Twists & Transformations: Ashley Keyser on Robyn Schiff’s Revolver


Robyn Schiff, Revolver, University of Iowa Press

To describe Robyn Schiff’s collection Revolver (Kuhl House Poets 2008), I take one of her own images: the moving and morphing parts and compartments in the poem “Multi-Purpose Steamship Furniture, by Taylor & Sons”– the bed which becomes a sofa in the underwater bedroom-turned-sitting room. As the rooms upon rooms change and refract in water, Schiff’s writing transforms and spirals into intricacies throughout this collection.

Much of the book takes its subject matter from the Great Exhibition of 1851, with poems like “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver” demonstrating a kind of relentless terror in technology, the weapon that “repeats fire without reloading.” In these descriptions, the facets of fact after fact are precisely hewn, and often surprising: The poem on Colt’s revolver opens with Elizabeth Hart Colt’s wedding cake “trimmed with sugar pistols / with revolving sweet-tooth chambers … while a / fly drawn to the sugar places a stringy foot / on the trigger. Dysentry.”

Schiff traces historic marvels to modern figures of consumerism, like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein – similar to her first collection, Worth (Iowa 2002), which dealt with fashion and beauty. In the poem “On the Abduction of Calvin Klein’s Daughter Marci: A Captor’s Narrative,” the speaker recounts how she and a young Brooke Shields and Kate Moss were behind the 1977 kidnapping scandal. The voice is humorous and incisive:


I can’t remember the name of my own parent
company, I ask: You know what
comes between me and my
John Calvins? Nothing, except Judaism – and then I recall
the name of the corporation is Puritan.

In other poems, Schiff moves rapidly through time and place. The collection’s final piece “Project Paperclip” deals with Nazi engineers’ involvement in the US space program before transitioning to Asian Longhorned Beetles, then to Chinese furniture with poems carved on the legs, and later to the September 11th attacks. Proof of Schiff’s skill is her management of myriad threads. We don’t get whiplash in these poems; we always know where we are, even if we don’t immediately understand why the change in location was necessary or what it will mean.

What I particularly admire, more than Schiff’s cleverness, is her awareness of that cleverness, particularly in the poem I cited above, “Multi-purpose Steamship Furniture, by Taylor & Sons.” Here, Schiff demonstrates a kind of anxiety around the work’s artifice. The form is something like a sestina wrapped like a pretzel – each line of nonspecific length ends with one of five repeating words, including sweet (or suite), room, and so on. When Schiff asks repeatedly, “How will I use the word sweet?” the question forces us to consider the poem’s making, troubling an illusion of an organic whole.

Like a man-made machine, Schiff’s formal choices are rigorous. At first glance, the margins are ragged, unkempt, as if the lines fling themselves headlong into blank space. But they also are managed by secret structures, bound to Schiff’s own designed syllabics – some poems include stanzas with specific and repeated, if seemingly arbitrary, line lengths. In this sharp awareness of form, Schiff resembles the keenly intellectual poets she has cited among her influences: Jorie Graham, Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Marianne Moore.

In likening the poems to the objects they describe, I don’t mean to say they are mechanically cold or distant. A distinct human presence infuses the collection. “H5N1,” a poem dealing with avian flu (and perhaps also love?) surprises with this moment of beauty: “who would not kiss the head of a swan / just to try to memorize / the softness of something wild?”

These passionate moments make the poems more than well-crafted things – Schiff’s sense of emotion gives her work true relevance. Even as stanzas twist and transform, and as changing rooms submerge in water, her honesty keeps us anchored.