This is especially clear in the poem, “Norma Desmond Descending The Staircase as Salome” where Rigby particularly favors the unique verb. “The script/ would have you believe grief muscled/ into me . . . I don’t remember the body / bloating in the pool . . . “ Such lulling words allow the speaker to take us into her own self-regarding viewpoint, where glamour and beauty overshadow the grim, yet fine sounding details of a dead body. “I don’t remember that I shot Joe Gillis--/only the blue flute singing.” By the end of the poem, we think she might be right. Even the good and proper finish where the selfish diva ends old and alone fails to serve as a caution. The words are so mesmerizing, they undermine the message: “Blood winters in my veins./ The hammered air burns/ lonely as bones turning in sleep.”
What is also intriguing about the collection is Rigby’s range of subjects. Some could fall under the banner of Americana: Edward Hopper’s Women, Petrol, Cebolla Church, Flyover Country.
Several other poems consider food. We get a meditation on such unlikely candidates as borscht , bread, and plums. No one who reads “Song for the Onion” will ever be able to look at that humble vegetable the same way again: “Let me flay the double-heart/ that stings or melt / to caramel depending on time, temperature, weather.” In lines like these Rigby manages to give us what we go to poetry for: a way of making the everyday stuff of our lives seem wonderful and a bit strange. So we don’t take it for granted, or miss it entirely.
Other poems take on higher subjects, religion and things of the spirit, but grounded in the material world – Adam and Eve in an illuminated manuscript. We begin with Mary’s face in a tar road and end with the face of Jesus in a linen shroud. The poetry is focused on incarnation, where the spirit can be seen and felt.
In “Shroud of Turin,” the speaker considers an age old miracle, one that draws some to believe and others to scoff. “When you face/ the six-foot deity it’s not/ the details of the shroud/ but the body of someone/ you once loved . . .” The speaker asks us, “Do you think it’s trickery?” As with all miracles, we can respond with skepticism or a posture of wonder. As one poem tells us, “There are rooms behind/ the ones you know.”
By Karen Rigby’s
Finishing Line Press, 2008
Reviewed by Allison Elliott
Karen Rigby’s Savage Machinery begins with such a striking image that one is prepared for a collection of images. An unnamed woman showers in a half-burnt house in plain view of neighbors and cars passing by. “Like a child’s shoe-box/ diaorama, three brick walls embrace/ the clawfoot tub.” It’s a mysterious story, yet full of the details of suburban life: milled soap, a vinyl curtain, tar roads. In some ways, it sets the tone for the poems that follow. At the end we have a possible miracle: the face of Mary appearing in the road with the hint that other miracles are coming.
And yet the first image is also somewhat misleading, because the sense one gets from the collection as a whole is of a writer who is enchanted by words and wishes to enchant. Misleading may be the wrong word; in a way the first poem is actually leading us towards the carefully chosen words that will take us from the prosiness of ordinary life and into a world that only seems ordinary; almost like a bridge. And perhaps we need to see before we can hear.
ALLISON ELLIOTT lives and works in New York City. She is an assistant poetry editor at the online journal, 42opus.