New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2016. 96 pages. $20.00.
“Born so late in natural / history, I look after everything,” Robyn Schiff declares in A Woman of Property, her breathtaking third collection, and as hyperbolic as that sounds, it is also, on a certain level, completely accurate. Schiff is a verse hoarder, a writer of intricate kitchen-sink lyrics, whose serpentine sentences pack more personal, cultural, and historical stuff into single poems than most poets fit into whole books. Take “A Hearing,” for example, the poem from which her bold claim comes: it begins as a campy courtroom drama, complete with testimony and objections, but quickly spirals outwards to include everything from Jaws to Jane Eyre to Chechen terrorism.
The legal dispute in the poem is over a property line, the boundary separating her neighbor’s yard from hers, and as the collection’s title suggests, her collection is broadly concerned with property and propriety—with who possesses what, and what such possession entails. In many ways, the book considers what it means to be a steward or caretaker. As Schiff is so keenly aware, looking after something (or someone) requires certain things of us, sometimes to the extent that we are owned by what we own. We are of our property not only in the sense that it determines our status, but also that it guides our behavior. “I have no will,” Schiff writes, “I have a / habitat that possesses / me that I overlook.”
Such concerns about the nature of property are by no means new for Schiff. Her first two collections, Worth (2002) and Revolver (2008) are obsessed with extravagant things, and the kinds of claims they make on us. Their explorations of aesthetics, decadence, and violence are elaborate as the “dresses meant to be worn / once and once only” in Worth, or the wedding cake “trimmed with sugar pistols” that begins Revolver. But if she often acts as a curator in this earlier work, illuminating the salient details and contexts of an eclectic selection of objects, Schiff plays a much different kind of caretaker in A Woman of Property: a mother. Her subjects are no longer archival curiosities, the properties of the culture at large, but the kinds of things that sway us most: our homes, our families and our children.
This shift gives her work a new sense of stakes, and a sometimes frankly terrifying urgency. “I possess such unbearable / affection for my glistening property I / fear it will be unborne,” she writes in “Siren Test.” How do we look after our homes and families “so late in natural / history,” when the “the earth heats” and “meets the sea / farther inland?” “This is the Infiltration Age,” she writes in “The Mountain Lion,” a poem that worries about drones, mosquito-borne illness, and our increasingly cybernetic lives. “Gardening” begins with something as simple and domestic as yardwork, but concludes that “there exists in nature / a wolf-kind of every species.” The spooky “Amerithrax” not only worries about the natural (contagions, as its title suggests) but the supernatural as well:
Sacha pointing “baby” “baby” “baby”
into every dark corner
makes me believe this
house of ours is infested
with the infant dead
infants sense with their
that are as accustomed to not as to is
Schiff’s vision, like her child’s, is “indiscriminate,” detecting danger everywhere, even when it’s not immediately (or at all) visible. “You aren’t / thinking if you / don’t think all the way down with every worm,” she insists, and this is often the very thing the collection attempts to do: follow each worm-tunnel and rabbit-hole of worry to its end, no matter how minute it may seem.
There’s often an absurdity to the extremity of her anxieties, to the degree to which Schiff’s possessions take possession of her. In “Nursery Furniture,” even a defective chair is occasion for existential crisis: a screw falls out and the speaker hears “the loosening of an elemental hinge.” Schiff is well aware of this absurdity, and provides us means to read against it. As the woman who sold her the chair tells her, “There’s something you can take for that.” But what’s so brave about this collection is that it doesn’t let us off the hook: it never fully discounts the reality of even its wildest thinking. In fact, Schiff’s rhetoric often works to make such thinking not only convincing, but exciting. Though dense with wit, reference, and image, her lines unwind with thrilling verve, the syllabics she inherits from Marianne Moore providing just enough structure to support her imaginary castles. And like Sylvia Plath, she veers between tones and modes, mixing the comic and mortally serious, the pained and the pleasurable, the ironic and the utterly sincere. “Watch my hands,” she writes in the middle of “Gardening,” as if she were some kind of magician or grifter, and her trick was suffering.
The result is a complex persona, one whose muddling of the ecstatic and the self-conscious allow Schiff to arrive at unexpected moments of the sublime. Take “H1N1,” for example, which owes its pressurized tercets and metaphoric pileups to another poem about the flu, Plath’s “Fever 103°.” Its fevered opening sets the tone not only for the poem but for the collection: “God knows how our neighbors manage to breathe. / No one is allowed / to touch me,” she writes. But for all its paranoia, the poem ends with the speaker asking her yet-unborn child a question of real gravity and vulnerability:
grounds, on what faith,
dare we aspire together.
Paradoxically, it’s speaker’s sense of theater that makes her second pronouncement so powerful: we’re never totally sure when to expect what, what to take literally, what’s real and what’s fantasy.
Indeed, at times, the book seems to regard any kind of possession as fantasy. How do we have any grounds for ownership in a nation built on dispossession? “Every time I descend the stairs I / trespass what I already own,” she concludes in “A Hearing.” And yet in “Siren Test,” she’s shockingly committed to her own. Referring to her son, she writes: “it goes without saying I want him to out- / live you, whoever you are.” That’s a provocative thing to say to your reader. I don’t know if it’s honest or crazy or truthful. But regardless, it raises tough questions about how far we’d go for our dearest people and possessions, questions I don’t think would’ve been possible without the persona Schiff adopts. “The lyric,” she writes, “makes me sing what I did not even want said, to get to stop having / to keep thinking / it.”
Still, some of the book’s most startling moments come when Schiff lets that lyric mask slip. In one later poem, she admits the role privilege plays in her anxiety: “I feel like a beast in a clearing,” she writes, “but I am a girl in heaven.” As “Gate,” the book’s opening poem suggests, it’s easy to get “caught / up in theatrics and [forget] whose / theater this is.” And in the middle of the book’s long closing poem, “The Houselights,” which glides from Sputnik to King Lear to 9/11, Schiff suddenly interjects, “I love you. / Do you love me? It will be hard for you. / Everything Goes.” It’s a potent reminder that even the book’s wildest vectors—toward paranoia, obsession, fury—originate in great feelings of tenderness. A Woman of Property may be a challenging book, but it’s certainly not a hard one to love. It is its very willingness to challenge us, to venture unflinchingly into the darkest corners of the domestic, that make it one of the most powerful books of poems I’ve read in quite some time.