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Paisley Rekdal


Why Some Girls Love Horses

And then I thought, Can I have more
of this, would it be possible
for every day to be a greater awakening: more light,
more light, your face on the pillow
with the sleep creases rudely 
fragmenting it, hair so stiff
from paint and sheet rock it feels
like the dirty short hank
of mane I used to grab on Dandy's neck

before he hauled me up and forward,
white flanks flecked green
with shit and the satin of his dander,
the livingness, the warmth
of all that blood just under the skin
and in the long, thick muscle of the neck-

He was smarter than most of the children
I went to school with. He knew 
how to stand with just the crescent
of his hoof along a boot toe and press,
incrementally, his whole weight down. The pain
so surprising when it came, 
its iron intention sheathed in stealth, the decisive 
sudden twisting of his leg until the hoof
pinned one's foot completely to the ground, 
we'd have to beat and beat him with a brush 
to push him off, that hot
insistence with its large horse eye trained
deliberately on us, to watch-

Like us, he knew how to announce through violence
how he didn't hunger, didn't want
despite our practiced ministrations: too young 
not to try to empathize 
with this cunning: this thing 
that was and was not human we must respect
for itself and not our imagination of it: I loved him because
I could not love him anymore 
in the ways I'd taught myself, 
watching the slim bodies of teenagers
guide their geldings in figure eights around the ring
as if they were one body, one fluid motion 
of electric understanding I would never feel 
working its way through fingers to the bit: this thing
had a name, a need, a personality; it possessed
an indifference that gave me
logic and a measure: I too might stop wanting
the hand placed on back or shoulder
and never feel the desired response.
I loved the horse for the pain it could imagine

and inflict on me, the sudden jerking
of head away from halter, the tentative nose 
inspecting first before it might decide
to relent and eat. I loved
what was not slave or instinct, that when you turn to me 
it is a choice, it is always a choice to imagine pleasure
might be blended, one warmth
bleeding into another as the future
bleeds into the past, more light, more light,
your hand against my shoulder, the image
of the one who taught me disobedience 
is the first right of being alive.


Ballard Locks

Air-struck, wound-gilled, ladder 
           upon ladder of them thrashing 
through froth, herds of us climb 
           the cement stair to watch 
this annual plunge back to dying, spawn; 
           so much twisted light 
the whole tank seethes in a welter of bubbles: 
           more like sequined
purses than fish, champagned explosions
           beneath which the ever-moving 
smolt fume smacks against glass, churns them up 
           to lake from sea level, the way,
outside, fishing boats are dropped or raised
           in pressured chambers, hoses spraying 
the salt-slicked undersides a cleaner clean. 
           Now the vessels 
can return to dock. Now the fish, 
           in their similar chambers, rise and fall 
along the weirs, smelling the place 
           instinct makes for them, 
city's pollutants sieved
           through grates: keeping fish 
where fish will spawn, but changing the physics of it, 
           changing ours as well: 
one giant world encased
           with plastic rock, seaweed transplanted 
in thick ribbons for schools to rest in 
           before they work their way up 
the industrious journey: past 
           shipyard, skyline, playground; 
past bear-cave, past ice-valley; past the place 
           my father's father would, 
as a child, have stood with crowds 
           and shot at them with guns 
then scooped them from the river with a net, such 
           silvers, pinks cross-hatched in black: 
now there's protective glass 
           behind which gray shapes shift: change
then change again. Can you see the jaws 
           thickening with teeth, scales 
beginning to plush themselves with blood; can you see
           there is so little distinction here
between beauty, violence, utility? 
           The water looks like boiling sun. 
A child has turned his finger into a gun. 
           Bang, the ladders say 
as they bring up fish into too-bright air, then down again,
           while the child watches the glass 
revolves its shapes into a hiss of light. 
           Bang, the boy repeats.
His finger points and points.

-from Animal Eye

Paisley Rekdal grew up in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. She earned a BA from the University of Washington, an MA from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies, and an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of the poetry collections A Crash of Rhinos (2000), Six Girls Without Pants (2002), and The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (2007) as well as the book of essays The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In (2000). 
In reviewing The Invention of the Kaleidoscope for Barn Owl Review, Jay Robinson observed that it’s “the razor’s edge that always accompanies eros that makes the poems of Paisley Rekdal fresh, intense and ultimately irresistible.” Rekdal’s work grapples with issues of race, sexuality, myth, and identity while often referencing contemporary culture. 
Rekdal has been honored with a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, and a Fulbright Fellowship to South Korea. Her work has been included in numerous anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (2006) and the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology.
Rekdal teaches at the University of Utah.

