Marcus Slease

The Late Lyric: A Review
GutCult Winter 2005 Reviews

Robyn Schiff, Worth (Kuhl House, 2004), $16

        The revival of the lyric in “experimental” poetics is still being assessed. Some poets, such as Elizabeth Willis, prefer to call this return to the mode of the lyric as the “late lyric” rather than the “new lyric.” And she may have a point. The use of new is becoming increasingly suspect in our commodity culture. And besides, the “late” lyric owes as much to the textual poetics of Emily Dickinson as it does to the various practices of so-called Language Writing. The traditional use of the lyric mode is dependent on a central self. The trajectory of the poem is inward, towards the speaker of the poem. Sincerity is prized.
        Robyn Schiff’s first book, Worth, uses many subjects, from the figures of high fashion, such as Versace and Tiffany, to Marie Antoinette and Marilyn Monroe. She operates mostly in the lyric mode, but sometimes makes use of the narrative mode as well. However, both the lyric and narrative modes are disrupted. Ultimately, the subjects of these poems are neither a person, a story, nor a speaker. The second section of the book, “House of Versace,” demonstrates this use of a disruptive narrative:

                   When the
                   touched the
                   corpse and
                   the corpse
                   bled a-
                   new, it
                   was proof
                   in New

Here, the corpse could be seen as the lyric mode itself. The murder of the lyric is continual. It is an ongoing project. This murder is contained in both the narrative, an investigation into a murder, and the disruption of the narrative through sliced lines and lyric interjections reminiscent of Dickinson. For example, after the speaker tells us the suspect was wearing a cloth cloak, a Dickinsonian dash interjects with:

                   —As near
                   like it
                   as is
                   one Cloth
                   Cloak a-

This doubleness of a cloth cloaking another cloth suggests the doubleness of language itself. An unraveling of layers without a center. Yet the search for clues persists. The speaker says:

                   the arc
                   of stor-
                   y hold-
                   ing and
                   is lett-
                   ing you

This fall is not only enacted through the shape of the lines on the page but is accomplished via the allusion to the narrative/myth of the Garden of Eden. After partaking of the fruit from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve attempt to clothe themselves with fig leaves. Genesis tells us Adam and Eve are ashamed of their nakedness and in the last stanza of Schiff’s “House of Versace” the speaker exclaims, “and I / was ash- / amed.” The connection between knowledge and desire/sexuality is well precedented in the Hebrew Bible. And, while myth and desire have been subjects of lyric meditation for many poets, Schiff creates another spin. Desire here is equated with clothing. And clothing/fashion/style become a focus (locus) of lyrical meditation for many of the poems in Worth.
        As is the case with most poems in the lyric mode, desire is the engine of Schiff’s language. But unlike most poems in the lyric mode, the trajectory is outward, away from the speakers of the poems. There is no bard here. The intensity of perception is centrifugal rather than centripetal. This move outwards is not a wide dispersing of energy. The focus is on the objects themselves with a cool baroque sensibility, rather than a wild Romanticism. The poems are architectural; the language chiseled and meticulous.
        In meditating on various objects of the material world, Schiff equates desire with transaction. In “Good-Bye Finch,” the speaker says:

                   Do you know the word for
                   what you do not
                   want. Transactions take place
                   Always a disruption
                   Transactions take the place of you

What is a transaction? My nearby Webster’s defines it as follows: 1. The doing or performing of any business; management of any affair; performance. 2. That which is done; an affair; as, the transactions on the exchange. Transaction, in common use, often refers to buying and selling. Schiff’s poems meditate on the goods we buy and sell (jewelry, dresses etc.), but the poems are not concerned with an anti-consumption/anti-capitalist/pro-Marxist stance; not, at least, in any simple application of anti-market rhetoric. Instead, these poems implicate language in buying and selling suggesting that what we buy and sell is, in the end, arbitrary. Desire is the real transaction. Desire is the real performance, the real money or means of exchange, and also the “object” exchanged.
        The intensity of these poems is achieved through highly skilled word texturings and repetitions. These texturings highlight the constructedness of language. In most of the poems, language unfolds and refolds as it meditates on its objects. Consider “The House of Dior,” the last poem in section one:

                   Now we are on the chapter of pleats.
                   The impatience to fold, the joys of having folded,
                   the pleasures of folding them again.
                   Fabric enough in the sleeve to drape the dress,
                   in the skirt to drape a chest of drawers,
                   in the dress to drape the view of trees blacked-out
                   along the walk from here to the next
                   house. Walking in the dark inside the house
                   this is the black we black the windows with.

Whether these objects are natural or human-made does not, in the end, determine their worth. Both the natural world and the world of high fashion are explored with equal intensity. Neither is privileged. Words are weighed down with decorations no matter how much we may attempt to strip them down. In the title poem, ‘Worth,” for example, the speaker remarks, “The dress was so big, / one’s hand is useless to take glass from the table.” How is movement possible when words are decorated in such lavish attire? Schiff re-reminds us of the connection between art and artificial. Language is dressed (drenched) in the material world.
        Worth ends with a diamond thief named Adam Worth. It is a fitting way to close. Schiff is a thief. She steals objects of beauty (including language) and refines (rebinds) and compresses them. Unlike poems aligned with the concerns of the Romantic lyric, Schiff explores the fetish of objects without masking the constructedness of language.
        In Worth, language is both an instrument and object of beauty; a blade of beauty and utility; a “diamond/ diamond- cutting blade with which the diamond is sharpened.”