Chapbook Review: LETTERS TO COLIN FIRTH by Katherine Riegel
Review by ELIZABETH THERIOT
In Letters to Colin Firth, Katherine Riegel writes a short letter every day of April to the British actor of Pride and Prejudice fame. The very first letter addresses this conceit with self-awareness and wit: “Why do so many of my craziest groupies come from the earnest middle of the United States?” But Riegel is not crazy, nor a groupie; these letters are not love-poems to Colin Firth or even really about him at all, but rather “about desire, and loss, and the ocean water reaching its cool, salty fingers up warm thighs and underneath clinging bathing suits.” She writes to Firth because he seems to possess a rare kindness, and shares her struggles with depression. Riegel says, “we’re walking through the ghosts of each other and hearing the same birds,” and this walk occurs easily in the ethereal yet intimate space of a poem. The epistolary form of the book also contributes to the believability and ease of the conversation in a way that odes, for example, might not have—correspondence through text is so ordinary and familiar.
Ultimately, it feels perfectly natural that Riegel would be writing to her “maybe-friend” Colin, especially for those of us who have found our own comfort in some celebrity who is both unattainable and intimately familiar. Their burgeoning connection, though one-sided, transcends the more mundane way we usually think about engagement with celebrity as rife with hero worship, physical attraction, and naivety. In Firth’s brown eyes she finds solace, a reflection, a distant yet kindred spirit who understands the nuances of good tea and the difficulty of swimming back to the shore. We don’t usually talk about the yearning that underpins the idea of a celebrity crush, how profound it can feel, why it’s satisfying to browse YouTube interviews or Tumblr gifs after a difficult day. Reigel touchingly articulates and validates these often embarrassing yet near-ubiquitous feelings and impulses. Colin Firth is listening, he understands. He never has the chance not to.
Throughout Letters to Colin Firth, Riegel doesn’t hide the fact that Firth is a reference point against which she can unravel her own tangled emotions, further setting the text apart from a collection of fan-letters or saccharine odes:
Do famous people think more about their legacies than the rest of us? I know fame is both relative and transient, but aren’t we all a bit obsessed with that game? What will people say about me when I’m gone? I want them to say, It smelled of gardenias wherever she went. I sang once, because of her. She knew about birds, and that was useful.
What I fear they will say: She couldn’t save them.
Throughout these epistolary musings and confessions, Riegel affirms her own vulnerability and strength. She is learning to save herself. The letters are written on her sister’s horse farm in central Illinois, where she is temporarily hiding from the “tar-pit-of-grief” of her divorce. Riegel is not coy about her turmoil—emotions buzz and spiral from the pages like the midges she admires for their ability to fly. Though caught between guilt and pain over the divorce from her “sweet soon-to-be-ex-husband” and sharp longing for her English lover, who she must continuously leave, this book is no more about these men than they are about Colin Firth. In one letter, Riegel recounts a childhood memory of her brother lifting an old pump and watching wasps instead of water emerge. She says “this is not a metaphor,” and it isn’t one. It is truth, her truth, and if “the best we can hope for is not to learn that every possible good thing could come out stinging but to keep admitting our thirst and to open our mouths anyway” then Letters to Colin Firth is Riegel’s wide-mouthed appeal to hope.
With language that is both frankly conversational and lyrically beautiful, Riegel trusts her wasps to Colin, and to us. On April 17th she writes, “Me, these days I’m as shameless as a god and as directive: I’m distributing flyers, wearing my own face on a t-shirt, carrying a big sign with an arrow pointing down saying Love me.” To admit such difficulties as asserting the desire for acceptance and love takes bravery, and Riegel’s honesty is just that—the kind of bravery that is too often confused with sentimentality or weakness, the bravery that Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennett must possess to set aside their pride and open themselves to love. This vulnerability and openness is generous; as a reader I am validated in my own emotional experiences and welcomed to join Riegel in the drawing room of her distress. In that place of unending, cyclical emotion she offers us the same comfort she receives from Colin Firth.
As Riegel concludes on the penultimate day of April, “the world happens to us every moment…it matters, this moment with the window closed, keeping you in.” Letters to Colin Firth is an earnest collection of those moments, an embrace of that happening, an acceptance of helplessness, a lesson in finding wherever happy is and beginning to live there.