In A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley notes: “Poetry awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”
In this light, Chinoiserie, the latest collection by Panamanian-American poet Karen Rigby, is hyperpoetic—it perceives its subjects and then unmakes them, taking away their familiarity and instilling them with an essence so new and vibrant and odd that the reader feels compelled to question whether he or she ever knew the subject at all.
Ms. Rigby’s poetry is, in this way, quite fearless, and she frequently plays with expectations. Her many ekphrastic poems are exemplary in this regard, as in “The Story of Adam and Eve,” in which she writes:
A woman sprung from bone facing her husband,
his body inside her, his body a wing
in thickened amber.
Here, in a poem inspired by a fifteenth-century illumination, the biblical, sensual, and Darwinian alight and turn upon each other in three short lines. The echoes and associations of these philosophies amount to a summary of three thousand years of human value systems, and are allowed to coexist in a manner that the religious icon that inspired the poem could never have permitted. Rigby takes the language of the original work and relishes in its admixture with seemingly unrelated language, allowing the resulting tensions to propel her reader.
The range of the works upon which Rigby touches is as surprising as the way in which she unpacks them; she covers Da Vinci, O’Keefe, Jean-Jacques Annaud, dozens of anime films and series, and Sunset Boulevard in a volume of fewer than sixty pages. Her hunger for art of all types is plain—in “Dear Reader,” the collection’s second poem, she writes: What I started to tell you / had something to do with hunger—but it is in her ability to find the same nuanced beauty in anime as she does in Da Vinci that the writer shows her nuanced tastes.
Rigby’s hunger for art dovetails with her similar hunger for a language of novel depths, composite meanings, and sumptuous sounds. Rigby revels in the textures and shapes of language, swims like Bacchus in the wine of words, and the reader is not so much invited as compelled to do the same. Her word-drunkenness spurs her on to bold linguistic choices, and her consequent diction is filled with meaningful multiplicity and rich associations, as in “Dark Horse”:
To be the gun like a water hammer.
Hoard sevens and snake eyes.
Do one exceptional thing,
which was justice
in the last shall be first
windburn through the blind swerve.
In his judge’s citation for the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, Paul Hoover notes that “Karen Rigby sees with feeling the magic of things shaped by language.” He refers here to Randall Jarrell’s observation that “poetry’s first and most lasting pleasure lies in the act of seeing.” These insights, though accurate, are lacking; while Hoover’s emphasis here is on Ms. Rigby’s perception of and appreciation for things that are, it is in her more extraordinary capacity to remake that which already exists that the reader finds the greatest amazement. Certainly the author is adept at perceiving, but it is in her reshaping of the essences of those things that she perceives that we find a poet of real depth.