by Karen Rigby
Ahsahta Press, Boise State University, 2011, ISBN: 978-934103-25-8
Reviewed by Erica Goss
Book Review Editor’s note: Erica Goss writes about the intriguing book of poems that won the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize for Asahata Press, Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby. Goss writes that Rigby observes the Williams dictum “no ideas but in things” as she masterfully depicts “weird and precious things, the odd trinkets and detritus of human life.”
Reading the poems in Chinoiserie is like walking through a series of stranger and stranger rooms, each one decorated with beautiful, but unsettling objects, as in this list from “Love Notes From the Firefly Spanish / English Visual Dictionary:”
When you find me in the courtyard
of a Roman home, bring seven legumes,
a turbine, the cross-section
of a stone fruit, and a white fennec.
Rigby’s poems occupy the space between these and many other weird and precious things, the odd trinkets and detritus of human life. Chinoiserie, a French term for the Chinese-influenced, European style of everything from pottery to architecture, which began in the early 17th century, suggests both decoration and imitation. Rigby’s poems locate the genuine under the façade, strip the wallpaper from the plaster and illuminate what is real. This she does with a quality that is palpable and sensory.
“New York Song” begins with “Think of the pear / and its grainy room the color of parchment.” The pear, with its rounded, feminine shape, is a fitting image for this erotically charged poem, but Rigby goes further, slicing the fruit open and inviting the reader in with the lines “How the weight in your hand / becomes the first song from the grave.” We feel the heaviness of this relationship, its pleasures and painful consequences, how its pale colors (parchment, bone, pearl, gunmetal) contradict the passion of the lines “Brother bone, I have knelt // in furious beauty, drunk root to crown, // loved you in your sleep.” The poem ends with “loneliness” and “something without a name;” we sense an imminent parting between the lovers, an outside force that separates them.
Some of these poems take the form of stories, micro-plotted with their own insular logic. “Bathing in the Burned House” is an example of Rigby’s talent at connecting narrative threads to create dissonance:
A woman steps behind the vinyl curtain,
leans toward the spigot.
Drivers touch the ceilings of their cars
when they pass. They think it’s lucky
water runs in a burned house.
The image of touching the ceiling of a car recalls knocking on wood, a response meant to ward off the ill effects of an unlucky utterance. The men “long to be // the sky above the woman’s head” while “neighborhood wives // take turns bathing yards / from the road.” The woman bathing and the burned house are never explained; like other mysteries (“Mary’s graven image in the road’s peeled tar”) woman and house simply exist, passively disturbing the lives of their observers.
Rigby’s precise, controlled language illuminates her poems while leaving their dense quality intact. Simultaneously expansive and private, they move from the abundance of objects found in “Love Notes” to color explications in “Black Roses” and “Borscht.” In “Borscht,” she delivers a synesthesia of sight and taste, with “soup so crimson / I could paint the walls;” the same soup “steams / like a horse combed to a rich gloss.” In “Black Roses,” we discover that there are no truly black roses; Rigby lists rose-namers’ attempts to describe the color of dark flowers: “Black Magic, Lavaglut, / Ruby Celebration” the “holy grail / of botany furled like ironwork.” Here the poet compares a flower to something manmade, an apt metaphor when we consider that modern roses are the result of breeders’ attempts to highlight certain characteristics such as size, shape and color.
“Black Roses” illustrates how the poems of Chinoiserie deconstruct the physical world, the world made up of objects. As William Carlos Williams’ oft-repeated “No ideas but in things” directs us, Rigby takes a hard look at those things, exposing the flaws in their surfaces with specific, highly suggestive language, such as these lines from “Photo of an Autoerotic:”
The hand a salt cellar, compass,
for the struck mouth.
Some things are so upsetting that they force the brain to create a distraction; in “Photo,” the viewer remembers “the song / composed of gestures / for the mute tongue,” something else to focus on while the eyes make sense of the image of a man “hooking his head // to his own lip like a snake charmer.”
Chinoiserie is rich with these powerful and often startling poems, which are never ordinary, always revelatory, and fearlessly expose the world shimmering below the surface.
Erica Goss won the 2011 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Contest. Her chapbook, Wild Place, was published in 2012 from Finishing Line Press. Recent work appears in Hotel Amerika, Rattle, Eclectica, Blood Lotus, Café Review, Perigee, Comstock Review, and Lake Effect. Erica teaches English and humanities in the San Francisco Bay Area.