The Invention of the Kaleidoscope
Paisley Rekdal
University of Pittsburgh Press $14 (paper)

Paisley Rekdal sets herself up for failure in her third book, declaring, “I am going to fail…in every particular sense of myself, / in every new and beautiful light.” These poems are in fact about failures—of love, memory, faith, and history—and are also attempts to record and analyze such failures. Thankfully, the poems themselves do not fail, but are rather brilliantly made—complicated, constantly in flux, and fragmented. They meander in thought and subject, figures for the fragments of light within a kaleidoscope searching for some greater whole: “But the toy, the toy might put what’s lost / back together: fragments clinging right to fragments until a new shape forms, a household / filled with blood and bone.” These lines are from the collection’s strong title poem, which combines the story of David Brewster’s rediscovery of the kaleidoscope with the failure of a relationship during a bombing in Dublin. Taken together, the two simple narratives refract and entangle one another, much as the poem’s repeated lines change with each iteration. While some of Rekdal’s longer poems can sound like prose, her shorter pieces sparkle with tighter lines and more sonic pleasure, showcasing the poet’s immense range, as in “Cherry”: “the fingers must be pushed into the mouth, suckled / or chewed on, / past the trace taste of salt down to exocarp and follicle, / corpuscle and nerve; / down to corneum, hair, gland, disk, duct; down / to the bowl’s dead center.” But while the speakers of these poems are unabashed, honest, and bold, at times the poet’s ubiquitous and self-obsessed “I” borders on unlikable and threatens to dull the collection’s sparkle. Luckily, Rekdal leaps out of the book at just the right moment, closing without closure, dwelling on her need to search, dig, and measure “what sizzles, what physics, what swims and possesses / this dumb will to take root, survive, to plumb.”