The Trauma of Transformation: Paisley Rekdal’s “Nightingale”

By Emily Spacek

Utah’s poet laureate reads poems next week in Salt Lake City.

“Once, I was afraid

of being changed. Now that is finished.

The lynx has me in its eye,

I am already diminished.” 

Driving to Santa Fe, Paisley Rekdal. 

Often, when we are emotionally transformed by an event, situation or other being, we experience a change in heart or character that feels impossible to communicate through words. For poets, however, emotional transformation frequently lends to significant and powerful subject matter with some individuals possessing a special ability to translate even the darkest kinds of silence. 

In her most recent poetry collection, Nightingale, Utah poet Paisley Rekdal responds to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, reworking many of Ovid’s stories and characters into poems of her own. Nightingale explores similar themes of loss, resilience, violence and voicelessness while contemporizing their metamorphic effects. In linking herself to Metamorphosis, a truly monumental work of literary significance, Rekdal is able to create a new language for the type of painful changes which occur during some of the most heart-rending human experiences (illness, sexual violence, loss and death).

At the heart of the book lurks a very personal selection of poems that involve sexual assault. In these pages, Rekdal unpacks the terror that accompanies this kind of transformation—a transformation that occurs without her permission and remolds her into something completely unexpected. “Perhaps, whether we are changed into our opposites or shrunk into the form that best defines us, some part of transformation is always a curse. I am what I always was. Perhaps it is sentimental to suggest violence has given me meaning, that the heart of poetry was only silence. Madness to say, yes, there’s pain, but would I have changed without it?” (from “Nightingale: A Gloss ”)

Nightingale is an exceptional demonstration of Rekdal’s range as a poet, her emotional intelligence and honesty, and her ability to embrace some of the most complex human impulses. 

It is the sixth full-length book of poems by Paisley Rekdal, who is Utah’s current poet laureate and director of the University of Utah’s creative writing program. 

You can hear Paisley Rekdal present poems from Nightingale next Wednesday, October 16, in downtown Salt Lake City. 

Paisley Rekdal & Z.G. Tomaszewski

Presented by City Arts & Utah Humanities 

4th Floor Conference Room of The City Library

210 E 400 S, Salt Lake City



This article was originally published on October 9, 2019.