by Nina Riggs
Finishing Line Press, 26 pages, $12.00
Nina Riggs’s debut collection from Finishing Line Press, Lucky, Lucky, explores the friction and tectonics of contradictory desires. In these poems, Riggs continually braces the safety of the routine against the risk of the unknown, grinds the daily against the extraordinary, bangs the family against the unfamiliar, and the resulting shower of heat and sparks lightens the night. These poems live in the shadow and the flash.
Beginning with a child’s thrill of a train ride, “the start of something,” this collection frequently presents us with a desire to reach beyond the everyday (“Sonnet of the Night Train”). Whether a teenager breaking from her mother’s guardianship or the workers of France striking, these poems reflect a spirit unwilling to be easily constrained:
…Some mornings I wake up longing
to mimic all of this: to feel the graze of the exceptional…
Throughout, there is an awareness of life’s restrictions, the boundaries slowly setting like mortar, and there is a need to break free from the hardening routine. The future is envisioned in “terms of choices”, and we are keenly aware that choices have been made (“Desire”). We are also aware that the choices made may not be fully satisfying. Often something is missing, and we are left with a feeling, an absence, that cannot be fully expressed. In several poems, Riggs uses an epistolary form in which to consider the nature of the speaker’s life. In “Dear Quark at the Universe’s Edge—”, for instance, the speaker is “jealous” of the quark’s “probability.” Our skies, on the other hand, are “safely ceilinged” and “We expand to where we have been before.”
But this collection eschews easy convictions: there is a “violence” in the departure from the norm. Contrasting the need for the new is a need for protecting. The collection doesn’t hide the shock of loss, and with a lurid intelligence, the vultures of Bisbee describe the living as momentarily “lucky” (“Lucky”). There is some safety in “the everyday,” in boundaries, a need to “pull…back from the edges” (“One-Minute Amaryllis”). The conflict between these two roles—the adventurer and the worrier—creates a powerful dialogue in the collection. For instance, in the poems “Desire” and “Rooster,” parallel wives endure sleepless nights, one in breathless witness to a drama of freedom and desire, the other listening carefully to her sleeping child’s breathing, a new mother grappling with the unknown. At one point, the collection concedes at the possibility that even a lifeless limbo can be “lovely” providing that it bestows “a gravity you lacked in life” (“Last Swim”).
While the speakers may be concerned with ordinariness, these poems are not mundane. Riggs’s microscopic awareness imbues the world with meaning; her vision is exceptional. Often her precise observations function as a point of meditation for the emotional core of the poem. In the poem “Dear Thread-Waisted Sphecid Wasp,” Riggs uses a wasp gripping a caterpillar’s corpse as a reflection of a marriage:
The two of you make a remarkable creature, your glossy body
and violently blue belt, that corpse a flush berth beneath.
While the speaker has been left alone on her third wedding anniversary, admirably, Riggs never allows the speaker to mire in anger or self-pity. Rather, Riggs unfurls the speaker’s feelings while keeping the poem tightly focused on the natural world:
…this morning I allowed a fly to crawl the length
of my leg because I wanted to be touched, and a perfect
stillness sometimes feels like something’s coming.
By the end of the poem, the speaker fully associates herself with the wasp: “we are not simple vessels” (emphasis mine). The poem ends with the speaker’s and wasp’s need to “be cracked” and “expanded.” Riggs’s ability to express the incorporeal through metaphoric manifestations consistently gives her poems a power and freshness that avoids sentimentality.
Simply put, there are no “common” observations in these poems—every detail resonates with potential. In the poem “Dear Emerson—” the coals illuminate an aging man’s struggle with a dimming world. In “Mother and Daughter Tour Italy,” a stumble over uneven path carries familial support. Under Riggs’s eye, the everyday is exceptional.
While this is a first collection, Riggs writes with the control of a seasoned poet. She breaks lines to amplify their meaning. She selects words with a careful precision. Like the child in “Taken,” Riggs knows “what sounds language can make.” From the lulling “soft tromboning of bloom” (“One-Minute Amarylis”) to the sharp “last ice age chafe below in precipitous flanks” (“Dear Stranger—“), the sounds provide a musical accompaniment to the poems. A few poems defiantly throw open the doors. Particularly in “Midsummer Hymn,” the sounds whirl gleeful and muscular as a summer barn dance:
desperate UFOs searching
for an idea as good as corn
while corn heaps in cribs
and silos of corn ride from crops
like massive corn rockets and
a corn scarecrow warns…
From beginning to end, Riggs shows us desires and restraint, excitement and worry—in other words, muddy hands and fingernails of life:
How awfully from Earth
we are, and made of it—
no transcendence, only dumb
as a fat squash in some small garden.
(from “After the Argument”)
She leaves us with the instructions to “agree without saying/…clump up,/ the way strawberries do,/ and bees listening” (“After the Argument”). There is wisdom in these poems. This new voice is worth listening to.