Book Review: Chinoiserie

Written by Karen Rigby
Ahsahta Press, 2012
ISBN 9781934103258

Karen RigbyKaren Rigby‘s first book of poems, Chinoiserie, which won the prestigious 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, reveals a poet perpetually contextualizing memory, feeling, and perception, despite their evident abstractions.  One location begets another—begets a feeling previously un- or underexamined.  Rigby achieves a balancing act between the abstract and the vividly real, rendering poems whose lack of transparent structure and emphasis on intuitive order cultivates an emotive response in her readers.

When examining Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cebolla Church, Rigby’s speaker (in a poem that takes its name from O’Keeffe’s famous painting) is awed by the deceptive simplicity of the painting and the mysterious figure at the window of the church, which the speaker interrogates: “It could be any thumb-shaped blur / agains the window pane: // sexton.  Thief.  // [. . .] someone has to sweep.  / Someone lights the long, pitched room” (4-10).  The speaker’s curiosity, which has been shared with countless witnesses to O’Keeffe’s painting (not to mention any one of her beautifully odd and mysterious works), further unites the speaker with a collective impression, continuing to ask questions that bring no definitive answer, but nonetheless yield simultaneously personal and communal emotional responses.  With this context, of a shared response to a difficult-to-fathom work/moment, Rigby’s speaker suddenly segues into a publicized tragedy: One month, news kept looping / the same reel of the last wreck.  // [. . .] I pictured walls radiating gold— / the church with its slant door.  // Someone listening / for a distant thundering” (18-25).  By itself the poem works fine, but within this collection, the tragedy alluded in this poem leads us to assume Rigby’s speaker is reflecting on 9/11: “Men roamed like beekeepers / in their white suits” over the wreck (20-21).  Throughout the book, 9/11 (more specifically the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania) creeps into the frame, as if refusing to be delegated to some obscure subtext.

The act of questioning (Rigby’s fresh, constant curiosity), necessitated by the act of witnessing, compels response.  The thing to understand about Rigby’s Chinoiserie is that nothing can be confined to privacy; however personal a reader’s response is, he/she nonetheless shares it, shares in it, by engaging with the dialogue Rigby propels forward through these poems.  Rigby achieves this by introducing her reader to art and to certain moments, such as 9/11.  Another poem that particularly strike us is “Photo of an Autoerotic”:

After the first shock, you have to

admire the body’s hardwood cursive.


His face

concealing his member,

his thumb

and forefinger

hooking his head


to his own lip like a snake charmer,

something fabled but true: (1-9)

Here, there’s little question as to what the speaker is observing: a photo of a young man bowing his head (in a feat of flexibility) to kiss the tip of his member.  The opening, “After the first shock, you have to / admire the body’s hardwood cursive [. . .] something fabled but true,” reveals an acute, sensitive reaction—sensitive to experience, to wonder.  The speaker projects more than just curiosity: admiration for the subject’s flexibility, grace, and embodied dexterity—“a snake charmer,” a rather precise simile/image both mimicking the pose of the subject while asserting feelings of exoticism (eroticism) and danger: “something fabled but true.” The speaker’s reaction (and you’ll notice that the perspective is second-person, enabling us to make the speaker’s experience our own) evolves into probing the life of the subject (by imposing the memory of another young man’s life in place of the subject’s):

the boy whose mother told him

not to bear


someone else’s       wishes home.

[. . .]

there are rooms behind

the ones you know.

Already the boy is learning

to let go: a matchbook


missing half its lashes,

the queen wasp dormant in the window frame.  (21-31)

Chinoiserie CoverThe use of memory familiarizes us with the photo’s subject, no longer as exotic, yet no less erotic: “The scent [of the camera flash] reminds you of pennies / greening underwater” (19-20).  The sense of loss (“a matchbook // missing half its lashes”), disillusionment and death (“the queen wasp dormant in the window frame”), and mystery (“rooms behind / the ones you know”), is poignant to say the least.

