Reviewed by Alayna D’Amico firstname.lastname@example.org
Nightingale, published in 2019 with the Copper Canyon Press, is author Paisley Rekdal’s sixth collection of poetry. In it, she aims to dissect the themes of rape, silence, loss, and violence by offering detailed accounts of the struggles faced by victims in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which portrays extremely graphic instances of sexual and physical abuse. By doing so, the poems in this book reflect on how traumatic events can transform those who experience them, often in unpermitted and unexpected ways. Rekdal does not embark on this task by simply retelling Ovid’s myths; rather, she reimagines them entirely in contemporary settings and almost entirely avoids the gods and goddesses mentioned throughout the original works.
Interestingly, it is by departing from the original plots and main characters in the Metamorphoses that Rekdal is able to demonstrate her deep understanding of Ovid’s work. She conjures up unique subjects that are both completely separate and yet entirely connected to the characters in the Metamorphoses. Tiresias, the seventh poem in the collection, shows a mother coming to terms with her child’s transition into a male while also struggling with her own body, newly ravaged by cancer. This particular dyad highlights Rekdal’s knowledge of the titular Tiresias’s myth: while the mother exemplifies the prophet’s coping with his own physical handicap, blindness, the son reminds the reader of Tiresias’s experiences living in both the male and female bodies. Rekdal’s poem Io, named for the mortal who was turned into a cow following her assault at the hands of Zeus, depicts a woman who is left quadripeligic after a bicycle accident; both pieces contend with the pain of discovering one’s new body within the constraints of old memories. These pieces are most successful, as author Peter Grandbois suggests in his own review of the collection (2019), in that they refer to Ovid’s myths only in their subtleties, something made clear in these examples.
Rekdal’s masterful ability to manipulate the plots and characters of the Metamorphoses while still remaining true to its themes is no accident. In an interview with Palette Poetry (2019), she recalled her time as a Greek and Latin student throughout her years of higher education and explained how, in preparation for writing Nightingale, she read three separate translations of the Metamorphoses and continues to look forward to and analyze new interpretations of the ancient work even after publishing this collection. Rekdal’s familiarity with Classics, particularly her ancient inspiration, shows that her decision to largely stray from the literal contents of the Metamorphoses in order to focus on the acts of violence carried out against mortals in the work in no way stands to undermine the original text. Rather, this approach allows us to understand the author as the devoted student that she truly is, deriving her own meanings and importance from her source as all good scholars do.
If anything, Rekdal’s attention paid towards the sexual and physical violence in Ovid’s work displays the continued relevance of the Metamorphoses in the modern day. During an age that sees more and more people stepping forward with their stories of survival in the face of sexual assault, it is critical that we reevaluate the Metamorphoses, a cornerstone work of ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and its peers so that we may both respect the meaningful narratives of sexual violence victims and apply the lessons we learn from them while we read these works in the modern day. Rekdal’s choice to bring the ‘secondary’ survivors in the Metamorphoses and their stories to the forefront of her work forces us to reexamine our understanding of the original source, demanding that we ask those pertinent questions required of us as we read Ovid in the year 2020: How does the overbearing power of the gods play a role in these myths? How are victims silenced? And, perhaps most crucially, how are these survivors able to fight back against their oppressors? Also, by acknowledging these accounts of sexual and physical trauma through the creative medium of poetry, Rekdal expands our capability to empathize with Ovid’s characters, highlighting the emotional content and vulnerability of these stories through the use of imagery and literary devices.
Admittedly, there are times when Rekdal seems to falter in this respect. In some moments, she uses particularly obvious metaphors and blunt language which fails the otherwise delicate nature of Rekdal’s other poems. Gokstadt/Ganymede, for example, is one of the only pieces in Nightingale to directly reference its mythical muse, exclaiming how a past lover’s experiences with sexual assault by his cousin were what “In myths, we call love. Call it desire/to soften the god who finds a boy, leads him/far from home, claps a cup in his hand, and demands/Bend to my will, child, you’ll be adored—.” (69) In blatantly reminding the reader of Ovid’s work, we come dangerously close to losing sight of the very intense realness of the trauma faced by her former partner, almost prescribing it to myth, too.
