Robyn Schiff

By Adam Edelman

Robyn Schiff was born in Metuchen, New Jersey.  She started writing poetry as soon as she learned how to read.  After receiving her undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal arts school in Yonkers, New York, Schiff went on to earn an MA in medieval studies from the University of Bristol, and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She met her husband and fellow poet, Nick Twemlow, during her time at the Workshop.  She is currently an associate professor at the University of Iowa, and lives in Iowa City with Twemlow and their three-year-old son.  Schiff has published two books of poetry, Worth (2002) and Revolver (2008).  Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications, including Poetry magazine (2010), The New Yorker (2013), Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (2007), and Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (2006). She is a co-editor of Canarium Books.

The Poetics of Robyn Schiff:  History, Fragmentation, and Ekphrasis

As a child, Schiff would visit a revolutionary war era cemetery with her elementary school art class to make rubbings from the headstones.  She remembers one of the headstones had been placed next to a tree and became imbedded, over time, into the trunk.  It was raised several feet off the ground because of the growth of the tree; a measurement of how much time had passed since the violent birth of the country.

“Definitely growing up in this little revolutionary war town gives one a sense of place and history, but as a result, something like alienation sets in.  Here is a town whose important time had come and gone.  There was a battle in the middle of this town, and there are markers from hundreds of years ago.  As a child I stood before these graves and these old buildings of profound historic significance and had the sense that what we’re doing now is of no importance.  That's as liberating as it is intimidating. It was a privilege to grow up in a town in which the present is connected to something that recedes eventually.  You can stand in that graveyard and watch it recede.  You can watch history being subsumed into natural history."

Schiff’s poetry often uses the artifacts and markers of history as its subjects.  The result is a catalogue of the glittery fragments of consumerism, nationalism, and the collectively private hysteria that gets suppressed by them.  The development of recent empires and collective fears can be mapped by the artifacts that give her poems titles like "Colt Rapid Fire Revolver," "Eighty-blade Sportsman’s Knife, by Joseph Rogers & Sons," and "Lustron: The House America Has Been Waiting For."

Her work acknowledges the continual receding of history by using historical imagination for a sense of fragmentation rather than rootedness.  Her origin isn’t at stake in her poetry.  She’s not looking for the origin of thought or idea, but she finds ways to open these things up through fragmentation and the magnitudes of the minute.  In the poem “Project Huia”, Schiff tracks down and embellishes all the historical connotations of the huia, an extinct bird native to New Zealand (where her husband's family comes from, and where her husband happened to be temporarily living when she wrote the poem), even down to an attempt to clone the huia by a hypothetical rugby team who’s mascot is the huia: 


“…The surgery is so minute

            it’s more like the uncanny wish that kills

                        a man clipping the


feather affixed with a single stitch

            from the band of the Duke of York’s trendsetting

                        huia-feathered hat. It might sound

                                    overly dramatic when I tell you the magpie


teeters a little under the weight of the cell

            on its way to perch before the wavy mirror in its new cage,

                        but remember it’s smaller than you, and

                                    though a fraction


of a fraction of what’s measurable in your hand,

            in proportion to a magpie,

                        the weight of the huia cell

                                    is the World book Encyclopedia, Volume 8…”


Schiff recognizes the archeological quality in poetry that is the cataloguing of changing facts and compromised artifacts.  Her poems enact both the desperate restoration and further erosion of what gets catalogued.  “…I suppose I'm a Romantic poet by temperament, just encountering ruin over and over again in awe and dread.  I come upon an American Tintern Abbey or a Grecian Urn, everyday. That encounter is what I write about."

Analyzing the ruins she comes across in contemporary culture from a variety of dizzying perspectives is how Robyn Schiff achieves the complexity of her work.  Naturally, she identifies herself primarily as an ekphrastic poet.  “I write about the visual arts, and I think the definition of visual art is all encompassing, it includes artifacts and things, guns and dresses…art is bigger than paintings and sculpture…All of material culture is a made thing, a kind of art object.” 

The place she goes when she needs to feel the explosion of making is New York, where she worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after graduating from college and later during her summers off from the Writers’ Workshop and the University of Bristol.  She feels that museums give her a chance to observe world history in all of its tiny little fragments.  She is interested in why one toe of a Pharaoh is intact behind glass, while another one got lost along the way and became dust.  More recently, she’s been inspired to write about family and being a mother. 

“It still feels like ekphrastic poetry, except that the subject happens to be life itself.  When I write about my son, to what extent am I writing about a made thing? Now I’m at this point where I’m questioning what making is at all, what creation is, whether or not the artistic urge is a metaphor for creating life, and further, where does the material world cross with the immaterial?  The body is certainly material.  Is the imagination?”