An Interview with Paisley Rekdal by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Why Some Girls Love Horses” feels almost as if it opens in the middle of a thought or the middle of the poem itself with that “And then I thought, Can I have more / of this…” It reminds me of the way Larry Levis enters into some of his poems or the way fiction writers begin the story in the middle rather than after a whole bunch of exposition. What effect are you going for by starting the poem in this way?


Paisley Rekdal: I was trying to re-create, as best I could, the process of thinking, to enact in syntax the way the mind formulates thought through feeling and memory.


AMK: The lines in this poem move around quite a bit. You obviously aren’t going for line lengths that mirror one another the way many poems traditionally do. Sometimes you use a succinct, enjambed line like “like the dirty short hank / of mane...” Other times you use highly-packed, musical lines such as “white flanks flecked green” and longer lines arranged according to breath or phrasal units such as “the slim bodies of teenagers / guide their geldings in figure eights around the ring…” Talk to us about your line breaks. Why not be more regimented with them in this poem? How do these different approaches to the break affect your reader?

PR: I like an iambic pentameter line, but I didn’t want the blank verse line here because, though its form tends to work well with exposition, it would put me in too “regimented” a space for the way associative or free(er)-flowing thought moves. I wanted a line that would break where I heard it break when I thought it. I read every draft aloud, even if I only change a word. The lines are broken according to where I wanted to change the poem’s rhythm and emphasis.

AMK: What’s going on with the dashes and colons in this poem? It seems that the dashes act as periods and the colons like commas, but it’s not as if you’re not using periods and commas throughout the poem…

PR: I needed breathing moments within the poem that are visually or rhythmically stronger than a comma, but still allowed for the poem to be moving forward. The colon accommodates this, and the dash works the way an ellipsis might. 

AMK: “More light, more light” (a nod to Hamlet) appears in the first few lines of “Why Some Girls Love Horses” and then reappears in the last few lines, which I just love: “the future /  bleeds into the past, more light, more light, / your hand against my shoulder, the image / of the one who taught me disobedience / is the first right of being alive.” What’s going on there?

PR: Do you mean why did I quote Hamlet? I have no idea. If you are referring to why I repeat it, it’s to help wind the poem back to its starting place: to connect beginning to end. 


AMK: The first five lines of “Ballard Locks” does a wonderful job of making it clear (even as it is so lyrical) the setting of the poem and the characters within it: “herds of us climb / the cement stair to watch / this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;…” I think this immediate establishment of where and who allows you to write a very lyrical poem that, without these narrative elements, would be harder to follow. Can you talk about how you utilize elements of both narrative and lyric in your work, in this poem but more broadly as well?


PR: I’m pretty naturally narrative: I think the straight lyric is harder for me  to do, though I do write them occasionally. What I love about narrative is that it allows me to explore the psychological aspects of the world I’m trying to describe: to write character, but also to think about story, which I love. But lyric allows me to leap between stories, to move quickly between time periods. I like poems that put the personal event alongside historical events or narratives, and the lyric allows me to move between what might seem like wildly different moments in time and meaning. 

AMK: What’s going on with the indented lines? I recently taught the line break to my intro to creative writing student and found my only justification for the question “Why do some poets indent lines in a formulaic way like that” (we were looking at this very poem) was similar to the answer James Kimbrell gave me when I asked the same question of him a number of years ago: “To break up the monotony of the left margin.” I’m not sure that’s a very good answer…

PR: Probably not, and my answer is going to be worse. I’m not convinced that we “hear” visually, but for me I feel like the poem gains two tensions: the end of the line and the front of the line become equally sonically weighted. The shorter line is also a bit tighter sonically, which makes me feel as if it spins the reader into the following longer, left-margin line. 


AMK: You use internal rhyme quite a bit in both these poems. One of the few end rhymes in “Ballard Locks,” however, comes near the end: “The water looks like boiling sun. / A child has turned his finger into a gun.” While the lines earlier in the poem about the abomination of nature via man for his pursuits, I feel like the poem markedly turns here, much like a sonnet, and that this end-rhyme punctuates that turn. Does this make sense to you?


PR: Yes. Sometimes a cheap way for me to end a poem is to end with a strong rhyme which makes the poem “feel” as if it has achieved closure without necessarily resolving its theoretical or emotional issues. (How psycho-babble did that sound?) But I am very fond of this poem because here the rhyme is not doing that and, for me, feels more necessary. The rhyme and rhythm are different because these are two short, syntactically simple lines that break up what is, before them, a long and spiraling series of only four sentences. It brings the poem up short to give the reader a resting place, and to highlight the child’s position in the poem: these are childish lines and rhymes, and here’s a childish act that, when paired with the sense of natural destruction/renovation that comes before, ceases to be “merely” a child-like action. The turn here was surprisingly natural for me to reach (which is why I like it) but I honed it in revision because I found it was also apt. 

AMK: Thank you!


PR: Thank you.

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