AMARANTH BORSUK Reviews
Revolver by Robyn Schiff
(University of Iowa Press, 2008)
[First published in Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion 2 (2009): 295-296. Ed. Calvin Bedient and David Lau]
One senses from the opening poem of Robyn Schiff’s Revolver that the poet has taken Emily Dickinson to heart. Throughout the collection, Schiff stands alert to the glint of violence behind the domestic and to the many ways her life, like Dickinson’s, “ha[s] stood a loaded gun.” Her title refers not only to weaponry but to vocation. She herself is a revolver of language engaged “in a game of anagrams / with the dead every time we speak.” Revolve and evolve, lover and over circle one another throughout these poems, revealing the book’s central conflict: the insufficiency of language to convey the poet’s meaning. Schiff’s syntax rises, or perhaps succumbs, to this challenge, her long, paratactic, enjambed sentences at times defying both grammar and logic. Enacting the book’s cyclic motif, her poems spin out associations and mutate as they move. Describing and distorting the wedding of Elizabeth Hart Jarvis and Samuel Colt, the first poem, “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver,” muses on femininity, violence, and motion, one image leading into the next like the revolver’s spinning cylinder, accompanied by a rapid-fire alliterative and assonantal report. In a reflexive moment, Schiff equates her method with a series of circles on the text’s surface: “Focus my gaze; I / see like a fly whose vision is more like / several interlocking rings left by a tea- / cup on a book but the cake / was six feet high and how could I resist / pistols winding tier up- / on tier up the icing....” Any eye might “tier up” tracing those tiers—of sugar pistols on the wedding cake and of the many circles in Schiff’s fractal imaginings. Taking several industrial devices featured in the 1851 Exhibition at the Crystal Palace as her subjects, Schiff marvels at what we invent to extend the hand (a mechanical thresher, a sewing machine, an envelope-folding machine, an eighty-blade utility knife so laden with options it baffles one’s ability to use it); but she likens them to the pen, as devices that extend but are not the hand: “I have a pen with a plume / with which I sign off on the body. / You squirm. I stand in my head” (“Singer Sewing Machine”). That the poet is doomed to cerebral isolation may explain the violence coursing beneath the poems. Informed though it is with glittering historic artifacts and lines from poetic luminaries (Keats, Stevens, and Milton, among others), her mind turns out to be a dark place where a terror of marriage’s trappings connects to bird flu, the September 11 attacks, and Nazi atrocities. (Dedicated to her husband, Nick Twemlo, the book invokes literal and metaphorical marriages throughout). Schiff takes all this personally: “behind each silver flower Henckels hammers / in each viney handle there is an arrow / that points to me.” While this inward-turning might irk at first, such juxtapositions are integral to the pleasure of these poems that, in their associational movement, reflect a contemporary networked consciousness. Schiff’s game is Russian Roulette, spinning out the history of our objects, hammer cocked, inviting us to enjoy the suspense of language’s deferrals.
Amaranth Borsuk is the author of Handiwork (Slope Editions, 2012), selected by Paul Hoover for the 2011 Slope Editions Book Prize; Tonal Saw (The Song Cave, 2010), a chapbook; and, with programmer Brad Bouse, Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012), a book of augmented-reality poems. Her intermedia project Abra, a hybrid book-performance collaboration with Kate Durbin and Ian Hatcher, recently received an Expanded Artists’ Books grant from the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago and will be issued as an artist’s book and iPad app in fall of 2013. She has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and recently served as Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at MIT, where she taught classes in digital, visual, and material poetics. She currently teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington, Bothell.