Karen Rigby was born in 1979 in Panama City, Panama. She is the author of Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, 2012) as well as the chapbooks Savage Machinery and Festival Bone. Awarded fellowships and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, she has been published in Poetry Daily, Washington Square, Meridian, Field, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West and New England Review. Her poetry is anthologized in Best New Poets 2008, among others.
She is one of the founding editors and webmasters of Cerise Press, an international online journal of literature, arts, and culture. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, she reviews for BookBrowse and industry magazines including ForeWord Reviews and Kirkus Reviews. Her work has appeared in Next American City, Words Without Borders, High Country News and The Writer. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Minnesota. Karen currently writes in Arizona.
“Winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, Chinoiserie travels through centuries in poems that carve wonder from ruin, from an illuminated manuscript to New York on the eve of disaster, the Emperor’s nightingale to neon acquariums. A sensory flight, intricate in its vision, Ecclesiastic in its hunger, and brutal in its portrayal of a solitude that “could surrender/ to the hammer or the flame”, this book of curiosities draws inspiration from 15th century masters, Japanese animation, mid-century films, Marguerite Duras, and other sources. Inspired by an art created miles from its origins to become its own translation of landscape, texture, and pattern, Chinoiserie disrupts boundaries between tribute and theft, reinvention and repetition. It evokes the fanciful as well as a darker potentiality, seeking a language of “pearl and roaring”.
In his judge’s citation, Paul Hoover writes, “As Randall Jarrell famously noted in a review of William Carlos Williams, poetry’s first and most lasting pleasure lies in the act of seeing. Karen Rigby sees with feeling the magic of things shaped by language … But here also are the musical cadence, subject range, and ceremonial precision of true poetry. Such words can be recognized, through two thick walls, for the subtlety of their murmur: “Of creamware, only stacked and brittle confusion./ We bargain daylight out of black bread”. This is, quite simply, a gorgeous and powerful book”.”
“Sumptuous yet restrained, Chinoiserie has the intricate beauty and tensile strength of spider silk. Karen Rigby’s deeply imagined poems shimmer with reticence: an oddly seductive privacy that continues to unfold with each reading. Each line ignites subtle explosions of perception; each gesture is exquisite and mysterious, invested with the ineluctable reserves of lyric. Poems this nuanced and strong, wild and grave, seem to be written with a feather and a chisel. They are that delicate, that indelible.”
– Alice Fulton
“In Karen Rigby’s poems, ideas and things coexist seamlessly. Dense, unpredictable images and beautifully unlikely sounds evoke not only a sensory universe but also a rigorous mind, on which nothing, from art or life, is lost. The eye that looks down in ‘Bathing in the Burned House’, the ‘I’ that sneaks up in ‘Black Roses’, the wildly associative eater of ‘Borscht’ – all make the ground shift beneath the reader’s feet. Chinoiserie is a nourishing book, to be savoured slowly.”
– Adrienne Su
Last winter on the corner
of Fifth Avenue paint buckets filled
with poppies. I remember not for their jazz
tearing a backdrop of snow,
but for the way two men unloaded
buds like munitions.
One of them wore fingerless gloves,
cupped cellophane throats.
Below him a brother or son
shuttled fox fur
between the truck
and curb. I knew from the cold kiss
of his touch petals gave no scent—
he did not lean into the red corona, it was
pure commerce. Pods hung,
Nightingale & Firebird
As if the song encoded in the wheel could railroad
to the garden, the mechanical grind transformed
the nightingale to music-box, the music to evergreen
vistas. The firebird was another story: inventory
of dust on the wings. Dried blood on the red-gold
coat. One thread about tin substitutes for splendor,
the other a ghost-image for your burdened heart.
Easy to confuse the black chinoiserie with feathers
torn from ashes, twin halves for a childhood fear:
you were never loved. You could surrender
to the hammer or the flame but no one would come.
That which they called wonder was only a greased key
in a courtesan’s palm, and when the bird sang, no one
heard the sound a wing makes when the current breaks.
Norma Desmond Descending the Staircase as Salome
Sunset Boulevard, 1950
The heart’s declensions beat against
the newsreel storm. The beaded shawl
ropes through my arms. The script
would have you believe grief muscled
into me: asked for, and given the head
of a saint. When the klieg lights sear
my skin I don’t remember the body
bloating in the pool or the Black Maria
nosing down my drive. I don’t remember
when I shot Joe Gillis—only the blue
flute singing. 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.
Between the keyless rooms and the city
that loved me no one speaks as if
my crossing were the deposition
of a god. Blood winters my veins.
The hammered air burns lonely
as bones turning in sleep.
© Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, 2012)
Visit Karen’s website.
Chinoiserie reviewed in Publishers Weekly and
The Adirondack Review.
Visit Ahsahta Press.