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Reviewed by:
  • Chinoiserie
  • Christina Cook (bio)
Karen Rigby. Chinoiserie. Ahsahta Press.

Chinoiserie opens to a luxurious two-page title spread that first feels like a film title splashed across the screen, but the small gray subtitle presents a disarmingly intimate address to the reader. Set all on one line, it whispers: “Dear reader: what I started to tell you / had something to do with hunger,” and continues on in the first poems, turning the intimacy typically [End Page 181] conveyed by first-person address into an even more personal connection: you begin the book expecting Karen Rigby to reveal something to you. This sustained address, offered in snippets that weave through the poems, draws the reader closer in, as if you are a member of the audience being brought up on stage with the actors. And so in “Phoenix Nocturne,” the speaker identifies you, the reader, as having played an elemental role in the story being retold. The poem opens starkly: “The skull was never a tomb / or curio,” and later continues:

Sockets drew you in a masquerade.   The jaw, which was hinged     and slack,

    which was packed cavity, the cow’s head staked to the garden—

Your voice, when it left. Your voice in the desert       Circling pink xeriscapes, Radiation lantanas.

Rigby’s dramatically direct address to the reader on the title page firmly establishes that “you” refers to the one holding the book, you whose fingers flip the pages, whose eyes flit over the lines. You are the one drawn into the mystery of this past event, made more mysterious by exotically menacing elements in the landscape. Rigby chooses words that connote danger and mystery but are in actuality benign: to those not familiar with the word, a “xeriscape” may sound like the stage set for a 1930s avant garde film about Martians, but it is in fact an environmentally responsible, non-water-reliant landscape design. And “radiation lantanas” may sound like radioactive materials to a non-gardener, but they are no more than small flowering plants that thrive in xeriscapes. These words help to create a poem that is grounded in the familiar but feels alien to the reader, who is drawn into it by design. You are told that “your voice” was engaged with hers, placing you in the position of being expected to remember the interrupted conversation you and the speaker were having. She continues:

The skull anchored at its base   always an echo of something else     and when I sought you, wind sheared

cinderblock walls, when I said I cannot recall what I started to tell you, I meant pith, bitter white.

The skull cradled your voice.

The notion that we are implicit listeners to conversations that began in other ages, other places, brings to mind Roland Barthes’s idea of written language as “the infinite weaving of voices.” Rigby generously affords us [End Page 182] a speaker’s status, engaging our participation in the open narrative that threads through the poems, so that by the next poem, “Dear Reader,” we are fully invested in trying to “remember” the conversation, in which much was clearly at stake:

Dear reader: What I started to tell you had something to do with hunger but the mink was demon turned bodiless terror.

“The mink” in the first line of the poem “shouldered out of its cage,” creating an opening image that yokes together elements of luxury, the containment of an animal for display, and the irrepressible wild freedom of that animal. The speaker will never finish what she started to tell us, leading us in but not taking us out of the disparate ages and places through which her voice and our voices ghost. Our travels through the collection feel like an eerie but somehow familiar blend of Victoriana and Georgia O’Keeffe’s American desert, where some of the poems are specifically set. Similar to the disconcerting image of the mink, the image created by fusing “skull,” “tomb,” and “curio” in the opening line of “Phoenix Nocturne” returns me to the nineteenth-century natural history museums I’ve toured: Glasgow’s Kelvingrove or, somewhat less majestic but more uncomfortably intimate, the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury...


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pp. 181-185
Launched on MUSE
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