Aquiver with Significance: On Robyn Schiff’s “Information Desk”
By Heather Cass WhiteOctober 23, 2023
Information Desk: An Epic by Robyn Schiff
Readers who have followed Schiff’s career since her first book, Worth (2002), will see that Information Desk distills her interests of the past two decades. The title “Worth” is a clue to those interests, referring simultaneously to the concept of value in art and commerce; Charles Frederick Worth, father of haute couture and dressmaker to royalty; and Adam Worth, a notably successful 19th-century con man and art thief. Where these ideas overlap, Schiff claims her poetic territory: she’s never seen a beautiful piece of workmanship that didn’t seduce her, but she also never forgets the pillaged fortunes that underwrite Western art.
Her second book, Revolver (2008), took on the achievements and costs of craftsmanship. It affirmed her as a poet who can’t help loving the object, like the “Eighty-blade Sportsman’s Knife, by Joseph Rodgers & Sons,” whose perfectly machined blades “transfor[m] in air from sheath / to edge and back again in a pulse,” even when she mourns its purpose—“arriv[ing] cold at the neck.” Revolver is also where Schiff began fully trusting her ambition, confidently calling out to Keats, Wordsworth, Stevens, and others.
A Woman of Property (2016), published with Penguin’s prestigious Penguin Poets series, was a further breakthrough, filled with intricate, allusive poems that used the first person more often than she had before, integrating her husband Nick, their son Sacha, and her own daily doings with the cultural histories of art and craft she had been telling in the first two books. It was a daring choice. Making use of materials as particular as family names risks tethering poetry to its moment, trading timelessness for a time stamp. But then, Schiff likes few things better than vexing a binary.
Information Desk is full of powerful binaries, man/woman, yes/no, and public/private among them. The speaker herself embodies this last binary, a young woman tasked with unobtrusively informing visitors about the museum’s treasures while herself on display behind the desk at the center of its grand lobby. Following her in the course of the epic poem, we get a tour of the museum available to any member of the public, starting at “a thinly beaten oak leaf wreath / with a golden wasp and two gold cicadas” she makes tremble with her footsteps, passing by “the small-scale models / of a prosperous and tedious imagined / hereafter of a Middle Kingdom / civil servant,” underneath which she eats in the employee cafeteria, and ending at Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s portrait of the Princesse de Broglie, dressed in luscious blue “killer silk.”
Schiff also, however, shows us parts of the museum walled off from a visitor’s view: for example, the supervisor who touches her “below the Desk” and then argues that, since there is no word for what he’s doing, “it isn’t happening”; the security guard who tempts her with a gift so that she will “appear to him / not followed but / accompanied through the galleries”; and the neutrality with which she must answer a daily “catechism” of visitors’ requests: “Can you direct me to a / men’s room? To the Elgin Marbles? Is there a / bag check? Who’s your / daddy? Are those your real breasts?”
Real/fake is an especially important dichotomy in Information Desk, represented in the poem by “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt,” the first special exhibit Schiff saw as a museum employee. Paintings by the master were exhibited alongside those judged to be merely “school of,” and her younger self’s fascination with that show is the spine of Information Desk. Much of what the speaker contemplates leads her back to “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt” and what she learned from it about how art is made and evaluated. Schiff makes everything about the process riveting, from the grinding of Rembrandt’s favorite color, the “hoof-mouth pigment ‘bone-black’” whose charnel-house stench drove visitors from his studio, to the Jesuitical subtlety of a curator’s passive-voiced pronouncement on originality, that “authorship / is defined by // intellectual conception, / not manual labor.”
Serving as interludes, the wasp poems confront that deeper binary, between the earthy materiality of the artist’s work and the abstract ideas that surround it. Traditional art curation depends on the human distinctions between body and brain, original and impostor, mastermind and drudge, that wasps undo by being, at different parts of their life cycles, both at once. Schiff pays minute attention to the gruesome mechanics of wasp reproduction, which involves grubs that eat paralyzed hosts alive, tumorous growths on trees (from which humans derived ink!), and the stealth invasion of other wasps’ nests. Her metaphorical point is that if artists are, like wasps, makers of beautiful and durable objects, then they are also, in their work, opportunists, hunters, and killers.
It might not be immediately obvious why Schiff sees poets so darkly. Her own poems make her seem, if anything, like a really nice person. No amount of niceness, however, exempts a poet from an occasionally parasitic relationship to the most loved of the poets who came before her. Poems are made of other poems; poets become poets by taking what they need. For the most part, Schiff manages her relationship to poetry’s epic past with a light touch, wittily and ingeniously nodding to Homer (as she becomes Odysseus defeating Polyphemus, “staff[ing] the eye of Time triggering / the attention of its tears”), Virgil (singing of “[a]rms and the man- / made hammered steel plate carapace inspired // by the exoskeleton of the roach”), and Milton (urging him to “[c]hoose // a side, poet, which is it—Eve or God / who forged the hoe?”), just to name three of the many greats I caught sight of in Information Desk.
