Question: Were times truly simpler — in America and, specifically, on the Vineyard — in the first years of the 20th century, or did certain artists and poets convey a simplicity that was more art than reality? Cynthia Riggs of West Tisbury, mystery writer and daughter of Vineyard poet Dionis Coffin Riggs (1898-1997) and Vineyard block print artist, Sidney Noyes Riggs (1892-1975), maintains that her parents’ nostalgia for quieter, gentler times on the Island was part artifice, albeit a very appealing artifice.
Certainly an hour spent watching Circle of Years, a new DVD inspired by the work of the senior Riggses, evokes in the viewer a sense of the Vineyard as Wordsworth purveyed the Lake District or Gauguin Polynesia, as paradise lost but persisting enough in fragments to allow it to be momentarily regained. In her poem Lilacs, Dionis Coffin Riggs wrote: “And along the old road / Where the ruined house stood / The lilacs were blooming / Caressed by the lonely sea wind.”
Lines such as these reawaken an Island once known to people who died a long time before many of us were born, and yet we grasp the scene instinctively because we’ve had impressions of it, like the elusive scents of Mrs. Riggs’s sweet swamp rose and “wild columbine . . . blood red petals against grey stone.”
Circle of Years arrives as a companion piece to The Collected Poems of Dionis Coffin Riggs With Block Print Images of Sidney Noyes Riggs, published in 1998 by Cleaveland House Books. Over this past winter, Vineyard cinematographer Jonathan Revere, a close friend of Cynthia Riggs, decided to finally do something about a collection of audiotapes that he had been carrying around in the backseat of his car for a number of years.
“When Dionis was 95 [in the early 1990s], her son in law, Ralph Jones, recorded her reading from her own hand-selected poems,” he said. It amounted to nearly 100 hours of tapes, but Mr. Revere committed himself to a huge Christmas project for Cynthia Riggs: editing her mother’s poems and splicing them with her father’s artwork.
The result is captivating. Mr. Revere has divided the poems into two sections: Spring and Summer, and Fall and Winter. In accompaniment to Dionis Riggs’s readings, the filmmaker scrolls down the words in print. Sections of spoken and written words are woven with montages of Sidney Riggs’s block prints of wildflowers, sea birds, farm animals, lonely cottages, a Colonial headstone, the old village of West Tisbury, tall ships and such homespun figures as the postman arriving at a cottage, and a fisherman seated at the open door of his dockside shanty.
Mr. Revere has scored the piece with lush orchestrals of Ottorino Respighi.
Dionis Coffin Riggs was born in Edgartown and reared by her grandparents in West Tisbury. Her grandmother, originally from Australia, had accompanied her husband, Capt. James Cleaveland, on a five-year whaling voyage, so young Dionis grew up on a steady diet of sea stories. With her dog, Spark, she “squandered secret hours” exploring the sedgy coves of Tisbury Great Pond, woods, and country lanes of West Tisbury, all of this eventual grist for her poems.
In the 1920s she met and, a year and a half later, married Sidney Riggs, a scientist working for Thomas Edison. For the sake of better pay with which to raise a family, Mr. Riggs left Edison to become a school principal. Mr. and Mrs. Riggs spent the school year in New Jersey with their three daughters, Alvida, Ann, and Cynthia, and summers at the family homestead in West Tisbury. The family also traveled throughout the United States, Mexico, Greece, Great Britain, the Caribbean and Turkey. Mrs. Riggs joined the Turkish Poetry Society and, along with her son in law, William Fielder, translated Turkish poems.
In 1940 Mr. and Mrs. Riggs collaborated on the best-selling book From Off Island, about her grandparents. The book was re-published in 1993. The New York Times wrote at the time, “Her clear, simple and affecting poetic observances so delighted newspaper and magazine editors that she eventually published more than one thousand poems.”
Sidney Noyes Riggs was born in Newark, N.J., a descendant of that town’s first European settlers. He met his future wife while taking Spanish lessons from her sister, Mary, in Rutherford, N.J. His work for Edison involved diamond point phonograph needles, for which he was put in charge of the laboratory. After he left Edison, he taught high school physics, earned his doctorate, and became a high school principal, a position he held until he retired.
From his earliest years, Mr. Riggs loved to sketch. Drawn to linoleum block prints after making his family’s Christmas cards in the late 1920s, he became an illustrator for the Vineyard Gazette, supplying much of the paper’s artwork throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He also produced hundreds of block prints for Island church announcements, lecture posters, gifts and his wife’s poetry. Together they captured in words and images the essence of the Vineyard in the early 1900s.
Today, Cynthia Riggs recalls her parents’ strong companionship, both marital and artistic. “They shared a study upstairs [at Cleaveland House where Cynthia now resides in the eighth generation of her family’s occupation of the home; her sisters, Alvida and Ann, live on adjoining properties]. My mother and father had desks facing each other, each supplied with light from opposite windows.”
Mr. Revere adds, “Putting the DVD together, I got to know Sidney’s prints and Dionis’s poems very well.” He’ll be airing Circle of Years on MVTV, and the station in turn plans to enter the work in national competitions. Island bookstores, libraries and the historical society will offer the DVD alongside The Collected Poems With Block Images. In addition, Cynthia Riggs’s new mystery, Death and Honesty, is soon to be released, the eighth in her popular Victoria Trumbull series, Ms. Trumbull being an octogenarian Vineyard poet, gardener, and amateur sleuth based on the author’s illustrious mother.
In a fitting poem for this time of year, Dionis Coffin Riggs wrote:
“When the northwest wind blows eerily I move my bed to the little warm room / Where chickadees perch on the window sill / Or hide in the whitened cedar tree / It’s snug and bright on the sheltered side / I do go south, you see.”