by Don Riggs
Texture Press, 120 pages
reviewed by Shinelle L. Espaillat
In his new collection, Bilateral Asymmetry, Don Riggs explores the balance—or the imbalance—between art and life, and the inevitable synergy between the two. His illustrations illuminate his poetic concepts, offering the reader a fuller texture through which to experience his work. In the manner of the old masters, Riggs offers provocation with deceptive simplicity.
The first section, Gallery Opening, is an exercise in ekphrasis. Riggs entwines visual and literary art, reminding us how genres and mediums can and should inspire each other. Indeed, the opening poem, “Still Life,” creates a robust picture in the style of Vermeer, of the tortured artist struggling with the space between inspiration and craft. “Pagan Mystery in the Renaissance” further exposes the shifting boundaries between words and worlds, exploring Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses and how misinterpretation led to a masterpiece that inspires fantasy. Readers needn’t be familiar with the works in question in order to see them in Riggs’ imagery, and to understand the works’ impact on both the writer and the world, though the poems make you want to physically experience the artistic works.
In the Pet Scans section, we feel the connection between man and beast, perhaps as a reminder that man is beast. Riggs shows us the quiet comfort to be had in simple moments, such as reading while a cat snuggles against your back (if you have never done this, borrow a cat some winter night and try it). “The Educated Grasshopper” discusses what happens to the caged soul, and doubles as an indictment of academia’s glass rooms: “leaps will al / ways be limited intrinsically / by what he learned in that little envi / ronment.” He returns to blending form by creating a tiny sketch in “Fourth House Thumbnail,” a quick flashback at the artist in early years, when “consciousness was an ant that slowly would meander across the page.” Writers and artists will recognize this familiar sense of the mind moving, with or without intention, from one idea to the next as we engage in creation.
Often, Riggs twists knowledge in unusual directions and reshapes our understanding. The titular section plays with ideas about dominance and weakness, logic and creativity, showing how strength naturally leads to self-doubt: “My dominant side is more insecure / since it always has to be capable.” We have been taught to accept that strength can be a façade, and that it often hides weakness, but the idea that having to be strong necessarily creates weakness changes the value of dominance. Riggs goes on to question our acceptance in nature’s inherent balance, positing instead that while symmetry, and therefore perfection, is the starting point, every ex-utero experience pushes toward asymmetry and imperfection. And really, is any artistic creation ever the realization of the perfect seed of idea from which it sprung? If it were, there would be no need to wish for muses to “squeeze through the chakra / at the fontanelle and fill my wet flesh / with its fiery lines to my fingertips.”
He continues to re-examine art-life correlations in the Silent Echo section, questioning again the idea of equal opposition in nature. After all, “a woman’s not a man / minus a penis, carrying a womb,” just as in poetry, rhymes should be “similars but not identicals.” It is fitting, then, that he ends the collection with “Winter Yin,” in which he elevates, through heightened sensory detail, the stark beauty of cold and death.
Riggs’ illustrations add layers of meaning to the quiet complexity of his poems. The dual imagery he creates through language and sketches invite you to re-read—often—and to engage with any or several levels of the context he provides.
Shinelle L. Espaillat writes, lives and teaches in Westchester County, NY. She earned her M. A. in Creative Writing at Temple University. Her work has appeared in Midway Journal.