Q & A: Robyn Schiff
The poem uses the first-person pronoun, “I,” a lot; would you say you are that “I”? If not, who is?
It’s definitely me, and the information is about as intimate—and as commonplace!—as I’ve ever shared in a poem, as that was my actual temperature reading reported at intervals throughout the composition of the first draft. So it’s not just my body in the poem, it’s my body in the real time of the poem, ticking away, heating and cooling, declaring its liveliness, and well, also dying I guess. Perhaps all poetry is about the boundaries of the body, and pushing against form is an expression of simultaneously denying and asserting the limits of both the material and numinous self.
But I wrote this poem while expecting a child, and all my notions about having a body and being a self transformed through the transformation of pregnancy. I suddenly, quite literally, wasn’t myself anymore. I was myself and another at the very same time. So the “I” is me, already formed. And the “I” is also me still forming. And the “I” is me forming another. All of which are always true of the use of the first-person—in a poem or otherwise—but were exasperated and made literal for me through pregnancy.
Pandemic and pregnancy are juxtaposed. Can you talk a little about this? Yours strikes us as a poem only a woman could write!
And perhaps only a pregnant woman, at that! The h1n1 pandemic is literal and metaphoric in the poem. It’s a real threat to a newborn, but it also stands in the poem for the larger, more abstract threats we have to accept. As much as the poem is about having a shape-shifting, physical, very vulnerable body in time, it’s also about the terrible yearning to keep the spirit of the child free from that weight. I think I was using the poem to understand that in my beginning is my end, and that this would extend to my child, too—who, incidentally, has been born since I wrote this poem. It’s terrifying to think that the only way to have saved my son from death is not to have made him. Sometimes when our son cries my husband says that he didn’t ask to be created and that an infant’s cries come from that first, profound betrayal. Late in the poem I express a reluctance to name the child in an impossible effort to grant him a kind of freedom from the material world. I was thinking about Adam naming the animals in Genesis, and I guess the poem expresses my hesitance to put my child on that inventory, lest he be removed from it. You can’t be crossed off a list you’ve never been on. His social security card arrived the other day—so I suppose he’s officially been counted now. There’s ambivalence throughout the poem toward bringing the child into civilization and into the network of the animal kingdom, which includes humans. There’s a wry reference to the lamb of God toward the end: “I will not lie down / with the lamb who is / contagious.” When a wolf lies down with a lamb, metaphorically, it seems like a social contract that suits the lamb much more than the wolf, and the poem expresses an antisocial urge to remove the child from that agreement. It’s about freedom and love and accepting the fact that it’s dangerous and compromising to be alive.
Is Legion a reference to Luke 8:26-39 in the New Testament, “His name is Legion”? There are various Biblical and religious references in the poem. Care to talk about how they got into it? Or maybe this has to do with Legionnaire’s Disease? (“The ventilator”!)
I love the strangeness of the story of Legion in the New Testament—how a multitude of demons named “Legion” are driven from a man into a herd of swine—and when I started thinking about h1n1, the so-called “swine flu,” I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Though the poem has a sardonic tone at times, it’s also quite earnestly trying to work out some spiritual questions about creation and holy judgment and love. It was a happy accident that Legionnaire’s disease resonates, too!
There’s a wry comment in the poem about The Book of Life being on Kindle—a sort of social comment? Care to expand on this a little bit?
Ha! Digital media seems to me particularly well suited for so protean a text as The Book of Life! I suppose there is a social commentary there: that a spiritual ledger—God’s actuary records—would be available for cheap and instant download. It strikes me as funny that Amazon’s wireless reader, the Kindle, has such a holy-sounding name, and the downloading function is called Whispernet—a perfectly haunting term. It gives me goosebumps. I didn’t realize it when I was working on it, but there are quite a few references to text and books in the poem. The biggest is the very scaffolding of the poem, which is modeled on Plath’s “Sow,” whose first line is “God knows how our neighbor managed to breed”—amounting to an inside joke with myself; the fluttering movement of the unborn child in the poem is like a book whose pages are flipping over; the children’s book Time for Bed underlies some of the rhythms, and there’s the germy public library which is to be avoided, and which, in the world of the poem, we live in mortal fear of being “recalled” by.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine