Bookmarked: Paisley Rekdal


Bookmarked is a  column in which writers give us their "shadow bibliographies" essentially, the books behind their books. Which books influenced their writing, and how?  Today's writer is Paisley Rekdal whose book Imaginary Vessels is now available  and The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam is forthcoming from The University of Georgia Press in Fall 2017.

I’m never sure what will help with the poems I’m working on, nor what will inspire poems in general, so I tend to read eclectically. Right now, I’m reading a collection of Benjamin Graham’s essays on value investing and Jeremy Siegel’s Stocks for the Long Run, neither of which I doubt will inspire many poems but will hopefully support the writing of them before I turn 112.

The books I read while working on Imaginary Vessels alternated between studies on vaudeville and cultural trauma, a combination of texts which, sadly, prepared me surprisingly well for this coming year.

The two most fun books I read are Ain’t No Sin, a nice, juicy biography of Mae West by Simon Louvish, and the much slimmer volume, Mae West: She Who Laughs, Lasts by June Sochen, which is both a terrific short biography and a critical study of Mae West. When I was a child, I was obsessed with West, which is odd, considering I can’t remember my first introduction to her films or images. I just came, as my mother likes to tell me, out of the womb doing a Mae West impersonation. There are pictures of me as a child accompanying my mother to the grocery store, dressed in high heels and a feather boa, one arm raised while I nasally drawl at the produce clerk to peel me a grape. I adored everything about West: the looks, the voice, the jewels, the fur, and it wasn’t until reading both of these books that I saw the brittleness behind that lifelong act. As an artist, West never broke character, never changed her appearance, never even significantly altered the plots to most of her films. When you’re a kid, this is fascinating; when you’re an adult and an artist yourself, it’s terrifying. West’s ideas about femininity (and implicitly her feminist performance) are also troubling, since they both feed nicely into an excessive, capital-driven system where both men and women become as interchangeable, and as consumable, as diamond necklaces. Anyway, these books were also fascinating peeks into the early years of vaudeville and how vaudevillians morphed into silent actors and then actors for the “talkies.”

As a side note, whenever I read these Mae West poems at readings, people under the age of 35 stare at me blankly. As they also do when I mention Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart or Joan Crawford or even Katharine Hepburn. Those of you waddling with me into middle age, don’t ever title-check The Philadelphia Story to your undergrads. The response will only make you want to die. (Faster, evidently, than we already are.)

ON THAT NOTE, on to trauma. Because I was also doing research for my upcoming book, The Broken Country (which is about the legacy of the Vietnam War on post-1975 Southeast Asian refugees to America and U.S. veterans), and because I lived for a period of time in Vietnam while working on many of the poems in Imaginary Vessels, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we memorialize war, and narrativize our memories of the dead. The books and articles I read were too numerous to mention usefully here, but I’d like to call out a couple that might appeal to some of you out in the ether.

  1. Shannon Novak, “Leave Taking: Materialities of Moving Over Land,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 24 (3): 1-9. This is a short article that examines the scraps of clothing, weaponry, and cooking utensils found from a dig at the Mountain Meadows Massacre site in Utah. I know: sounds FASCINATING, right? But this short article on these remains and their return to the descendants of the victims has a very lucid, and very persuasive way of showing how we “transfer” our grief for the dead onto the material objects that we choose to associate with them—even when we can’t assign those objects specifically to our own relatives.  It explained for me my initial urge to start writing about the Vietnam and Iraq wars’ impacts on my family when looking at Andrea Modica’s photographs of skulls unearthed from the grounds of the Colorado State Mental Institution. When denied the physical bodies of the dead, or specific material remains of traumas we have suffered, we “make” symbolic bodies and memorials out of other objects and other bodies. I found this fascinating, ethically disturbing, but also compelling.
  2. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies. Actually, this is sort of incorrect: I read several of the essays in this collection before the book itself was published, but this is the easiest way to get at all of the essays that I read over the years. Nguyen’s take on memorialization, ethical memory, and war—specifically the Vietnam War—made me rethink many of the instinctual, and entirely manipulated, reactions that I have to our public war monuments, which I would also argue include film and literature, are nationalistic and morally problematic.  Can you create a war memorial that takes ethical stock of ALL the dead? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
  3. Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems. I turned to Heaney a lot for my “Shooting the Skulls” sonnet sequence, in particular his poems about the bog people’s remains, and also his “Glanmore Sonnets” and “Clearances.” I like how Heaney made the pentameter line reflect HIS language: there are five feet per line, but rarely are there two iambs put together. I read this as political: rather than making his Irish English conform to the “perfect” sonnet meter and rhyme, he would force the English-speaking ear to hear his rural voice’s particular rhythms and cadences, and treat those too as “perfect” within this Shakespearean model he’s both kept and radically altered.

Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee,  a hybrid-genre photo-text memoir entitled Intimate, and four books of poetry:A Crash of RhinosSix Girls Without PantsThe Invention of the Kaleidoscope andAnimal Eye, which was a finalist for the 2013 Kingsley Tufts Prize, the Balcones Prize and winner of the UNT Rilke Prize. Her newest book of poems, Imaginary Vessels, has just been published, and a book-length essay, The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam is forthcoming in 2017. Her work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Residency, an NEA Fellowship, the 2016 AWP Nonfiction Prize, and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Tin House, the Best American Poetry series, and on National Public Radio among others.  She currently teaches at the University of Utah.