A Painter's Poet: Karen Rigby's Chinoiserie

John Gibbs

Chinoiserie coverI have a thing for beautiful books. In a world where the printed word is slowly becoming the digital word, it's reassuring to know they are still being made, to know there are still people who want to make them. And on some level, despite the old adage, I actually do think it's acceptable (impossible not to, really) to judge a book by its cover. Chinoiserieis a beautiful book, and by that I mean the construction, the physical nature of the book itself is an absolute work of art. From cover design, to layout, to font (a sexy Apollo MT typeface) you don't have to read a word to know it contains something gorgeous.

Winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize judged by Paul Hoover, Chinoiserie is a global book that makes a tremendous attempt to present the reader with a catchall of peoples and cultures. A tall order, especially when you consider the book is less than sixty pages. At the helm of our worldly exploration is Karen Rigby, cofounder of Cerise Press, an international journal based in both the U.S. and France, and author of a pair of chapbooks. "Chinoiserie," for those unfamiliar with the term, comes from the French, and is used to describe a Chinese motif imitated widely in the Western art tradition for aesthetic or decorative purposes, most notably seen on earthenware. The term itself transgresses nationalities, having both Eastern and Western origins. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more appropriate title for this collection of poetry, but then again I don't have to.

The book is divided into three sections. The theme of internationality is further reinforced by the inscriptions found at the beginning of each section. In order, Rigby borrows quotations from Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Octavio Paz—masters of Spanish poetry. The epigraphs themselves have been courteously translated into English for us.

The book's first poem, "Phoenix Nocturne," contains these haunting lines, "The skull anchored at its base / always an echo of something else / and when I sought you, wind sheared" (1). "Dear Reader," the next poem in the sequence, also makes smart use of the inescapable second person, "Dear reader: What I started to tell you / had something to do with hunger" (5). The latter also appears as the epigraph on the book's title page. Rigby's initial nod toward her audience in these first two poems is a welcome gesture, inviting everyone into her world to delight in some amazingly inventive poems. Take, for instance, the opening stanza of "Poppies."

Last winter on the corner
of Fifth Avenue paint buckets filled
with poppies. I remember not for their jazz
tearing a backdrop of snow,
but for the way two men unloaded
buds like munitions. (9)

Rich with embedded color and contrast, this passage directs our attention first toward the poppies, then toward the snow, and finally toward the men, who are unloading the buds as they would some kind of heavy artillery. With the diligence and careful execution of a visual artist, Rigby transplants us directly into the scene on Fifth Avenue, guiding our eyes from one detail to the next in one swift movement that appears effortless.

Another interesting component of Rigby's poetry is her decision to use films and well-known pieces of art to contextualize her poems. For instance, just beneath a poem entitled, "Norma Desmond Descending The Staircase As Salome," we find, "Sunset Boulevard, 1950." The poem can be enjoyed regardless of whether or not a reader has seen Sunset Boulevard (and that's no easy feat). However, I can't help thinking Rigby is encouraging her readers to acquaint themselves with certain films or art pieces, if only to deepen his or her understanding of a poem. It's also a comforting sign that a poet can allow herself to be so transparent in partially revealing the impetus behind her poetry. As someone who enjoys when poets play around with other art forms in their poetry, I find this move especially reassuring.

Moving from motion pictures to just plain pictures, Rigby includes a number of ekphrastic poems in her collection, that is to say, poems written upon viewing a painting, sculpture, photograph, etc. One such piece is "Cebolla Church," a poem that borrows its title from one of Georgia O' Keefe's paintings. Again, Rigby's eye for the specific and confidence in her own metaphors is what makes this poem both a joy and an enigma to read:

The desert is a lion-colored seam.

Not a finger of dust lines sill—
not a spine or lizard scale.

It could be any thumb-shaped blur
against the window pane:

sexton. Thief. (18)

Once we know of the poem's origins, information again provided for us beneath the title, we can read the poem with that knowledge dictating our reading. The poem moves from description to speculation quickly. When she describes the figure against the window pane, we can visualize it. Still, it doesn't hurt to look up an image of the painting online and see for yourself what Rigby is attempting to describe (it's really kind of indescribable). It's this sense of curiosity I come away with which drives the book forward and keeps me coming back to certain poems again and again, only to discover something new in my rereading.

I think it's rare to see a poet already in such control of her own voice within a first collection of poetry. If you don't end up having the opportunity and privilege of reading Chinoiserie, be on the lookout for the name Karen Rigby, and expect to see it gain momentum and footing within the small circle of strong contemporary American voices.

Chinoiserie
by Karen Rigby
Asahata Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-934103-25-8


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