Chinoiserie was winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
“It’s fitting that the three sections of Chinoiserie are preceded by quotes from Neruda, Lorca, and Paz, for, like those great poets, Karen Rigby tends to the dream life of things (‘A tanager shone / like a pitcher of blood’ as well as the textures of everyday life: ‘paperwhites / ginger jar / cake plate.’ One doesn’t feel the direct influence of those poets but rather that she, too, has passed through the labyrinth where things lie about waiting for their names. As Randall Jarrell famously noted in a review of William Carlos Williams, poetry’s first and most lasting pleasure lies in the act of seeing. Karen Rigby sees with feeling the magic of things shaped by language. Her desert is a ‘lion-colored seam’; skaters circle ‘on Brueghel’s platinum lake’; and ‘a man carries sperm like a black suitcase.’ But here also are the musical cadence, subject range, and ceremonial precision of true poetry. Such words can be recognized, through two thick walls, for the subtlety of their murmur: ‘Of creamware, only stacked and brittle confusion. / We bargain daylight out of black bread.’ This is, quite simply, a gorgeous and powerful book.” —Paul Hoover, judge of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
In the Lizard-Dark, No Fire in the Orchard
In the lizard-dark, no fire in the orchard.
No moonlight. Nothing but a blue hoop turned
along the horizon, the street
a white pastoral
framed in the after-image.
Everything remains: decanters pouring
no wine. The wedding mantled in blue.
The grim pandemic
painted in poison chromatics.
If I think of music,
it’s not the snow
blown through the artist’s skull, nor bergamot
crushed in its mortar. Not the slap
of double-dutch. Children’s marble games.
Nights the mariners return—
against the carapace.
It is the Flemish harbor mantled
around us. Panic of blood-rise, village of blue.
Copyright © 2012 Karen Rigby
“Ekphrasis serves as form and method in Rigby’s debut, in which poems on masterpieces—from an illuminare of Adam and Eve by the Boucicaut Master and workshop to an oil by O’Keeffe, from Sunset Boulevard to a Da Vinci design for a flying machine—embellish what we already know: in ‘Design for a Flying Machine,’ Rigby writes, ‘The sketch contains a faceless man, an X/ across his chest, the parachute/ dreamed centuries too soon.’ Other poems employ careful description—sometimes rococo, sometimes abstract—to guide readers through dramatized self-portraits (‘everything I know about beauty I learned/ from the body’s ruin’) and landscapes of mixed images (‘DETOUR. Milk crate./ The molten globe// on a glassblower’s rod’ conjures, for instance, Pittsburgh). Written under the sign of contemporary masters like Jorie Graham, Rigby’s poems—some clusters of textured language, others long-lined assays splaying the page—seem to delight in the markings left by their own making. Where oblique, we appreciate the mysterious attempts. Where approximate, we can glimpse the meanings we bring.” —Publishers Weekly
“The title page explains, ‘Dear Reader: What I Started to Tell You / Had Something To Do with Hunger.’ Rigby, winner of the Sawtooth Poetry Prize, delivers a poignant, powerful, and urgent debut, suggesting that poetry is essential to her being. . . . These are poems of machines intersecting with nature, hard piercing soft, pain interrupting calm. The book’s three sections offer sensual and raw poetry varying in format and accessibility. ‘Poppies’ is a straightforward, almost-prose-poem snapshot of men unloading flowers, while ‘The Lover’ presents meandering, multistanza sketches of passion. Rigby’s stylistic inconsistency highlights the stunning potential of a poet honing her craft. With allusions to Plath, Duras, and Bertolucci, Rigby’s poems are steeped in culture, which experienced readers will appreciate.” —Katherine Fronk, Booklist
“Sumptuous yet restrained, Chinoiserie has the intricate beauty and tensile strength of spider silk. Karen Rigby’s deeply imagined poems shimmer with reticence: an oddly seductive privacy that continues to unfold with each reading. Each line ignites subtle explosions of perception; each gesture is exquisite and mysterious, invested with the ineluctable reserves of lyric. These are vivid, sensual poems, gorgeous with vibrant hues ‘painted in poison chromatics,’ rich with passion and grace: ‘What should he bring to your hunger / if not his own wrist?’ A good love poem is hard to find, and this book has many, all of them honed to an elegant spareness: ‘How I loved you, whittling /thorns, loved you not.’ Poems this nuanced and strong, wild and grave, seem to be been written with a feather and a chisel. They are that delicate, that indelible.” —Alice Fulton