Still, we must obviously acknowledge Rekdal’s incredible strengths, especially in her impeccable use of poetic form to string a sort of conversation across different poems in her collection. No other pair of poems in the book does this as beautifully as Philomela and Nightingale: A Gloss, which immediately follows the former. Philomela, which draws inspiration from the myth of a woman raped by her brother-in-law who subsequently slices out her tongue after threatening to announce her assault to the public, recounts the story of a girl who, after her grandmother’s death, is reminded of her rape by a sculpture at her cousin’s art gallery. When given the opportunity to express her story through a quilt (similar to the tapestry Philomela weaves to communicate her trauma to her sister, Procne), patched together using a sewing machine bequeathed unto her by her aforementioned late grandmother, she tucks it away, deciding to begin her project at another time. When observed on its own, the piece follows a rather traditional structure, although Rekdal does make the meaningful choice to place her first stanza break almost immediately after the poem’s main character begins to speak up about her sexual assault; she is silenced as if she were Philomela herself.
Nightingale: A Gloss responds to Philomela with a meticulously crafted seventeen-page sampling of quotes, definitions, Rekdal’s analysis of the poem, which is delivered in prose, and, most strikingly, Rekdal’s personal narrative describing her own sexual assault, recounting with chilling detail how she was unable to cry out for help during the attack. It is here that we find not only the central theme of Nightingale, but of the Metamorphoses, too: “Language is the first site of loss and our first defense against it (38).” It is true that Ovid sees the inability to speak as the ultimate punishment one incurs during a period of transformation; it is why each of his victims across the Metamorphoses become animals or inanimate objects. But, as poet Luiza Flynn-Goodlett asserts in her evaluation of the piece that, as is illuminated across all of Rekdal’s works in her collection, “still, the impulse to speak, to sing, to write remains, even if futile,” thereby “transform[ing] trauma into something different, something new (2019).” This is a sentiment which I could not agree with more. While traumatic experiences may bring us to our metamorphosis, the actual process of transformation itself can be all the more painful. Still, be it through weaving like Philomela, photography like the mother in the poem Tiresias I discussed previously, or even poetry like Rekdal decides to use in order to speak truth to her own experiences of violence, it is our right, and sometimes our salvation, to be able to give voice to our trauma and the struggles we face as we attempt to cope with it.
Content Warning: Nightingale not only depicts moments of physical and sexual violence described in the Metamorphoses, but also includes graphic accounts of sexual assault derived from the author’s own experiences, as well as those of others. For this reason, I would recommend that this collection not be made available to children under the age of 18, and I advise those with their own experiences of abuse of any nature to exercise extreme caution in choosing to read this book.
Reading Suggestions: For further exploration of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other retellings of ancient myth involving sexual assault, I would recommend Wake Siren: Ovid Unsung, a collection of 30 short stories written by Nina MacLaughlin. This text offers a multimedia approach to much of the same content Rekdal exposes us to in Nightingale, using the forms including therapy sessions, songs lyrics, and poetry in order to deliver a reimagined version of the Metamorphoses to readers. MacLaughlin, too, takes many of the creative liberties that we see Rekdal take in her restructuring of Ovid’s ancient work, transporting the characters and plots of his myths to the modern era.
“The Journey of Nightingale – an Interview with Paisley Rekdal.” Palette Poetry, 9 July 2019,
Grandbois, Peter. “A Book Review by Peter Grandbois: Nightingale.” New York Journal of
Books, 7 May 2019, www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/nightingale-0.
Flynn-Goodlett, Luiza. “Something Sweeter, and Infinitely Strange: A Review of Paisley
Rekdal’s ‘Nightingale’.” The Adroit Journal, 1 May 2019,
Rekdal, Paisley. Nightingale. Copper Canyon Press, 2019.