Poems by Robyn Schiff.
69 pages. University of Iowa Press, 2008.
The poems in this book are formal, with the attendant pleasures of pattern and repetition. The poems in this book are also expansive, moving beyond the bounds of form and linear narrative. Robyn Schiff’s poems muse on objects found at the Great Exhibition of 1851, in London, England, as evidenced by their titles: “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver” and “de la Rue’s Envelope Machine.” The mechanics of these items and their production, and the mechanics of history, are carefully attended to in poems that overlap past and present.
Writing, for example, of a missing fork from her silverware case, “Space left free for forms so long gone makes me / suspicious of this world and the stillness” (“Silverware, by J. A. Henckels”), Schiff traces the introduction of the fork to the European dinner table, including its temporary banning by the church. In what I find to be a refreshing method, the poems focus on an accumulation of causes, not effects. By which I mean these poems are not excuses to pronounce Great Judgments on the past.
There is too much in this book to inventory here. With the hope of enticing new readers I will briefly attend to one poem, the final poem of the book. “Project Paperclip” (“…the code name for the recruitment of Nazi engineers…into the American space program”) is a sprawling effort, in the way of Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” traversing styles and histories in the construction of a poem that moves delicately towards a frightening end. It begins “Assembling prefabricated joinery / of a botany lab in zero gravity / two astronauts touching the same panel share a secret but / let go with nothing.” The poem then moves on to Asian Longhorned Beetles, Wan-Hoo (who attached rockets to a chair in order to reach the moon), Amityville, Arthur Rudolph (“director of V-2 Rocketry at Dora”), Buchenwald, and fashion designer Tom Ford’s “Laurent purple peasant blouse,” all represented in the shadow of September 11, 2001.
Schiff creates a compelling and elusive poem from these materials, the trick and magic of which are the reasons you should read this book.
This review was written by Andy Carter of the Digital Library of Georgia.