Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Chinoiserie

By Karen Rigby

Reviewed By Julia Anjard Maher

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The word chinoiserie, derived from the French word chinois, became popular in nineteenth-century European and Anglophone cultures as a way to describe the Chinese influence of an artistically decorative and perhaps elaborate style. Westerners used this word not only to describe this type of style, but also to demean what seemed to them both too overwrought and overly sentimental. Concurrent with this use of chinoiserie, another similar term emerged: “curio.” This word, too, connotes the Chinese bauble or piece of bric-a-brac. Both words butt up against each other in Karen Rigby’s first collection of poems, Chinoiserie, a book that celebrates the intricate delicacies––and oddities–– characteristic of such a style, while warning against the limits of the merely decorative. In the book’s proem, “Phoenix Nocturne,” the speaker pushes against the book’s title, and perhaps its presumed ethos: “The skull was never a tomb / or curio. A cage // picked clean // as if bone foretold lessons in turbulence.” This apparent dissonance voices Rigby’s intentions––and forthcoming attempts–– to push back against and into not just our definitions both of these terms––chinoiserie and curio––but also her own.

Subsequent poems take as their titles and subjects number of curious and less curious objects: we whiz by Da Vinci on our way to Fifth Avenue, and then stand by as the “parchmenter” and calligrapher work together to scratch, and then ink in fifteenth-century illuminated texts before we “DETOUR” in contemporary Pittsburgh. And that’s just in the first slim section of Chinoiserie. Reading this collection of poems recalls the Arcadian curio shop the somewhat creepy likes of which Benjamin loved to delve into in his resuscitation of the Paris of Baudelaire; a place where one not only loves to revel in the found object, but where such objects, or one might say cultural relics, become touchstones for the emotional sense of the collector herself.

Rigby’s poems are at their best when they seem to cradle something behind their more or less effusive, imagistic descriptions. And while the things on display here are hardly unknown or foreign for most American or European readers––a skull, evolution, the myth of Adam and Eve, a pot of borscht–– Rigby’s writing often peels back layers of the familiar to reveal the ache of a scarred emptiness:

 

. . . I could say
everything I know about beauty I learned
from the body’s ruin:
the rib drawn
through his quartered skin,
the skin sewn and the woman born,
a dark homunculus.

 

In this poem, “The Story of Adam and Eve: Boucicaut Master and Workshop, c. 1415,” Rigby’s dramatic attention to detail and how she harkens to the strangeness and violence of this Christian creation myth allows her to locate a darker, alternate sense of beauty. Throughout Chinoiserie, Rigby’s poems plumb the gravity that exists in the everyday, the strange cast of the gloss everyone tends to give to the familiar.

Rigby’s poems remind me of the Song Dynasty poet Li Qinghao, who, like many other Chinese poets, focused on the ways objects open themselves up; how they seem not only to receive but also refract human emotion. In Li’s poem, “The Day of Cold Food,” the speaker “dream[s] on a pile of cushions, / Amongst scattered and broken hair ornaments” while “Men begin again, fighting for straws.” Her hair ornaments, both the most everyday of objects as well as those of a most decorative and superfluous character, become vessels of the speaker’s restlessness—a restlessness that seems related to the fighting men one imagines just outside her window. This discomfort is further reflected in the speaker’s observation which closes the poem, “In the orange twilight––fall / Widely spaced drops of rain.” Here the objects under gaze, or at least the poet’s descriptions of them, shift according to the emotions of their observer. A similar scene unfolds in Rigby’s “Greentree Hotel, Pittsburgh,” where two lovers are locked in together: “Hair wound through a boar’s brush, sounds we make / as if driven to watch // each other’s rituals // but it never happens we never sleep.” The odd attention to the “boar’s brush” gives a particular sound to these lover’s “rituals”; rituals that both succeed and fail to occur in the way that the speaker desires: “We never sleep / but sex after long absence.” Just as in Li’s poem, there is a sense of suspended animation: “Outside the Carnegie museum a bronze dinosaur / hangs above traffic . . . We never sleep but edge against each other’s skin.” In both poems, the intimacy of the space described and the intensity of the emotions are heightened by the speaker’s description of outside or seemingly tangential objects. The images of the public world in “Greentree Hotel, Pittsburgh,” with its dinosaur statue and joggers passing under suspended mist, refract the speaker’s intimate emotion as she’s surrounded by others in her isolation.

Rigby’s poems remind us of the solitude of the collector, even while they seem to assert that it is only through her particular combination of curios, her fragmentary methods of recognition and collection, that the contemporary consciousness may not only emerge, but also recognize herself among others. Chinoiserie’s poems read like materialist investigations of the human experience of grief and loss—of isolation within the crowd. They are at their best when they resist the urge to simply add more or collect for collecting’s sake, when they strike a balance with what they give and what they withhold. Rigby’s poem’s are most moving when they strip both themselves and us bare.

Julia Anjard Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in English and Poetry at the University of Georgia. Her poems have appeared in Sixth Finch, RealPoetik, BlazeVOX, Counter Example Poetics, and Marco Polo Arts Mag.