Written by Karen Rigby
Ahsahta Press, 2012
Karen 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.
concealing his member,
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)
The 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
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