The two poets most important to Schiff’s epic, however, are Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, and her encounters with them are more complicated. Schiff has spoken in interviews about her “muse” Bishop, whose poem “The Fish” is a recurring touchpoint in Information Desk. Bishop also shapes the poem’s largest metaphorical framework, in which, as per “The Map,” Schiff works as a mapmaker rather than a historian, and peeks out of its smallest interstices. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stanza about a minor corridor of the Met, Schiff describes, for example,
the sort of domesticities
carried away in dog mouths—smallest
spice spoons, measuring cups grooved
with gradations not concerning us,
bracelets, buttons, a single silver hoop earring
“one of a pair,
the other lost”
Bishop uses the phrase “not concerning us” to describe a half-heard, half-dreamed, back-of-the-bus conversation in “The Moose,” her poem about homely comfort and uncanny vision. Schiff’s inquiring dog comes from “The Moose” too (where a dog sleeps “tucked in her shawl”), and those little loss-prone objects in the Met hallway recall the items “filled with the intent / to be lost” in Bishop’s “One Art,” a villanelle about “the art of losing.” This stealthy, sidelong semi-quotation is Schiff’s specialty, her way of signaling and subsuming her influences in a single gesture.
As important as Bishop is to Schiff, however, the poet at the heart of Information Desk, and the all but overt subject of its juiciest, most violent single piece, “To the Cuckoo Paper Wasp,” is Marianne Moore. Moore is the poet-mother Schiff reveres, and so the poet from whom she most needs to distinguish herself. Moore gave Schiff the form she has used more than any other since her first book, the syllabic stanza. Syllabics, which measure verse by syllable count rather than patterns of intonation, is a curio in poetry’s collection of meters. Few poets since Moore have used them at all, let alone swapped them in an epic for iambic pentameter, the meter of major English-language poetry since Chaucer. In her stanzas about the museum, Schiff’s syllabics are less strict than Moore’s. Each stanza is six lines long, but the lines vary in length. What they share is their total syllable count: the stanzas of part one are most often 44 syllables long; by part three, they hold steady at 48. It’s possible that those are the ages Schiff was when she worked on them (she once began a poem “in boxes of 42 syllables each / to honor my mother’s birth in 1942”).
In the wasp poems, however, Schiff is as precise and rigid in her stanza patterns as Moore is in hers, or as a wasp is in securing shelter for her young. Schiff’s wasp stanzas are always 41 syllables long, each lineated in a 9–6–5–11–4–6 pattern. Unlike the customizable vitrines of the museum stanzas, made, as Moore would put it, of “glass that will bend” to accommodate their contents, the form of Schiff’s wasp poems follows the binary logic of yes/no: things add up correctly and identically, or they don’t. Traditional meters have give. A missing syllable at the beginning of the line, an extra one at the end, a different foot from the one we expect are all legitimate, pleasurable variations. Syllabics, like wasps, accept no substitutes: each stanza replicates the one before it in a process of creation that is essentially “3D printing.” In thinking about her own replication of Moore’s distinctive form, Schiff identifies herself with the female-on-female predatory cuckoo paper wasp. She, having murdered the true paper wasp,
lay[s] her own wasp
eggs among those the
wasp placed first, each forthcoming life a secret
froth brimming its
neat wasp-paper cell, the
weirdest cupcake batter aquiver
in thin paper liners.
What a terrible
birthday party planned in resentment and guilt
It is tricky to find something that is not intimately tied to Moore in this poem. Schiff’s perfect grub/cupcake batter metaphor, for instance, is her own, but the word “aquiver” has roots in Moore’s poem “Half Deity,” in which a girl chases an insect and “all’s a-quiver with significance.” There are many more such ties, to “The Jerboa,” “The Pangolin,” “The Paper Nautilus,” and, above all, to “The Frigate Pelican.” While you don’t have to catch all, or even any, of Schiff’s allusions to Moore to be delighted by the poem, they do add a layer of poignancy. Early in the poem, Schiff thinks about the scope of Information Desk and reflects that “the boot-ruts left by // others […] will never / get me across / a lake this size.” Moore’s readers will be moved by Schiff’s sureness as she pays her homage while cutting a new path.
Readers of all kinds will be overwhelmed by this book’s wonders, which I haven’t begun to properly catalog. To name just a few, there is the opening riff on the number of penises a woman has to confront just to get started as an artist, the poet’s encounter with John F. Kennedy Jr. at the museum, the poem’s flirtation with gossip, Nan Goldin’s attack on the Temple of Dendur, and a shocking encounter with an art critic whose sinister identity I won’t spoil here. You’re just going to have to visit Schiff’s museum yourself. You’re going to have such a good time.
Heather Cass White is the editor of the New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore (2017).
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