“In Karen Rigby’s poems, ideas and things coexist seamlessly. Dense, unpredictable images and beautifully unlikely sounds evoke not only a sensory universe but also a rigorous mind, on which nothing, from art or life, is lost. The eye that looks down in ‘Bathing in the Burned House,’ the ‘I’ that sneaks up in ‘Black Roses,’ the wildly associative eater of ‘Borscht’—all make the ground shift beneath the reader’s feet. Chinoiserie is a nourishing book, to be savored slowly.” —Adrienne Su
“These dense, eerie, sensual narratives are deceptively fabular—Rigby weaves the art of estrangement into even the most seemingly innocuous domestic scenes. Chinoiserie must be read slowly, and savored; it deserves that sort of attention, so alluring are its demands on the senses. There is an intricate delicacy here that puts one in mind of multicolored cobwebs slowly twining around the body. And yet the body doesn’t struggle in the midst of this linguistic matrix, it succumbs; indeed, this is a book to whose beguiling delights one invariably must succumb.” —Reviewed by Seth Abramson in Huffington Post
“Rigby plays with structure and perception in order to create poems that invoke a reader’s imagination. She constructs entire realms through striking images, opting for a quiet tone rather than something more boisterous. Chinoiserie is a work of art that consciously avoids clichéd images and prosaic scenarios. Rigby references everything from Bernardo Bertolucci’s imaginative film The Dreamers, to the iconic Leonardo da Vinci, to the revered modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe . . . Chinoiserie reads like a half-remembered dream retold in striking images and svelte lines that linger on the tongue. It’s a mysterious lullaby filled with evocative details that could easily become nightmarish in clumsier hands. But Rigby spins a web of enticing, interconnecting words that continually lure you back for more.” — Rebecca Ligon in Barn Owl Review
“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:’ . . . 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.’ . . . 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.” —Reviewed by Erica Goss in Connotation Press
“Chinoiserie refers to a mixture of European and Chinese design aesthetics that combines the delicate blue porcelain of China with the love of the lavish that characterized 18th-century France. Picture gold-rimmed tea sets with pagodas painted on them. The objects in turn reflect both cultures and yet are something new, both ornate and delicate. In this way, the poems of Chinoiserie mirror the title: they too are ornate, filled with beautiful and uncommon words and imbued with influences from many different cultures and places.” —Reviewed by Rebecca Farivar in Rain Taxi
“Between these poles of other-loss and self-revelation, Rigby offers a panoply of inquiries and meditations that involve certain preoccupations surfacing and resurfacing. Spines recur early on, from the ‘indexed’ mink vertebra admired in ‘Dear Reader’ to those that ‘must have aged like hooks’ in ‘The Story of Adam and Eve,’ one of several ekphrastic pieces. She periodically draws the reader’s attention to particular metropolises—Phoenix, Pittsburgh, New York City—and reinforcing the chromatic scheme established throughout such poems as ‘Orange/Pittsburgh,’ ‘Red Dress,’ and ‘Black Roses’ is an apparent interest in burning and the burned. Would it be so wrong to envision these poems with the reappearing colors as a set of lacquered pieces entering and leaving the heat of a kiln?
“Poems like “Poppies’ are more narrative, but most of Chinoiserie is lyrical in every sense. ‘Knife. Bass. Woman.,’ which begins the second section, especially haunted me. It begins with a knife and a fish:
The wood handle thick
as a cattail. Two pegs the color of pewter
anchor the blade. In my left hand,
the knife. Eggs balance on the tip.
The bass hangs, its zippery spine
loose. Each stroke brings down
a host of scales. Skin rolls
“It ends not with the eponymous woman, whose ‘skin smelled like pilings near the water’s edge—,’ but with a man, a putative rapist, who ‘carries / sperm like a black suitcase.’ In one stanza, Rigby’s dry menace manages to conflate bass and woman, scaling and rape, predator and businessman. Other poems, like ‘Borscht’ and ‘Lelouch Lamperouge Pilots the Knightmare,’ lighten the emotional load but keep the gorgeous language, musing on beet soup and an anime protagonist as they help bring to a close the final section of Karen Rigby’s beautiful, elegant collection.” —Reviewed by John F. Buckley in Arcadia Magazine
We lived in the city surrounding the American army and air force bases. Ours was a white, cinderblock house with four palm trees lined in a row. Our street was bordered by the Catholic church on one end and a gas station on the other. A block from home, the Coca-Cola factory loaded its pallets. It was in this neighborhood that I grew up, and in my family’s house that I began making up stories on an Olympia typewriter.
