Review of Savage Machinery by Karen Rigby

Savage Machinery
Karen Rigby
Finishing Line Press, 2008

In Karen Rigby’s chapbook Savage Machinery, the “brick walls” and “clawfoot tubs” of domestic life become a point of entry to larger questions about spirituality, romance, and the creative process. Frequently taking the form of lyric meditations on mundane objects and experiences, of which a “song for the onion” and an ode to bread are merely a few examples, the poems in this short collection render familiar items unrecognizable in their sudden beauty and complexity. Filled with speakers who seek to transcend the cultural debris that surrounds them, Rigby’s poems call on imaginative metaphors to explore the connection between the everyday and the philosophical, to serve as “a bridge between / that other life and here.”

In conveying these themes, Rigby’s use of religious imagery is especially impressive. Seamlessly weaving the spiritual with the commonplace, the poems in Savage Machinery render ethereal ideas about the soul and the afterlife disconcertingly tangible. This trend proves especially apparent in the first piece in the collection, which depicts a woman inhabiting a burned house, a structure that the neighborhood perceives as otherworldly because it still boasts running water. She writes in “Bathing in the Burned House,”

Men linger at the curb. Breathe
milled soap, long to be
the sky above the woman’s head.
Mid-August, any miracle could surface—
Mary’s image graven in the road’s peeled tar.

In this passage, Rigby invokes the burned house as an extended metaphor for the spiritual resilience of the characters in the poem, who continue to search for “any miracle” in the midst of the “road’s peeled tar” and the building’s charred debris. Suggesting that such illumination remains possible in the everyday suburban lives of the onlookers, rife with their own tragedies, the piece adeptly situates the poetic image as a doorway through which one can more clearly observe these possibilities for transcendence in the everyday.

While at turns optimistic, Rigby also uses avian imagery to explore failed attempts at finding significance in domesticity. Filled with imagery of birds and flight, the poems in Savage Machinery evoke the unsuccessful ascent as an eloquent metaphor for their speakers’ inability to discern the splendor of unremarkable surroundings. Rigby’s poem, “Design for a Flying Machine” exemplifies this theme in the chapbook. She writes, for instance,

Look at the bat’s wing,
scalloped, brown ink flawed. Each rib
could hold the weight of a balloon
like the one now leaking helium.
Why do we do it, the dumb abandonment?
Houses mushroom in the woods. Imagine the view,
the body speeding in sleep.

Throughout this poem, which depicts the unfortunate fate of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s many inventions, the author also invokes the image of the flying machine in a more general sense, using it as an emblem for what she perceives as the human condition. By suggesting that most people continually fail to attain “the dumb abandonment” of a bird’s eye view, Rigby reveals the search for transcendent moment in the everyday as on ongoing process, rather than a stark reality. Contemplative and thought-provoking, “Design for a Flying Machine,” like many other poems in the collection, calls upon arresting images and tangible things to address these philosophical questions, a combination that proves stunning throughout.

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