The lush and tactile imagery of Chinoiserie overwhelms the senses to invigorate a poetic world full of objects, people, and places. Spanning cities and centuries, Karen Rigby’s debut collection and winner of the Ahsahta Press 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize enraptures the reader through vivid and carefully rendered description, from flowers to fabrics to street scenes. A noteworthy collection of free verse engaged in shape and line, Chinoiserie enthralls throughout each poem, always connected to the senses.
A series of poems interspersed throughout the collection renders women and their bodies. In “Red Dress,” sinuous and dropped lines sway across the page as the speaker ruminates:
every woman has read
scandal in a red dress. Because the body hums
the armor. Because red announces
a lone hibiscus
behind Rita Hayworth’s ear . . .
The poem derives power from the anaphora as it reads into the decades of history behind the red dress. Each moment of figurative language carries momentum as the poem culminates to lay claim:
Choose red for hubris—
through your lip—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
susuranndo like fists.
Historical figures of women resonate as well, such as in “Norma Desmond Descending the Staircase as Salome,” where the iconic character from Sunset Boulevard claims:
I could live forever
raising my own hand to my neck,
each time surprised by its cool pulse.
In that kohl-rimmed prime
I calculate seductions stair by stair.
These seductions take a darker turn in “Knife. Bass. Woman.” where the speaker contemplates while handling a knife: “I know why a man rapes / before dawn: for the red-rimmed eye, / fearful and waiting,” and continues “Maybe her skin smelled / like pilings near the water’s edge— / wood-rot, sweet.”
The perishable and temporary, rendered into various art forms, hold a primary concern for many ars poetica in the collection. The speaker details the painting “Cebolla Church” by Georgia O’Keeffe, describing “Not a finger of dust line sills— / not a spine or lizard scale. // It could be any thumb-shaped blur.” Other poems move to cinema, such as in “Maps We Have Produced in Technicolour,” where the speaker describes moments from the film Splendor in the Grass, in separated segments of varying length and structure. The opening segment begins in a flurry of movement, narrating: “Of sirens spliced in reels, voices brandied in the defunct dramas— / pave the prairie with expectation, but oil runs furthest / from the road you thumb back.” Commentary on the film is lined in brief, poignant moments, such as “When the body bent like brushwork, / quarter-notes beat against the reservoir.” The movement from sound to sound creates an echoing effect throughout the poem, as each segment builds upon the next.
With every poem capturing vivid moments in eloquent detail, Chinoiserie encapsulates a poetry collection of devotion to the art of poetics, inviting readers to feast on this skillfully crafted collection.