by Bill Carty | Senior Editor
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 6, Paisley Rekdal will read at the Hugo House Lapis Theater.
Pythagoras’s greatest influence upon his contemporaries, according to classicist Carl Huffman, was not the geometric theorem for which he is now famous (and which pre-dated him by a thousand years), but rather his belief in metempsychosis, the transfer of an essential nature from one body to another. It makes sense then that Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, seeking to sing of “bodies becoming other bodies,” dedicates nearly four hundred lines of the epic’s final book to a speech from Pythagoras, an elucidation of his philosophy in which he states,
in all this world, no thing can keep
its form. For all things flow; all things are born
to change their shapes. And time itself is like
a river, flowing on an endless course.
Nightingale, Paisley Rekdal’s collection of poems published by Copper Canyon in 2019, draws extensively from Ovid and other mythologies, and fittingly concludes with a poem titled “Pythagorean.” Like many of the poems in Nightingale, this one adopts a mythological figure for the title, and then introduces characters in a recognizably modern world. In this case, the poem is set at a dinner party, the point of view shifting among perspectives, a portrait of characters lost in misapprehension of one another. Within the somewhat distant third person narration of the poem, we find moments of deep interiority. The dinner host’s proposition that “humankind’s distinguishing feature / must be empathy” causes a young lawyer at the table to think of the term in relation to his mother’s and his own “heritable need” for alcohol:
. . . Empathy
was not the starting point of change
for her but fear: sobriety seemed only
to clarify an essential indifference
she must have felt . . .
No sooner have we settled into this perspective than the poem shifts again. A mathematician present makes a flirtatious comment to a professor, while his wife imagines potential transgression:
. . . flushing now, thinking of it, bemused
by this jealousy that she alone
has authored. Perhaps this
is the defining feature of humanity,
she thinks: the capacity to imagine
some small cruelty and take pleasure in it . . .
In Nightingale, as with Ovid’s epic, pleasure is wedded to cruelty, beauty to violence, human life to change. Elsewhere in Metamorphoses, Pythagoras says, “Our bodies undergo / the never-resting changes: what we were / and what we are today is not to be / tomorrow.” Rekdal’s poems show characters amidst great transformations, and more importantly, allow the reader to change alongside them. A sense of self and our sense of others shift moment to moment, based on new inputs, new intelligence. In “Pythagoras,” what might begin as distaste for the mathematician’s bombast and indiscretion changes when the poem switches to his perspective: the starlings of an early metaphor seemed like an obnoxious linguistic flourish, meant to impress, but through his perspective, we learn the image of the birds to be imbued with the loss of a now-deceased girlfriend, as well as a moment of tranquility with his wife:
. . . He remembers
only that the skies had cleared a moment, the birds
thinning as they separated from one another.
How calm he’d felt, as his wife reached for his hand.
And then they were up again, and flowing, and flown.
The “they” in this last line reads first as the birds, but in a layer of skillful ambiguity, the more immediate antecedent could be read as the mathematician and his wife. We see all creatures, humans and birds, caught in Pythagorean concept of time “flowing on an endless course.”
One of the more famous anecdotes about Pythagoras is recounted in a fragment from Xenophanes: “Once they say that [Pythagoras] was passing by when a dog was beaten and spoke these words: ‘Stop! don’t beat it! For it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard its voice.’” This passage is often read as satirical, Xenophanes poking fun at the extreme nature of Pythagoras’s empathy. It is perhaps even a little ridiculous. But the bare facts of this encounter spring from death and violence: the cruelty of the dog’s abuser, the passing of Pythagoras’s friend.
It may be that the defining feature of humanity—at least as recognized by Ovid, by Rekdal, and by the mathematician’s ex-girlfriend in “Pythagorean” (who “liked / to insist the world was one vicious being / devouring another, their own attraction determined / only be their proximity to each other”)—might be the manner in which violence and beauty exist in such proximity. The transformations of Ovid are frequently brutal, replete with rape and abuse. The poems in Nightingale explore the effects such violence has on people, and how perception of violence shifts with the passage of time, and for the audience, with rereading. As Rekdal writes at one point, “Traumatic time works like lyric time: the now of terror repeatedly breaking back through the crust of one’s consciousness.”
The jacket copy for Nightingale claims the book is “radically rewriting” and “contemporiz[ing]” the myths of Ovid, though this language doesn’t do full justice to the depth with which Rekdal inhabits the mythology of Metamorphoses, while showing how we also inhabit a world rich with the reverberations of this mythology. This sense of the mind contemplating memory and exploring its resonance is particularly crucial considering the pair of pieces at the heart of Nightingale: the poem “Philomela” and a long, fragmentary essay, “Nightingale: A Gloss,” which serves as a reconsideration of the earlier poem.
The poem references a particularly violent—though by no means atypical—episode of the Metamorphoses in which Philomela, promised the chance to reunite with her sister Procne in Thrace, is instead abducted and raped by Procne’s husband, Tereus. When Philomela vows to Tereus to “proclaim your crime,” to “shout unto the trees,” and to “move the rocks to pity,” she is victimized again. Tereus severs her tongue.
In Rekdal’s poem, the speaker is herself a victim of sexual violence, likewise silenced. She describes a visit to a cousin, a sculptor who has fashioned an artwork that the speaker first takes to be a tree, but upon closer inspection comes to understand is actually two bodies entwined, a girl and her captor:
. . . The young woman
could read no emotion on it,
however: the plank face
had been scraped clean; all the fear
and anger burned instead inside
their twisting bodies: she could see
the two there stuck at a point
of perfect hatred for each other: she
for his attack, he for her resistance . . .
