I first came across Robyn Schiff’s poem “Dear Ralph Lauren” at jubilat (where I’m a guest editor) and was floored by the formal and emotional torques of this wonderfully odd poem. Put simply, it’s a poem about Ralph Lauren (real name: Ralph Lifshitz). Put crudely, it’s about the narrator’s obsessive father fixation with Ralph Lauren. But broadly, the poem touches upon the American Dream, capitalist fetishism and Jewish assimilation. It’s a complex poem brocaded with tongue-in-cheek factual details you might find in a Polo catalog (“Might I, if there’s one in stock, be sent the Ralph Lauren Winchester Tote…”) but just as you’re about to be lulled by these details, she dropkicks you with a violent or disturbing anecdote: “Why Dad, do you translate me so tormented, so raving, driving my muddy pony with death spurs and blood on my stick.”
Robyn Schiff’s powerful second collection Revolver is made up of long, restlessly evolving poems that are embedded with facts and artifacts. Read these poems slowly, carefully, or you will miss huge swaths. In certain aspects, her writing hearkens back to the layered, collaged density of Marianne Moore. But her language is also relentlessly contemporary; it is a language attuned to eBay catalogs and museum curatorial descriptions. She is a poet who loves research—I bet she takes full advantage of old catalogs buried deep in the bowels of city libraries as well as healthy doses of Wikipedia and Google alerts (As someone who also loves to research, I can relate to this). Many of her poems are about the objects displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851 from the “Eighty-blade Sportsman’s Knife” to the “Iron Door Knocker the Shape of a Man’s Face.” There’s something perversely fetishistic about Schiff’s exacting descriptions about these objects. But while she may write like an obsessive collector, she writes with the aim that these objects are part of history’s relentless and violent march towards progress:
Bride and bridegroom enter their union. Re-
petition of pistols
map a rebus of progress marching since the first
firearms to devise a weapon
that can repeat fire without reloading.
Behold the rapid fire pistol inspired
By Colt’s meditations on
the wheel of the ship steering him toward
India spinning and
Locking in position like the machinations
Of fortune pacing through the in-
fininte face of its clock ins such baby
steps that I shall regin I reign I reigned…
Pertinent to the title, the revolver pops up again and again as a motif, from the helically revolving form of her poems to the references of sugar pistols that decorated Elizabeth Colt’s cake. In her work, the gun is the perfected instrument for civilization, from the Patented Colt Revolvers used to civilize the frontier to the marvelously esoteric fact that the Glock arms factory (way before it was used as a favored end rhyme for hip hop lyrics) used to manufacture curtain rods. Revolver is just jammed with these bizarre, rich, and timely references.
Cathy Park Hong is the author of Translating Mo'um, (Hanging Loose Press, 2002); Dance Dance Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2007), winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; and Engine Empire (W.W. Norton, 2012). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the...