Prose from Poetry Magazine

There Is No Suitable Simile

History's strange products in the work of Robyn Schiff and Robert VanderMolen.

by Nate Klug

Revolver, by Robyn Schiff.
University of Iowa Press.
$16.00.

“We live in the mind,” Wallace Stevens wrote, and to accept the degree to which our imagination tunes our existence in the world “is to realize the extent of artifice.” “Artifice” seems like the right place to start with Robyn Schiff’s imaginative second book, whose front cover features a studded silver revolver and which ends with a poem about an Yves Saint Laurent “silk peasant blouse that throws its purple // silk light back at the moon it came from” (more about that blouse later). Schiff combines an associativeness familiar in contemporary poetry with a very particular consciousness, that of an American Jew raised in the suburbs during what now clearly seems the apex of American capitalism. One of the many delights of Revolver is watching Schiff’s psyche emerge in poems whose ostensible subjects are various items of cultural “progress” displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London (“Colt Rapid Fire Revolver,” “de la Rue’s Envelope Machine,” “Singer Sewing Machine,” “Eighty-blade Sportsman’s Knife, by Joseph Rogers & Sons,” etc.).

“Silverware, by J.A. Henckels,” for example, romps through the history of dining utensils in Europe, name-checking Catherine de Medici, Montaigne, Louis XIV, and Adolf Eichmann (who “could hear / the constant sharpening of knives / like some children hear the corn in their hometowns / talking to them through the wind”), only to turn introspective on its last page, invoking the isolation of the speaker:

                                    The face
of my serving spoon is slotted
in the shape of an ancient footstep
of an undiscovered extinct relation
of our hummingbird
who let his frantic sole
be traced only once in private.
I am very small without you.
I am mailed into the incision.

In the book’s first poem, “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver,” a wedding cake serves as the site of union for Schiff’s historical fascinations and self-confrontations. A review makes it difficult to capture the vertiginous effect of her syntax across three pages, but here are the first nine lines:

The wedding cake of Elizabeth Hart (Colt since
noon) was trimmed with sugar pistols
with revolving sweet-tooth chambers with gears
that rotate one position over like a
dancer down a dance line
prompted by an aisle that parts in music

to switch partners while a

fly drawn to the sugar places a stringy foot
on the trigger. Dysentery.

The sugar and shit of nationalism, from Samuel Colt’s pistol empire to Nazi Germany to present-day Iraq, run together often in Revolver, and Schiff’s attraction to the material products of that lineage is surpassed only by her desire to make some coherence out of the glittering artifacts that have caught her eye. Metaphor serves as Schiff’s chief poetic tool in this project, though her poems discover again and again what Marianne Moore laments in “Style”—that “There is no suitable simile,” that our temporary feats of association cannot make our history cohere:

                                               Isn’t

the parlor game Consequences, based on
the concealment of
the details of
a continuing saga from
the eyes of its several authors who each fold
over what she’s written before
passing it on, foiled if no one

unfolds it, finally?

This passage, from “de la Rue’s Envelope Machine,” exemplifies Schiff’s formal control (a control that distinguishes her from most other Ashbery-influenced contemporaries). I admire the way the line breaks conceal the subordinate nature of that long middle clause until it breaks down, aptly, at “foiled,” heightening the tension behind the poem’s metaphor about the production of meaning. Beyond my admiration for her technical skills, I am even more struck by the way Schiff’s book captures something very particular about our contemporary relationship with the big questions of politics and God: we ironize, we disguise our beliefs or fears—“no one // unfolds it, finally?”—in careful, cultured cleverness. And we need poetry to call us out, as Revolver does, by reproducing the cultural environments on which it passes judgment.

“A rebus of progress marching since the first / firearms to devise a weapon / that can repeat fire without reloading” marches on, in a later poem, to “atom bomb / disease,” and then to “twenty-seven gorgeous Boeing / 747s to deliv- / er currency to Iraq.” What recompense poetry might offer in the face of such history is a familiar question; Schiff’s answer strikes me as both refreshing and necessary. By focusing her gaze on shiny historical arcana and then telescoping that gaze ever more inward, Schiff explores art’s complicity with consumerism in a way that is utterly contemporary in its acknowledgment of its own subjectivity, while still concerned with what she calls (at the end of “Eighty-blade Sportsman’s Knife”) “objective truth.”

In 2004, when he was leaving Yves Saint Laurent for Gucci, the designer Tom Ford told the New York Times Magazine, “On the day the planes went into the twin towers, we received forty-two calls from customers looking for the purple peasant blouse. The World Trade Center is going down, and women are calling a store for a blouse.” After such knowledge, what can the poet do (as Schiff asks us in Revolver’s final poem, “Project Paperclip”) but work toward her own account of history’s strange products, the self not least among them? “Project Paperclip” ends with twelve stanzas of exactly forty-two syllables each, which count down the forty-two New York shoppers calling in their orders:

                                                       calls
which I shall account for backward in the manner
                I count myself down to sleep:
42:
                            from a woman on the roof;
41:

from he who saw the first plane hit but boarded
                the subway anyway and sat in darkness
                               with an inkling; from one
                                           without a plan; and one with
   the plan that will never work.