Part of what makes Rigby’s book so compelling is its engima, always pushed to the surface yet never fully disclosed or explicated.  There are so many good poems in this collection (for instance, “Bathing in the Burned House,” “New York Song,” “Lovers in Anime,” and “Black Roses”) that this review cannot do the whole book justice.  I strongly urge anyone reading this review to give the book a chance.  However, when reading these poems, one must not take them lightly or skim them over.  The book is short, short enough for a deserved reread; let these poems seep into your brain, infiltrate your senses.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec

When My Brother Was an Aztec
Written by Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
ISBN 9781556593833

            This 3am war bell, duende vision prison

Natalie DiazGot it? As seen in this randomly-chosen line from Natalie Diaz’s first collection of poems, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press  2012), there is a poetics-infused prosodic wonder at work here, wrangling her family mythos like a Homeric pro as they deal, home on the res in Needles, with her tweaked, Quetzacoatl’d, Geronimo bro, who shows up at restaurants, ‘a lamp cord knotted at his neck’, and steals all the lightbulbs.  That’s just the tame stuff.  There is much, much worse afoot.  And Diaz has a life too.

Diaz fills us in on all of it.  I defy anyone (else) to turn such circumstances into such enthralling poetry.  The title’s provocative (with accompanying cover photo), then you see she really means it.  Laying out long form after long form in original syntax that neither regrets nor defends, Diaz chronicles her brother’s meth-fueled ravages from an unsafe distance with tragicomic aplomb, direct lyricism and glistening irony.  “Downhill Triolets” renders a(nother) late night altercation on the lawn with tribal cops, Sappho, Jimi Hendrix, Geronimo, the tweaked brother, Sisyphus, Lionel Ritchie, and God, into three neat poetic sequences.  What?  Problem?  “Remember how long it took the Minotaur / to escape the labyrinth.

When My Brother was an AztecAnd then, read the prose poem about “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie.”  This first book from Natalie Diaz, an MFA-holding award-winner who works with tribal elders preserving the Mojave language, is a Lannan Literary Selection.  And yes, it’s all going to be on the quiz.  Every word.

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: God’s Autobio: Stories

God’s Autobio: Stories
Written by Rolli
N.O.N. Publishing, 2011
ISBN 9781926942025

Although God’s Autobio is split into three sections—Impossible Fictions, Possible Fictions and Penny Fictions—that correspond to the fantastical, plausible and private worlds in which their stories are respectively set, certain elements in the stories echo each other across this divide.  Things like small towns, big cats, old ladies of wealth (or not), and longsuffering butlers.  Add to these an enigmatic three-part story spread throughout the Possible Fictions section, plus the fact that all of Penny Fictions is devoted to recounting events that befall a certain Mr. Penny, and the overall effect is to transform the collection into more than just a hodgepodge of well-written stories.  What emerges instead is a carefully constructed body of work that hangs together as a cohesive whole.

The collection opens strongly with the surreal “Von Claire and the Tiger,” satirising the self-importance of career academics.  Rolli’s stories in God’s Autobio tend to display an arch humour, and this story’s first sentence is exemplary: “Having never been swallowed by a tiger before, Professor Von Claire wasn’t sure what to do about the situation.”  When a character believes that reciting Blake while in the belly of a beast is an appropriate way to pass the time (and then stops in case the tiger “preferred Coleridge”), things can only go downhill for him.  Pressed to justify being allowed to live, Von Claire fails repeatedly, and even when he finally succeeds by proposing to change his life, he is informed that while it is “A perfect solution,” given his advanced age, ‘It is, of course, by this point, far too late.’ The conclusion to the story is also pitch-perfect in its parting swipe at another profession: “‘For supper,’ said the tiger, ‘I think I’ll have…a poet.’”

Gods Autobio CoverPerhaps the most outstanding story in the collection is “Chimpanions.”  Reminiscent of futuristic stories like Daniel H.  Wilson’s recent novel, Robopocalypse, “Chimpanions” tracks the rise and fall of “a really great invention,” seen through the eyes of an old lady who gets a Chimpanion to keep up with her friends.  “Chimpanions (chimps + companions) were electric robot friends—pets you might call them, though they were so much more than pets.”  Except her Chimpanion just keeps killing people, seemingly in response to her commands.  Or does it? A fatal “manufacturer’s error” by a company that makes Chimpanions and munitions means that perhaps she is not responsible for the murderous spree after all, although she has already tried to cover things up by feeding the corpses to the Chimpanion.  The appropriate response by the end of the story is probably horror or disgust, but the whole story to this point has been delivered in such a matter-of-fact fashion that it is frankly hard not to crack a smile as well.

God’s Autobio closes with the interlinked sequence of Penny Fictions, in which the somewhat unhinged Mr. Penny (though he would deny it) undergoes various trials, including confinement in an institution.  The sequence turns out to be a sensitive portrayal of a man who sees the world just slightly askew in comparison to other people, making Penny Fictions feel like a blend of its Impossible and Possible counterparts.  So it seems eminently reasonable that upon dying, Mr. Penny should meet a tea-drinking woman whom he assumes is God, but who declares herself to be “just the old housekeeper.”  There is an intriguing insinuation that he might be in some version of Hell (“How was the journey down?”), providing a nice inverse parallel to the collection’s titular story, in which the protagonist Bill is summoned to Heaven to ghostwrite the divine autobiography, since God spends most of that story drinking tea as well, much to Bill’s annoyance.