While the description of this sculpture recalls, on one level, the rape of Philomela, within the poem we learn that the sculpture is actually titled Persephone, referencing Persephone’s abduction by Hades. The poem also invokes Ovid’s story of Daphne, who when pierced with Cupid’s arrow of antipathy flees Apollo, who has been pierced with the golden arrow of love. After an extended pursuit, at the moment when Daphne is about to be seized by Apollo, she prays for someone to “dissolve / my gracious shape, the form that pleased too well!” At that moment, she transformed into a tree.
For Rekdal’s narrator, looking at the sculpture invokes the memory of a sexual assault during college, when a date—after hissing “‘You think you’re so fucking pretty”—grabs and pins her arm. The poem elides the details of the assault that follows; an em dash interrupts the narrative and signals a shift in the poem. The speaker then describes a recollection of a sewing machine given to her by her grandmother. As readers, with the mythical context at our fingers, we understand this as the speaker’s chance to tell the story as she hasn’t before, just as Philomela, otherwise without voice, was able to weave a tapestry to tell her sister of Tereus’s evil actions. The narrative of “Philomela,” however, isn’t yet able to do so:
How much thread would that take
to make? she wondered. And considered it
a long while before packing up
the machine again, sliding it back
into its wooden crate and high up onto a shelf
of her bedroom closet.
In “Nightingale: A Gloss” (which previously appeared in The American Poetry Review), Rekdal examines the sources and silences of this poem. The nightingale of the title refers to the form assumed by Philomela after she and Procne take revenge on Tereus by feeding him the body of his son. In this essay, which is itself a series of fragments linked through their investigation of myth and sexual violence, Rekdal interrogates some of the authorial decisions in the previous poem: the omission of the “grotesque” details of the Philomena myth, as well as the avoidance of details of the narrator’s assault. She explains the decision this way:
I left out the rape, thinking to reject a reader’s voyeurism. But the reader of myths knows what is left out: my silence, then, is not a revision but an invitation to imagine, to remember, this violence for yourself.
The essay further considers what it means for a poem to be silent about such experience. Pointing to Shelley’s definition of a poet as “a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its solitude with sweet sounds,” Rekdal recognizes that such tropes of “sweetness” are false, and that avoiding discussion of violence, while understandable, forfeits some of the power of language. In Rekdal’s words,
In The Metamorphoses, the truth of violence is that it might erupt at any time: the void always threatens to yawn before us, and we struggle to assemble words that will explain it. Only language, which orders time and gives experience shape and meaning, might control how violence is experienced. It gives back agency.
“Nightingale: A Gloss” doesn’t just create agency regarding the poem “Philomela.” It also represents a dramatic turn to the first person. In the essay, Rekdal grapples with her own experience of sexual assault while hiking near Loch Ness in 1992. She writes that “Rape is the dark seam of The Metamorphoses,” and her personal story—one she had remained silent about before—stitches together the violence of mythology, the violence inherent in the retelling of these myths, and the silence the survivors of such violence often face. Change, in this sense, alienates the self from self, and the self from the language necessary to recount experience in any way that isn’t fragmented. Rekdal writes, “What happened to me feels like something that exists between words, a subcategory of expression for which there is no one easy expression.”
A lion, a lake, a cow. A wolf, a lynx, a frog. Constellations, rivers, streams. Rocks and flowers. Monkeys, Sirens, a heliotrope. A full list of the products of Ovidian transformation would be very long and would contain no small part of the observable natural world. By situating these myths in contemporary settings—a darkroom, a doctor’s office, a museum—Nightingale suggests we live in not only in a world where myth has resonance, but where we can still witness the products of violent change: in nature, in animals, in ourselves.
Rekdal explains that “some part of transformation is always a curse.” When Daphne becomes a laurel tree, she is not free of Apollo’s will to possess her. As Ovid describes, “within [Apollo’s] arms he clasps / the branches as if they were human limbs,” before addressing Daphne, “But since / you cannot be my wife, you’ll be my tree.” Apollo then dons a piece of the tree as a laurel wreath, that quintessential symbol of triumph. In another myth, Arethusa recounts how she was transformed into a spring after being pursued by Alpheus. In her memory, she watched as “where I move my feet a pool is born,” and then thinking herself to be safe, instead sees as Alpheus “takes on his river form, [so] that he might mingle with me.”
There’s something in Nightingale’s treatment of mythology that is evocative of recent studies of epigenetic inheritance, which suggest trauma’s effects may be passed from generation to generation. This suggests that myth isn’t simply metaphor or archetype, but rather a model of recurring aspects of human experience. “As if life could be defined by a wound,” Rekdal writes in “Gokstadt/Ganymede.” While life’s multitudinous nature might not allow for someone to be so singularly defined, that does not mean a person can be unwounded. Claude Lévi-Strauss claimed not that we think in myths, but that myths “operate in [our] minds without [our] being aware of the fact.” Nightingale brings awareness to our mythological inheritance, as well as to what might be another defining feature of humanity: since Ovid, our essential nature hasn’t changed as much as we may think.
All translations from Ovid are from Allen Mandelbaum’s Everyman’s Library edition.
Bill Carty is Senior Editor at Poetry Northwest and the author of Huge Cloudy (Octopus Books).