What can the reader do, at this point in history, but put his head down and tally, with Schiff, the arbitrary recompense art offers?

Water, by Robert VanderMolen.
Michigan State University Press.
$14.95.

Like photographic negatives, Robert VanderMolen’s poems owe their uncanniness to vivid apprehensions of reality. VanderMolen’s reality is the lake country near Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was born and raised, where he taught for a short time at a local community college, and where he now works as a painting contractor. Almost every poem in his new book, Water—the ninth he has published since 1967—contains a snapshot of this region of marsh and manufacturing. Add the pictures up and you get a real sense of place, as grounded as it is unsettling:

The susurration at night grows malicious
As it should—the marsh is now marinas—
In that mixed light, gulls standing on pilings,
Soft maples where the streets end

                From “Whispering”

Where wrappers scuttle back and forth
Below an aging Communist symbol
Spray-painted on a parking lot post
In the
1970s, reddish on off-white,
What youngish students at the community
College might suspect, without much thought,
Is a cattle brand, or logo for vodka

                From “Warm Day in March”

                                                   The squeaking
Of schooling bats over the Methodist Church
That turn into shrapnel spiraling up.

                From “Regarding Calm”

VanderMolen is among the few living poets able to conjure the hard bright particulars of a local American existence (Merrill Gilfillan’s Great Plains, Joseph Massey’s northern California, and W.S. Di Piero’s Philadelphia also come to mind). As VanderMolen’s title implies, however, moments of clarity in his poems tend to follow the physical world’s—and the human mind’s—movement toward dissolution. Remember Robert Frost’s poem about looking into wells?

I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.

VanderMolen records this natural law of “blotting out” not only in the surrounding wetland but also among his aging friends.

Kent, leaning on the outer railing,
Referring to his ex-wife,
Her boyfriend, as the dog and pony show

His doughy face of doubt
                From “Willow”

At their best, the poems in Water achieve a kind of “lift-off,” as Larkin called it, in which natural detail and personal feeling combine to transcend the gravity of the physical, even as that gravity remains the poem’s subject, as at the end of “The Confession”:

One begins to doubt detail, moths congregating
On corrugated bark, even sobs of confession—
With sweat, aging water, smothering vegetation,
A flashlight cutting across a brook in cedar,
Something that vaults into rumor
Even when you know better

While he shares Schiff’s associativeness, VanderMolen shapes looser forms, favoring free or rough blank verse and often eschewing punctuation. But the above passage demonstrates how much his poetry’s effect of contingency owes to a honed technique. The moment of dissolution at the end of this passage, where the speaker’s train of thought “vaults into rumor,” depends on the syntactical build-up of the previous four lines. Without this sequence of disclosure, there would be no “something” for the final two lines to dissolve. In spite of his professed “doubt” in detail, it is precisely VanderMolen’s faithfulness to specifics, both visual and technical, throughout Water that prevents his oneiric impulse—“trying to isolate / A hummock of time in which to be dazed,” as he writes in “Under the Sky”—from becoming a tic or a distraction. The few unappealing moments in Water occur when VanderMolen’s investment in the local and quotidian lapses into reportage. Some of his drier poems cry out for an occasion beyond the local happy hour.

                                      Could-a-beens
Don’t buy you a beer. The sash and sway
Of platitudes
. . . No, he replied, I’m concerned
With fondness
. . . She made a deprecating
Gesture, how wisdom has abandoned the school
System, how pleasantness has abandoned
The borders of towns.

                —
From “The Fondness”

Despite the mires of the everyday—“Sharp edge of sensation, sorely felt, / Dulled in time by ambition, sap screeching / To a halt”—the overall effect of Water is affirming, both of human imagination and of poetry’s particular gift for pressuring the imagination into new territory. In her “Paean to Place,” VanderMolen’s Wisconsin neighbor Lorine Niedecker posited this about the human mind:

Effort lay in us
before religions
          at pond bottom
                    All things move toward
the light

VanderMolen’s collection ends on a similar note, with a poem called “Light.” “No, she wasn’t the romantic type,” VanderMolen warns us, describing a young woman named Margie biking home with groceries:

But there was a sensation
Something massaging the surface of things, the future
     for instance

Even if fence lines were out of kilter, down by the bend
By the beeches

Where the road petered out

Over the course of forty years, VanderMolen’s example suggests that such moments, where a shimmering of human perception points to a reality beyond what we can imagine (“Where the road petered out”), might indeed be enough to build a life around.

Originally Published: October 1, 2009

COMMENTS (1)

On March 21, 2010 at 12:46pm Daryl wrote:
God. Nate's a jagged cookie, isn't he?

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2009

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 Nate  Klug

Biography

Nate Klug was born in Minnesota, grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and earned a BA in English at the University of Chicago and a Masters from Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Rude Woods (The Song Cave, 2013), a book-length adaptation of Virgil’s Eclogues, and Anyone (University of Chicago, 2015). In 2010 he was awarded a Ruth Lilly Fellowship by the Poetry Foundation. A UCC-Congregationalist minister, he has served . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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