The unique ways the poet Marianne Moore accessed the natural world and the smallest components of everyday existence have a continuing resonance with Robyn Schiff’s work.  She claims Moore as a model and inspiration.  Schiff states that in her undergraduate modernism class at Sarah Lawrence, peculiarly, women authors were not represented at all, and when she found the work of Moore independently, the discovery felt taboo and private.  Schiff finds great inspiration from Moore’s precise formal control and vision into the particulars.

“She gave me permission in so many ways to become the poet I wanted to become.  Her anecdotes and fact finding missions that chart the particulars of human and animal behaviors is moving.  Discovering that there was indeed this wild and influential Modernist no one had told me about, writing about the kinds of subjects that drew me in was thrilling. I should be annoyed that her work was not represented in the classroom—and I am in principle— but on the ground, I'm actually rather grateful to have discovered her for myself.  It felt like I had a secret.  A lifesaving literary secret that realigned my stars."

Her own house has been making appearances in her newest poems.  Being a first time owner, Schiff has been thinking about the concepts of  “property,” “propriety,” "proportion," "propagation," and even "the props of middleclass living we surround ourselves with.”

“Finding out what’s going to bloom in that garden, which I apparently ‘own,’ year after year is extraordinary, especially knowing that I didn’t plan it or plant it.   Things unbeknownst to me, far beyond my design or understanding, keep happening in my yard.  For instance, we have a plum tree that never bore fruit before this summer.  Last winter it blew over and is completely on its side now.  In the spring its leaves came back. I was sure it was dead. I thought it just doesn’t know it’s dead yet, but it’s clearly living and it’s got tentacles shooting straight up now at the site where it fell.  And now it's doing something really unbelievable to me under the circumstances.  It’s bearing fruit—which it never did before—, not edible yet, it’s not soft enough.  But it's not just surviving, it's thriving completely on its side. I can’t believe this is happening; and I own it.  I’m a passive witness, and it’s an empire out there.” 

She says her relationship with her Jewish heritage also contributes to her insight into what we can learn from artifacts and ruins. The turmoil of Jewish history continually manifests in her object studies.  Perhaps this is partly why Schiff is so interested in what our relationship is to the harm caused by empires; how they contribute to the ways we behave, what we buy, and what we read or ignore in the news.  It seems that, for Schiff, the antithesis to the influence of empire is revealed though our relationship with poetry itself.

“Poetry is completely and beautifully ignored, but it is also a direct communication with the person who’s reading it.  It really does feel to me like writing a poem is as charged as the passing of a secret note in a classroom…it's just as important and just as unimportant, and it's exciting because you can get caught. You're passing it in plain view, and you know that the teacher might open it and read it to the class.  And when the recipient gets it and opens it, it’s happening in the context of a public private space, and it’s also happening in the context of a larger conversation…the eighth grade class is talking about would history, but I’m passing you a note and I want to know if you like me: check box yes or no.”

The pressure between surface ideas and hidden narrative and historical structures often feel like an envelope within an envelope in her work, as Schiff opens ideas up and tries to understand how they relate to each other.  The theme of the envelope and correspondence appears often in her poetry, as in the end of "de La Rue’s Envelope Machine," where she literally uses the poem as a way to pass a note to her husband Nick, seemingly from beyond the grave:


“…Stand outside

the fence, Nick.  What I

wouldn’t give to

deliver this myself.  Stand out-

side the fence.  I pass this through the silence of the

cranes to you.”


The images of our fears and our comforts are also likened to envelopes that have been filed away precisely somewhere in the periphery of our awareness.  In the poem “H5N1,” the speaker longs for a safeguard against the avian flu and the peace of mind that would bring. 

“O for a capsule of tamiflu sealed/ in a crate in a warehouse in New Jersey leased/by Hoffmann-La Rouche Inc. to make me feel/ safe…”

A few lines later there is the image of the “hijacked jet” flying toward the Pentagon at “9:43 AM,” which is similar to the previous image in its exactness and specificity.  Schiff is attempting to unfold the tightly packed particulars of contemporary fears and comforts in a dangerous world full of paranoia and injustice.  Her poetry is asking us not just for our attention, but instead requires of us a deeper kind of attention; the kind that Schiff herself exemplifies with her Moore-like vision into the new ruins of contemporary culture.

“Some of what we erect to make us feel safer is actually quite dangerous to us.  I’m interested in a literature that explores this.  Certainly literature is not solving things, but the stories we tell are how we come to understand what this planet is to us.  For the people who read poetry, I think it’s profound.  Paying attention teaches us how to be…I think I’ll just end the sentence there; how to be.  Reading a poem, like writing a poem, takes incredible attentiveness.  Perhaps attentiveness has the potential to make us better people.  After we put the poem down can we call upon the attentiveness we've honed by reading?  I don't know.  I hope so."

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