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What We’re Reading: CHINOISERIE by Karen Rigby

2012 May 3

What We're ReadingChinoiserie by Karen Rigby (Ahsahta Press, 2011)

Winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, judged by Paul Hoover, Karen Rigby’s Chinoiserie is a refreshing body of work. Let’s start with first glance: the contemporary design gives each poem plenty of breathing room (read: white space). And the designer isn’t the only one who appreciates white space: there’s the form of the poems themselves. While many poems move straight down the margin of the page, there are just as many that meander, pulling us back and forth, creating dynamic white space; a visual form of enjambment.  Not only does this white space please the eye, but it naturally aids the reading, creating thoughtful pauses, asides, and focus.

The poems work themselves through history with a singular vision. Tantalizing and smart, there is a confident sense of movement throughout. More than anything, Chinoiserie is a sensual feast. Hoover (who selected Rigby’s work to win the Sawtooth Poetry Prize) describes this collection beautifully: “Karen Rigby sees with feeling the magic of things shaped by language… But here also are the musical cadence, subject range, and ceremonial precision of true poetry.”

Also refreshing: in poetry, I appreciate unexpected images that surprise me with how well they work. Rigby is a master at delighting her reader with unusual phrasing (just to pull out an example from a host of them: “Each rib / could hold the weight of a balloon” — from “Design for a Flying Machine.”

Oh, alright, here’s another example (I just can’t help myself):

Downtown, a canyon
of brick & avenue
moves toward the river,

water folds over pockets
of walleye. Orange is girder
& rusted flange, citrine

(From “Orange/Pittsburgh”)

Rigby brings the reader to their knees in “Knife. Bass. Woman.,” an emotional poem about rape:

The bass hangs, its zippery spine
loose. Each stroke brings down
a host of scales. Skin rolls
like hose.

These poems dig into their subjects with a painstaking honesty. This unrelenting eye is apparent even in poems that could be romantic or sweet, such as “The Lover”: “her body as shorthand / for what his body mistook for love.”

Finally, from another one of my favorite poems: the sexy, vibrant, and violent poem “Red Dress”:

Red lotteries, accordions, telenovelas
flickering emergencies.
Red you bitch-heel
                        past avenues humid as horses
                                  rounding a wet track


A woman’s carriage from the waist-up
The belly-dance hotter than shaved

Rigby’s poetry has been published in two previous chapbooks (Savage Machinery and Festival Bone), as well as in Poetry Daily, Washington Square, Meridian, Field, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West and New England Review. She is also a founding editor of Cerise Press and also freelance writes reviews and more.


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