The Invention of the Kaleidoscope

Paisley Rekdal

University of Pittsburgh Press

In twenty-two poems impressive in length according to today’s standards, Paisley Rekdal’s third collection considers a variety of disappointments, disconnections and departures. “Strawberry,” the opening cut, makes clear the wounded place from which these poems emerge:

I’m going to fail the way cowards only wish they could fail,
the way the brave refuse to fail or the vain fear to,
believing that to stray even once from perfection
is to be permanently cast out….
I’m going to fail these words
and the next and the next. I’m going to fail them,
I’m going to fail her—trust me, I’ve already failed him….

But it’s more than just the self that betrays. Sometimes it’s other people; sometimes it’s something more abstract. Two lovers in “The Gokstadt Ship” walk through a museum and talk dirty to each other: “I can imagine you on it,” someone says. “We are both on it, / we are both watching ourselves make love on it.” In other words, history itself is hardly satisfying, neither is the dull thrill of watching. Or is it? In “A Pornography,” Rekdal recalls a memory in great detail—at least in places. Who these people are, why they’ve gathered in a hotel—some of the details get left out. But the ones that do survive are subject to the elusiveness of memory. Here the speaker recalls a film this group watches in their shared room:

The music, the rocking, the sobbing.
The man called the woman by parts of herself.
Some laughed at this. I remember
I must have been one of them.

Memory itself becomes a pornographic experience: intimate to be sure, but anonymous. What memory leaves behind, then, is only the shadow of intimacy. As if we’ve been granted the ability to see our past experiences again, but to only see them as separate from the circumstance and emotion that made them so vital to us in the first place. “What I did,” in tense lines of alternating length, recalls the dissolution of a marriage, and opens bluntly enough:

Here I am again, standing in the snow, watching your long mouth tell me
how you couldn’t stay,
not after this, not after what you’ve done, a phrase so insistent in its blame
I have to repeat it
for months….

Another, “Post-Romantic,” picks up where “What I did” left off:

Yesterday, everything was possible. Today we’re good
as married.

And it’s just this kind of thing, the razor’s edge that always accompanies eros that makes the poems of Paisley Rekdal fresh, intense and ultimately irresistible. In fact, the pages of The Invention of the Kaleidoscope are littered with car-crash moments, places and voices that will make you wince and smirk and shake your head. Good luck trying to look the other way.

--Jay Robinson