Robyn Schiff’s work has long demonstrated that American poetry can be both ornamental and discursive, both formally inventive and intimate. But the intimacy, in her latest, is woven more explicitly—and even more movingly—into the history and science that have long been the stuff of her métier. Information Desk is described as an epic. It takes its name from the station in the center of the great hall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a literal desk that, across Schiff’s layered and teeming lines, becomes a metaphor for the Western mind itself. So as the book takes us through the museum—the book is a work of ekphrasis that contains, like nested dolls, poems about art within a poem about art—it also becomes a poem about our moment, about how we got here, about how we grew up into the disturbed and doomsday realms of our present reality. The book does all this by way of three larger, longer poems—sections?—made up, mostly, of six-line stanzas that seem always on the verge of crumbling: their architecture is both strict and fickle, willing to shift as the feeling shifts. Interspersed between these sections are relatively shorter poems that take as their subject the behavior of certain wasps. In this way—and because these are more overtly in syllabics—these are classic Schiff poems: taking from the natural world figures that, in her skilled hands, become devastating metaphors:

     People never shock
me, but I love to be
taken by surprise
by loyalty and candor. How I want the
wasp to mount and
ride the American

cockroach now, but it will have to
do to see the wasp use
the one antenna
the roach has left as a rein to steer it to
the nest she made
it, as a dutiful

stallion of apocalypse is
gently led back to its
stall in hell. Yes, it

will have to do, for now, having soul-hacked the
cockroach with a sting to

the brain so precise as to make
the roach stop roach-iden
tifying and give
itself, body and force, zombie host to the
wasp egg the wasp
is laying inside it …

This chilling but quite natural world is melded in an unexpected and powerful way with the tour through the museum—home of muses—that Schiff takes us on. The tour, of course, is only the surface: churning below is a poetics urgent in its search for the way through—or out of—the habits that seem to be ruining our world:

             We grew up together
in the semifinished basements
of the suburbs
      listening to the upstairs plumbing rush the

shit of our fathers
      into the earth. Rembrandt/
Not Rembrandt was a show about the audacity of
      no. It either is or it isn’t. Rembrandt
or not. But we both know,
      though I

have to say it, there can
      be truth without vision—call it
competence; you follow it out onto the ice
      with confidence …

Schiff has always made the case, in lines that sound like no one else’s, that elaboration and texture—repetitions of sound, the dilations of rhythm and counterpoint—are the soul of art. Here she’s infused that understanding with a headlong capaciousness and with a directness that is sometimes breathtaking, like the simultaneous literality and metaphoric freight—no pun intended—in a line describing growing up “listening to the upstairs plumbing rush the / shit of our fathers / into the earth.” And so, although she writes that “we weren’t really talking about flesh, / but art history” the reverse in this poetry is beautifully and necessarily true.

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JESSE NATHAN: Can you talk a little bit about constraint—and its opposite twin, openness or loosened-ness—in poetry, or in art more generally? How do you find your way, in this book or others, to the right chemistry, the right mixture of those things? What do the rules you allow yourself—arbitrary as they might be—allow your poems? This seems especially interesting and rich in the context of a book of poems about—confronting, drawing upon, responding to—the traditions of Western art. And—maybe related?—what does “ekphrasis” mean to you?

ROBYN SCHIFF: You really get at the heart of the matter with this question, Jesse; encountering the exhilarating, disquieting surprise of what I might say to myself, squirming under the circumstances of material pressures set up in a poem—its form—is what calls me back to my desk over the course of the composition of a sentence, a poem, a book, and it’s what has most shaped my life, so far, in poetry. Your question brings to mind one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems, the one that begins “Tho’ I get home – how late – how late –” in which the speaker is driven by the excitement that delaying her return “home” piques, staying away far beyond the point of expectation, so that the confrontation upon return is genuinely one of wonderment. Perhaps coming home is a constraint, but when and how is absolutely open. I can’t resist sharing it here:

Tho’ I get home how late – how late –
So I get home – ’twill compensate –
Better will be the Ecstasy
That they have done expecting me –
When Night – descending – dumb – and dark –
They hear my unexpected knock –
Transporting must the moment be –
Brewed from decades of Agony!

To think just how the fire will burn –
Just how long-cheated eyes will turn –
To wonder what myself will say,
And what itself, will say to me –
Beguiles the Centuries of way!