Born in the Republic of Panama to a Chinese mother and a Panamanian-American father, I lived nine degrees north of the equator until the late nineties. Both of my parents worked for the Panama Canal as U.S. government employees; my older sister and I were fortunate to attend what were known as Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS).
In middle school and high school I encountered poetry. Among my earlier memories: buying books during summer trips to the U.S. I found Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Stolen Apples in San Francisco; Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language on the way to Faulkner’s Rowan Oak; Edward Hirsch’s Wild Gratitude in a Florida outlet mall. Happy accidents. Later on, Lynn Emanuel’s The Dig and Hotel Fiesta became a source I returned to again and again, along with Sandra McPherson’s Elegies for the Hot Season. From reading came the desire to write.
And why poetry? Poetry is what many turn toward to find find expression for unsayables, whether in moments of exaltation or mourning. It is not a puzzle to be figured out; when a poem is working, it has its own logic, its own magic, that is actively sensed. When I write poems, it is often based on trust in the language – the belief that one line will hold the key for the next. I’m never certain where a poem will lead. It is that pleasure in discovery that keeps me returning.
Poetry is also an act of concentration and silent accumulation. Though I have never returned to the tropics, I’ve come to believe I’m drawn to the variegated, the deeply visual, precisely because I grew up observing a complex environs. I couldn’t have asked for a better beginning.
The title eluded me for years. It was not until I had written “Nightingale & Firebird” (“easy to confuse the black chinoiserie with feathers / torn from ashes”) that the word appeared, and that I began considering how it played into the rest of the book.
Most of the time, chinoiserie is read in terms of 17th-century decorative arts, especially European attempts to draw from Chinese influences in household goods or furnishings. The book does not take a literal route, though there is certainly a bric-a-brac sensibility to the topics
Instead, chinoiserie is interpreted loosely—as an elaboration, something imagined miles from its origins to become its own translation of landscape, texture, and pattern. The word evokes the fanciful as well as a darker potentiality, disrupting boundaries between tribute and theft, reinvention and repetition. What is “borrowed” from another art or culture (in this case, paintings, films, poetry itself . . . ) comes with expectation, but also complication. Even danger.
All of this is conceptual, of course. I see titles for books not as defining, encapsulating features. There is room for bewilderment, and for evocation, too.
What draws you toward art?
Poems “on art” have been done often. I come to the table with full awareness of the risk involved in writing more poems like this. But I don’t think of these as closed poems, focusing only on their sources. I view art as a point of departure rather than a subject. In each instance that a form of art occurs in Chinoiserie—whether the poem depicts an actress in decline, illuminated manuscripts or lovers in anime—there is a strand of melancholy, a second idea at play.
Art is more than beauty and catharsis, but it can also be just that. Why does anyone turn toward art? Apart from specialists who may be looking at movements, history, practice, context, for most people it is likely an elemental search for connection. I write about subjects that strike me enough to inspire extended concentration.
What was your process in assembling the book?
I once came across an interesting discussion regarding debuts published during the last several years—there seem to be many book-length poems, or books with a definite “aboutness” to them, wherein each poem is tied to a project. Books with real scope. Some are brilliant, and I’m glad there are writers who can achieve this. It is like building a cathedral. But that isn’t how I think. I work on the level of individual words and lines rather than thinking in terms of books. Which is less like a building, and more like a carved eggshell. Intricacy on a smaller scale.
I’ve ended up with what is a hopefully a book that can be opened at any point without the reader feeling that she is eavesdropping on a conversation already in progress. The book could be read cover-to-cover, too, but I’m content to have the poems stand as invididual items within the same room; what binds them together is tone and trust in the reader.
Why did the book take ten years to write?
The oldest poem in the book, “Knife. Bass.Woman,” appeared in 2001. That poem is the last trace of an earlier manuscript with different themes. Over the years, I would write new poems and add them, only to take them out. Sometimes, I’d add them back again. The book had undergone a number of title changes, too– everything from Field Circuitry to The Leopard Photographer’s Wife (both titles of poems I didn’t use after all). Along the way, there were two chapbooks, though there are poems in both that were also cut. I also write slowly—not with expansive urgency, but with the pressure of a coal seam. Time itself is a process, and revealed the last of the poems included more recently.
Poetry on a larger-scale canvas, maybe nautical.