Imaginary Vessels

reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Perhaps every vessel is the pregnant human. Rekdal takes us into the world of vessels by way of their creation and their tendency to break or pop. “It is not miraculous,” she begins, describing being part of a little crowd of tourists watching a glassblowing demonstration. They are bored, the artist and the crowd, having seen the same show around the corner, but by the end, something shifts. “Our senses return stretched thinner, fine. / We can almost feel the shattering of the glass.” The vessels of the next poem are bubbles, and here the book’s recurring child-and-mother figure first appears. It’s her friend’s little son, blowing soap bubbles, “I sit across from them, / on my separate bench.” An advertisement says, “Don’t You Want One?” and the poem repeats the question farther down. In the poem “Vessels,” on harvesting pearls from oysters, she tells us the mollusk has “become what no one / wants to: / vessel, caisson, wounded // into making.” To some surprise the middle section of poems speak through Mae West, and the penultimate section consists of poems in response to facing-page photos of skulls dug up on the grounds of an old mental hospital. And yet these diverse categories intricately follow Rekdal’s themes. The poems deepen questions of the containers and of containing, the world fitting into the world (as one of the book’s epigraphs mentions), the closed body finding itself lonely, the skull empty and knowing what it must have held. Rekdal is also just plain fun. “Philip Larkin’s Koan” is a great villanelle, meditating on the idea that math might not have made us—the poet had read some probability science in The Nation. The poem sees us as we worry, lying in our beds. “Memory’s another flaw in our equation. Was it The Nation? / I forget. Regardless, I know that someone said / in a perfect universe, we’d all be dead.”

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This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall–Winter 2016.