On Poetry: April 2024

New collections to make life more lyrical.

On Poetry: April 2024

Karen Rigby’s Fabulosa (JackLeg Press) traces its lyrical contours through couture, cinema, figure skating, and visual art. The adulation and objectification that a rhetoric of glamour invites toward women and femininity is a consistent tension in these deft poems. While I admit that I am always partial to a kind of ekphrastic theatricality, the 41 poems here deliver on multiple levels and for multiple audiences, not simply for those for whom the ostensible content is naturally in their wheelhouse.

A poem like “Derby Hats,” with its allusions to Gloria Swanson Hollywood fame, opens apertures to see that article of fashion as a place in which cultures synthesize. The poem “To Carolina Kostner on Boléro,” referencing the Italian figure skater, offers a chance for readers to decide if they “still believe in beauty,” as the speaker does. And when Detective Morse from the British television show “Endeavour” appears under the gaze of another poem’s speaker, the book firmly plants its roots in a commitment to the eclectic aesthetics that screens (silver or otherwise) and fashion (whether K-Mart or Dior) evoke.

This sensibility toward a broad gaze doesn’t mute any of the structural depth in the collection, though. Each of the three sections begins and ends with poems that seem like bookended ars poeticas. The first begins with “Why My Poems Arrive Wearing Black Gloves” — the glove become a significant artifact that is threaded through the book — and ends with “Why My Poems End on Fire.” Each subsequent section follows a Why and Why structure framing the poems in between. This seems fitting for a poet and book concerned with how multi-ethnicity and multi-nationality might best be seen through a prism of theatricality and glamour but not always remain legible to a more hegemonic or homogeneous gaze.

The need to explain, which one can deeply relate to as a multi-ethnic writer, can be a place of fantastic diversion and invention rather than rote didacticism. In Fabulosa, through Rigby’s attention to how figurative language is never decorative when done well, lyricism becomes both a shawl around the shoulders of the reader and a set of Kate Spade sunglasses — which is to say, we’re able to see ourselves and the world more clearly. From “Tangelo”:

Who doesn’t love the portmanteau
for tangerine and pomelo, or more like angel,
tango, words for wildness

how I like planting you, reader,
in the thick of it. Also known

Rigby’s work reminds me so much of Paisley Rekdal, not only because of their shared multi-ethnic identities — Rigby is of Panamanian-American and Chinese descent — but because their work brings a tender attention to the desires, revelry, and curiosity that societies often ask women to hem in. Both poets also see in old cinema a touchstone for how to understand the incongruities of self. Rigby allows those lyrical gazes to turn poignantly toward herself and her relationship with her mother in a moving poem titled “To My Chinese Emigrant Mother Who Asks How Much Do You Weigh Now Every Time She Calls.”

This is a book that should get a lot of attention and be read widely. There is something here for seasoned poets and emerging poets, as well as for seasoned and emerging readers of poetry. Which is to say, for everyone.


In Ghostlight (LSU Press), the second collection by Ryan Wilson, begins with an invocation to wilderness via a formal sonnet titled “The Call.” In that poem, the natural world’s mysterious allure contains the eucatastrophe — or sudden good turn — that J.R.R. Tolkien imagined, only to deliver the reader into the steady meter of fractured connections in the second poem, “Heorot,” which grounds in the mead-hall penumbra of the 2016 election of Donald Trump. What Grendel is coming to eat us into disillusionment?, the reader might ask as they pass through this book’s threshold. I found the tensions in those opening poems to be a pleasure and a conceit that frames the enjoyment of the book’s movements.

The classical allusion is never far from these poems, as in “Lemons,” which will always evoke Montale, but which is also a place where the poet’s interest in Keats and Horace arises. One could even think of the act of allusion as being akin to a line from the poem:

“It smells like stone, like minerals, like horses galloping through a green field oblivious of the fences.”

Beyond the formalism, I am most interested in the nuance of voice infused across Wilson’s poems. “And I shared one perspective with the gods, / Who do and do not care what they have wrought” announces the poem “Reentry,” another sonnet, which arrives near the middle of the book. There is a kind of lyric intimacy enacted on the stage of each of these pages; the speakers’ pleas and observations put the reader in the position of eavesdropping on prayer, or at least on the rehearsal of some other ritual.

Not everything remains lofty, however. In Ghostlight also makes room for considerations of the “J. Crew catalogue” and the illegality of feeding pigeons. I find the maturity of voice here to be compelling, thoughtful, and at times playful. The book ends with a poem called “Disobedience,” which fits the journey of feeling at the heart of Wilson’s imagination.

Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

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