Isn’t it fascinating that the poem delivers on the ear’s formal expectation of return constantly—almost extravagantly—in these giddy galloping rhyming couplets, until that penultimate line of the poem refuses this pattern, and echolocates back to the ee rhyme that catches Ecstasy and Agony and me in its net? A five-line Dickinson stanza is a relatively rare gem, and here that strange stanza embodies the surprise of satisfying, uncanny, defamiliarizing return. One of the pleasures of reading and writing poems is seeing how far I can get before an unexpected knock returns me to myself, changed. Every time I sit down to write, I wonder, “What myself will say, / and what itself, will say to me.” But what is it? The poem? Thrillingly, itself here has no obvious antecedent.

I remember a friend once asking me, a million years ago, when I was flailing under some tight formal constraint I’d wound myself up in, “Are you writing this poem, or is this poem writing you?” I think my friend expected that I would certainly want to be the writer of it, and that if I just relaxed my rule, the power dynamic could realign; but the question opened up the incredible possibility to me that a poem could write its author; that a poem’s form could play me, and change me in the process.

The most basic material constraint that drives me is merely the unit of the sentence. Sometimes I use a long sentence like a climbing rope, anchoring a first clause and then exploring as far as I can—into lucid loosed-ness or even near-incomprehension—beyond my apparent subject, returning to it hypotactically after “Centuries of way” to resolve grammar and reason past the point of expectation to do so. The sentence is especially provocative to me when it comes up mid-thought enjambed against the silence of a line break, or better yet, a stanza break. Throughout my childhood I had enthralling recurring dreams that my spirit was free of my body, and I could float about the house and look down upon myself if I wished to; but sometimes I had the terrible sensation during these adventures that I could not ever return to my body, and these became awful nightmares. Something of a long, long sentence menacingly inching beyond reason, losing the thread of logic, and briefly maybe grammar, as the meaning and making dangle over a void it feels impossible to return from and then snapping back into comprehension, enacts that heady terror for me. Adding to the constraints of the sentence, I’ve often written in syllabic forms, setting up an arbitrary number of syllables for each line of poetry stanza-by-stanza, and using that very basic structure as a way of shaping my articulation to the extent that my own syntax—the most personal fingerprint of language and the very container of breath, music, and intention—contorts under the law. That contortion is poetry. The willful constraints of grammar, logic, and syllabics dovetailing with wild, improvisational abandon press me into saying not exactly what I didn’t know I knew, but rather, what I didn’t know knew me.

In Information Desk, I’ve tried to use my stanzas more obviously as timekeepers, and instead of arbitrarily counting the number of syllables in each line, I’ve created a syllabic stanzaic structure equal to my own age when I wrote it. As absurd a pursuit as this was, this seemed to me a way to strongly be in, of, and with time; however, the poem took many years to write, so the stanzaic form needed to keep growing in scale to accommodate the passage of years. There is a sensation of carving into physical matter and time itself, moment by moment, each syllable a single second, when you engage a very personal fixed container that turns out to be a clock. You need to shape-shift to accommodate the structure. At first, the stanzaic form just grew by a second as the poem progressed into its second year of composition—easy; but when I looped back in revision a few days after my first birthday with the poem, I wondered how to accommodate the new now. Did I have the right to add a syllable in a stanza written the year before? After all, I had a new syllable count to work with. Or subtract one, two, three, four years into the composition, reflecting now the age I once was then? In this way, at its formal core, the work inevitably became a meditation on time and materials. When an artist is aware of being in fellowship with one’s own materials the encounter is essentially always an ekphrastic one; who can help describing and challenging the material itself, drawing attention to it, even as one is subject to its properties?

Maybe beyond just being artwork about artwork, ekphrasis is a whole aesthetic category that expresses the vertiginous rush of confronting the limits of material, human, mortal existence through the illimitable, playful, terrifying manipulation of art-making materials—syllables, sentences, ink, oil paint, marble, wood. Information Desk tries to examine the materials of art all over the Metropolitan Museum of Art while being aware of its own assembling material existence. When the art materials in question are replete with violence—in the case, for instance, of objects carved from mahogany, of pigments made from cochineal, of a painting fabricated on a panel of a sugar crate in the seventeenth century, or words that have been used to circumscribe and mandate the horrors of the Western world—the matter matters deeply.

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Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.