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Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby

Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby

Reviews, Vol. 6.2, June 2012
Ahsahta Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-934103-25-8
Perfect bound, 64 pp., $17.50
Review by Cynthia Reeser

Chinoiserie is Karen Rigby’s first full-length book of poetry and the winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press. It is easy to see why this work was chosen for the prize. From the opening poem (“Phoenix Nocturne”), the author immediately begins to shape new worlds of understanding for the reader. Each line is carefully crafted, each word carefully selected, and the result is poetry that resonates.

The book is divided into three sections, with poems that appear to be arranged more or less thematically. In “Phoenix Nocturne,” the first poem of Part I, Rigby locates herself, and the reader by extension, within the realm of thought, of ideas. The repetition of the “k” sound throughout the poem works the mood:

The skull was never a tomb
or curio. A cage

picked clean

as if bone foretold lessons in turbulence.

The word “skull” places the perspective of the poem immediately in a point of view, but whose? The word is used again in the poem—very carefully—a few other times: there is the “skull anchored at its base” and then, “The skull cradled your voice.” Is it about perspective, or possibly humanity? The body? In “Dear Reader” and “New York Song,” the body holds the potential to be destroyed. This notion appears to be not so much as a new idea as it is a given, something to shine a light on within the context. From “New York Song,”

How the weight in your hand
becomes the first song from the grave.
Brother bone, I have knelt

in furious beauty,
drunk root to crown.

The body is a thing not only of vulnerability, but also a vessel for feeling haunted or lonely. Look now to “The Story of Adam and Eve,” where there appears some “savage machinery” (the latter phrase hearkening back to one of the author’s previous chapbooks of the same title). We see in this poem the origins of the body, the fabled origination of humanity itself:

Before the serpent. Before the beasts
lay on their paws, before stones released their heat.
Before the savage machinery.
A woman sprung from bone facing her husband,
his body inside her, his body a wing
in thickened amber—

From the use of the word “amber” alone spins out dozens of associations: the life cycle, the generations, our genetic origins, male / female duality, the potential for resurrection, evolution, ideas of creation, and the list goes on.

With the book divided into three parts, the reader may be thinking each section symbolically (or thematically) represents some sort of trinity, possibly that of body, mind, and spirit. We read on. Part II opens with a quote from Federico Garc í a Lorca that seems to support this notion: “But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist; flesh exists.” “Photo of an Autoerotic” supports this grounding in ideas and imagery of the flesh. Part III brings the reader back to themes of seeing and perspective and the dualities of light and dark, day and night, launching us back into the realm of the metaphysical.

After contemplating the book’s themes, what begins to stand out, to really resonate, are the author’s eye-popping visuals and dexterous use of language. The use of color in “Orange/Pittsburgh,” “Plums,” “Black Roses,” and “Nightingale & Firebird” are remarkable; an example from the latter:

                                Dried blood on the red-gold
coat. One thread about tin substitutes for splendor,

the other a ghost-image for your burdened heart.
Easy to confuse the black chinoiserie with feathers

torn from ashes, twin halves for a childhood fear

Rigby’s imagery is vivid and lovely, and her penchant for language use is the vehicle that drives the beauty home. She is like a skilled painter, except she is a word artist. The reader can easily draw up visuals with lines like “water folds over pockets / of walleye. Orange is girder / & rusted flange, citrine” that hearken back to a painting of a Dutch master.

There are many treasures in Chinoiserie, too many to mention in this review. Through her dexterous use of language, use of vibrant imagery, and penchant for metaphysical diversions, Rigby creates a dialectic that is saying something about who we are, how we can be so weak (body) yet so strong and enduring through the ages (mind). Rigby is a true word artist, and I look forward to reading her next work.

Fragile Acts by Allan Peterson

Understanding Nature by Zachariah Walker

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