Colloquium, and Hawthornden Castle. Professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, she holds degrees in creative writing and English from Stephens College, the University of Missouri, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the University of Houston.

Paisley Rekdal is author of five poetry collections, A Crash of Rhinos (2000), Six Girls Without Pants (2002), The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (2007), Animal Eye, and Imaginary Vessels (2016), as well as the book of essays The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In (2000), and a hybrid memoir, Intimate. She has received several awards for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She teaches at the University of Utah.

Further Reading:

Leslie Miller’s website
Leslie Miller at Crazyhorse
Interview with Leslie Miller on Words Without Borders

Paisley Rekdal’s website
Paisley Rekdal’s forthcoming book Nightingale on Publisher Weekly‘s Top 10 Poetry Book of 2019 list
Pre-order Nightingale here

Jessica Hudgins is a writer currently living in Georgia.

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