KRYSTAL LANGUELL Reviews
Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby
(Ahsahta Press, 2012)
[First published in BONE BOUQUET, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Spring 2015, Editor-in-chief Krystal Languell]
Karen Rigby’s first full-length book of poetry, Chinoiserie (Ahsahta, 2012), brings into focus what goes on in solitude, whether in art, film, or the human body. Selected by Paul Hoover as the winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, these poems dwell in inner life, preoccupied with the liminality of heart and mind. Indeed, the book begins “the skull was never a tomb” and ends “my own heart tinned,” bone and organ providing a framework of physicality for the collection.
The term chinoiserie refers to an ornate style of European décor popular in the 17-18th cenutries. Characterized by images of Chinese pagodas and women beneath parasols, chinoiserie can easily be associated with an exploitative orientalism, but in an interivew on Ahsahta’s website Rigby explains that in this context, “the word evokes the fanciful as well as a darker potentiality, disrupting boundaries between tribute and theft, reinvention and repetition.” The poems of Chinoiserie do not glorify European rococo imagery, but instead illustrate the fragility behind the intricate surface.
Often ekphrastic, Chinoiserie uses ornate language to reach the reader at her visceral core. Rigby’s artistic forebears span many centuries, ranging back to 15th century illuminated manuscripts in “The Story of Adam and Eve.” This longer poem links the Biblical, historical, and gendered past and present via recurrent imagery of bone and labor. In it, the reader is asked to “Think of the calligrapher // gesso lamp-black oak gall mineral pigments // the book revealing what bereft means.” By listing the calligrapher’s supplies, Rigby creates a kind of still life, controlling the immense breadth of her subject matter.
The work invokes Brenda Shaughnessy’s Interior with Sudden Joy (FSG, 1999) in the way it accumulates significant objects. Also ekphrastic, Shaughnessy’s first book, like Rigby’s, spotlights gender using baroque language. Rigby’s “queen wasp dormant in the window frame” meets Shaughnessy’s “I am voracious alone. Blank and loose, / metallic lingerie” to extend an urgent and palpably serious female poetics more than a decade later.
Throughout the book, several poems are dedicated to or written after 20th century American films: Sunset Boulevard (1950), Splendor in the Grass (1961), and The Lover (1992). In each film, money and men create a dangerous frame, perhaps even a cage, in which the female protagonist must struggle to exist. The old Hollywood mansion in Sunset shows us that nothing is more baroque than a one-sided love. Wilma Dean (Deanie) Loomis’s breakdown in Splendor, the consequence of suppressed desire, provides as much excess as Norma Desmond’s facial expressions and hand gestures. Norma’s heyday, Deanie’s adolescence, and the young girl’s affair in The Lover all take place in the 1920’s, a decade that, for all the flapping and partying (think Gatsby 3-D), destroyed as many lives as fortunes made. The three films revolve around a woman’s inappropriate love, according to the society in which she lives, and this scenario locks each protagonist into emotional crisis. For Norma and Deanie, suicide attempts are one strategy for briefly escaping the stress (“Suicides that weren’t. / Suicides that were.”). Only Deanie successfully passes through a total breakdown (“Deanie cuts hair to her chin. // Thereafter, every act / some witchery signaling the nerves.”) to be reborn as a new, happy woman (“You survive (the windswept dogwood).”).
Rigby’s poetic homages to these films are themselves part recontextualization, part summary, and altogether provide a cautionary tale about the ways we confuse sex and love, with money as backdrop.
In Chinoiserie, Rigby stages one haunted empty space after another. Like a greenhouse, rich with exotic species and often devoid of human presence, like a secret, the embellishment these poems bear is essential.
Krystal Languell was born in South Bend, Indiana. She is the author of the books Call the Catastrophists (BlazeVox, 2011) and Gray Market (1913 Press, forthcoming 2016) and the chapbooks Last Song (dancing girl press, 2014), Be a Dead Girl (Argos Books, 2014), Fashion Blast Quarter (Flying Object, 2014), Diamonds in the Flesh, a collaboration w/ Robert Alan Wendeborn, (Double Cross Press, 2015), and a collection of interviews, Archive Theft (Essay Press, 2015). Finance Director for Belladonna* Collaborative, she also edits the feminist poetry journal Bone Bouquet. She was a 2013-2014 Poetry Project Emerge-Surface-Be fellowship recipient and a 2014-2015 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council workspace resident. She is employed by Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.