Monday, September 1, 2008

Savage Machinery

By Karen Rigby (chapbook)
Finishing Line Press, September 2008
Review by Jessica K. Bacho

One of my New Year’s resolutions in 2008 was to read more poetry. Sure, as an English professor, I read more poetry than the average person, but that’s all of the canonized poetry (i.e. dead white men) found in the typical lit-class anthologies. This year, I wanted to focus on the not-so-famous poets out there, scribbling away in coffeehouses during their lunch break from their “regular” mind-numbing office job. So, I was more than pleased when Karen Rigby’s second chapbook, Savage Machinery (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in September 2008), came across my desk.

Savage Machinery only contains sixteen poems, but it is a powerful collection. Topics range from a women bathing in burned house imagined and admired by passersby, to several poems on art, to a series of poems about food. Examining the themes of human connectedness, sensuality, and distance, without the use of first person narration, these poems were quite a (welcome) switch from the confessional mode of American poetry that’s dominated the past forty years. Rigby’s poetry is dense, not for those who like to read their poetry once, or find the meaning close to the surface.

The collection opens with “Bathing in a Burned House,” in which a woman still lives in her burned house, showering under the open sky. Men and women passing by the house imagine her, but never truly witness her. The women envy her freedom, while the men “long to be / the sky above the woman’s head.” I keep coming back to this poem, fascinated by this woman who is so envied by the people passing by her home. I sympathize with the women in the poem, envying a woman who embodies freedom, seemingly able to escape the domestic obligations of a housewife.

There are several poems in this collection that focus on art with references to Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Boucicaut Master. I’ve never studied art (not for lack of want, rather due to lack of time), and I have to admit, I didn’t fully understand these poems. But they did inspire me to explore these artists’ work so that I can revisit these poems and work through their meaning.

My favorite section of the chapbook is the series of incredibly sensual poems about food. Here’s a taste (ha, ha) from “Song for the Onion”:

Let me flay the double-heart
that stings or melts
to caramel depending on time, temperature, weather.
Let me taste the pure, explosive signature.
Let the lioness outshine her sisters.
the shallot and the leek.

I will never look at an onion the same way again. Reading this poem made me want to get out all of the onions in the house and bow before them. The other poems in this section examine Borscht, Bread, and Plums. Simple subjects on the surface, yes, but Rigby writes about them in such a way that makes them seem like they’re something newly discovered. Borscht “steams / like a horse combed to a rich gloss / for the May Day parade.” Makes me want to make Borscht (even though I’ve abhorred beets since birth) just to watch it steaming in the bowl.

So for the poetry lovers out there, set aside the Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, my girl Anne Sexton, and all of those other rock star poets. Pick up Karen Rigby’s Savage Machinery, and settle in to your favorite reading place. You won’t be disappointed.

For more information about Karen Rigby and her work, visit

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