Review by Megan Fernandes
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ENVELOPES
by Sarah Riggs
Burning Deck Press
71 Elmgrove Ave
Providence, RI 02906
2012, 160 pp., $14.00
Sarah Riggs most recent collection, The Autobiography of Envelopes, ambitiously seeks to intellectualize, excavate, and render what it means to be “in the middle of somewhere.” The speaker, who is intensely philosophical, unafraid, and charmingly indecisive, also manages to seize the reader with the tender, child-like precociousness of a mind destined (perhaps even predetermined) to overthink, to meddle with thoughtfulness, to consider thoughtfulness as a disease, as luminous, as magic, as a crutch, an extension of the body. These poems of “address” are unlike much of what we see in lyrical poetry. They are obsessively “dissective,” often traveling between layers of organs, languages, seasons; transforming nouns into verbs and giving sensory powers to “verbiages” and “wraiths.”
The soft verbiage feels more succulent
than an orange. A wraith. A cry
of sorts. We are wintering here in
this colon: it has two holes. The
hérisson is not a porcupine? Curiosity
becomes a traffic between words. So,
Organized by the alphabet, each of the twenty-four sections (R and S are missing) consist of eleven stanzas of an average of five to seven lines, sometimes punctured by a powerful tercet: “In the sun of his nightscape eyes/ there is much to love, here./Touch it, it tastes like tears.” Though mostly written in English, Riggs, as a bilingual poet and translator, also includes sections of interspersing French verse. The French is lovely in its plead; it almost ticks, halts the collection into a dreamscape of repetition and command. These sections accomplish a different kind of alertness; they protest with an unlikely spectral voice:
Mais non, tu ne peux pas.
Touche mes lèvres, ma main.
L’entrée est par lá.
Donc je suis. Say it: je suis.
Je sors du cimitière avec Fred.
Amidst a series of abstractions, Riggs will often plant a startling proper noun (“Stace,” “Donna,” “Peter”), though upon a second read, one comes to understand that those closest to the speaker remain hidden in ambiguous pronouns, granting a kind of anonymity that seems crucial to the text. In section X, the reader is jolted into a voyeuristic scene. The speaker does something unexpected, she teases (“dear thigh, eyebrow, mouth. You”) and writes with urgent sensual frankness: “How to make you care. About me./A bathroom at the Louvre. At the Saint Rene./ Jouissance, grit. Coming, collapsing.” It is in these moments that Riggs is at her most powerful, when she is surprising, alarms her reader, doesn’t over-ponder. In fact, what relieves the book from being over-intellectualized in certain places (“Where are you from? What do/ you do? So grateful poetry/ exists, for if it did not? Question/ mark”) is the speakers humorous awareness of her own tendency to waver between cynicism and sincerity. In one section, after trying an emerald green hat, the speaker cheekily remarks on the mundane event:
…“That hat is you” some people felt.
Others felt otherwise.
The poet also uses parodic storytelling tropes such as “once upon,” “and so” and “such is” that cut the “dramatization” by demonstrating the writerly mode of the speaker, one who records and fiercely observes her surroundings, facial expressions, bees, wasps, the planet, the city as cave, the technology of “flutter.” The speaker openly corrects herself, restates, maintains a sense of uncertainty that allows her to digress and deflect, and most interestingly, to list. Consequently, language becomes ingredient-like, mixing whales with ample light and salt, delicately orange spines, dementia with a twist of glee. What is remarkable about the way Riggs uses language is her representational flexibility, her refusal to delineate objects and parts of speech. The collection progresses in moods, often paying close attention to the changing valence of rain and time, two recurring images/words in the text. Riggs is able to assert some magic into these seemingly cliché poetic themes. For example, she attends to the matter of rain by inventing little spells such as the “rain of thought” or the “rain of human comfort.” But most impressive is the way Riggs immerses the reader in this middled world, a world that champions the residual object, the envelope, and explores it as a medium of fragment. In one section, she states:
This isn’t about me at all, it’s about
the following colors: magenta, iris,
sun, midnight blue, lime. Some notes
come in at various points, a more or
less certain burst of B-sharps.
Riggs’ “burst” of B-sharps is indicative of the way she uses verbs in this text. They give a real personality to the phenomena of being inside a mind fully formed and yet still evolving, half-listening, half-confessing, absorbing and echoing the white noise. Words such as “burst,” “bump,” “collapse,” “sink,” “release,” “scrawl,” and “descend” litter the collection and serve as catalysts that offer a visceral mode for how mental life really works. Cognition is visceral. Thinking is sensory, affective. Learning to read a new poetic style is like learning to read all over again.
For the lover and loyalist of signification and narrative logic, this is a pleasurable challenge. It is how the mind works, aphoristic and associative, sometimes arbitrary and stubborn in its habits. Riggs makes poetic exits like Dickinson, almost like an abrupt prayer on the brink of self-extinction. Her poetics are dramatically similar to Anne Caron’s work in Short Talks, and, somehow, Riggs also possesses the lovely, self-conscious movements of Robert Creeley. Though it draws on these great literary precedents, there is still nothing quite like Riggs’ new collection of poems, which masterfully sustains not only a balance of wonder and pathos, but a rebelliousness, a refusal to settle on meaning and moment.
The Autobiography of Envelopes also marks, yet again, Burning Deck Press as refreshing, insightful, and provocative seers of contemporary American poetry. BDP continues not only to take risks with their publication choices, but also to reward poets who think desperately and uneasily about their craft. Riggs demonstrates this several times in her collection. She comes to epiphanies and conclusions in a similar manner–– fleetingly–– but rests on the idea of the body as a site, as an address; and the soul, she almost shrugs off…though still fragile from the revelation that it “weighs nearly nothing.”
Megan Fernandes is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and holds an MFA in poetry from Boston University. She is the poetry editor of the anthology Strangers in Paris (Tightrope Books), and the author of two chapbooks: Organ Speech (Corrupt Press) and Some Citrus Makes me Blue (Dancing Girl Press). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in RATTLE, Redivider, Memorious, Upstairs at Duroc, and Media Fields: Science and Scale.