It is Rolli’s attention as a writer to such tiny, seemingly inconsequential details that encourages one to overlook the odd misstep in God’s Autobio, e.g.  the unsavoury and mean-spirited narrator of “The Richest Fucking Old Lady in Town,” or the curious acquiescence of the narrator in “I Am a Butler,” which comes uncomfortably close to endorsing male rape.  While the former story is clearly a shrill caricature and the latter does possess moments of oddball humour, they compare less favourably with the simple yet bizarre premise of a story like “The Man With the Ridiculously Huge Coupon” or the quiet pathos of “The Blue Room.”  Ultimately though, the central achievement of God’s Autobio is actually Rolli’s ability to believably inhabit the voices of such a diverse cast of characters and deliver their stories to us.

Review by Ian Chung
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Iceberg

Written by Paul Kavanagh
Honest Publishing, 2012
ISBN 9780957142701

Iceburg Photo 2Paul Kavanagh’s writing is inimitable, and his novel Iceberg resists both summary and analogy, says David Rose in his review blurb on Honest Publishing’s website, which appears directly below the summary.  An enthused commenter suggests ‘hoovering’ is a neologism.  I disagree.  After I write this, I’m going to open red wine.  On page 62, Don removes his rucksack, leans it against the wall and searches for a bottle of wine.  This sentence is repeated as the next line of the next paragraph.  I wasn’t sure by that point if it was intentional.
I wasn’t sure by that point if it was intentional.Such is the hypnotic, laconic and somewhat stultifying style of the surrealistic travel adventure about Don and Phoebe’s escape from grim to grim in a changing world.  What I’m calling stultifying is the relentless sentence structure of subject, verb, {adjective}, object, such as the description of one of the tale’s wonderfully philosophic characters who give Don and Phoebe rides down Africa, on their way to claim the iceberg they won back in their grim Northern town.  “Youssef was small, had large ears, and a massive smile.  He drove a white van and chainsmoked.  Don climbed into the back and made a throne out of heavy wooden boxes.  Phoebe sat in the front.  Youssef was Tunisian and he was going to Rabat.”
Open to any random page, like where they get malaria and meet a doctor: “A Norwegian doctor visited them in their motel.  He was a tall man with lapis lazuli eyes and blond hair.  His soft voice was pleasant after the engines of lorries, cars and motorbikes. […] Phoebe started.  […] Don looked.”  I get the post-postmodernist juxtaposition of simple repetitive sentences against an increasingly dissociative plot, a style that attempts to avoid promoting good feelings and produces a trance-like state.  There’s quite a lot of it in print, my argument against the use of the word inimitable.  In Iceberg it predominates the changing landscape and colorful peripheral characters so as to make me curiously numb to Don and Phoebe’s kaleidoscopic equanimity timeline.  Is that how I’m supposed to feel?
Iceburg Cover 1Happily, Kavanagh peppers his diction with lexical swerves, in the form of funny dialogue, poetic descriptive microparagraphs – “Palm trees sprouted from pools of abandoned seawater” – and sudden vocabulary.  When Don goes to a wave-beaten bar in Elmina for three rounds of drinks, the bartender is first ‘rachitic’, then ‘hypnagogic’ and lastly feared to have narcolepsy, lashings of sesquipedalian loquaciousness I quite enjoyed.  Although, in the case of: “Don watched the virga over the buildings sway and hold the sunlight.  It was a soporific picture.  // Kristian sat down and sipped his coffee.” the device clangs loudly, and if I may say so, somewhat solipsistically.  But that’s just me.
The third section, about life on the iceberg itself, changes form to huge, unbroken paragraphs of dialogue and description – perhaps to mimic the cover illustration of the berg? It’s a perplexing choice.  Don and Phoebe’s denouement is original and charming enough, and certainly different enough from the grim Northern and grim African sections of the novel, to not need this distancing, textural shift.  I couldn’t tell if it was meant to slow the story down or speed it up.  Or what.  A lot happens in Iceberg.  In 116 small pages Don and Phoebe’s world changes, as do they while somehow sort of staying the same.  Maybe I should read it again.
Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved