TWO OF THESE sixteen poems ("House of Schiaparelli" and "Dear Ralph Lauren") seem to have wandered in from Worth in their pondering of upper-class consumption, but in the main they contemplate the machinery of modernity, mainly of the mid-19th century (the inventions of Colt, McCormick, and Singer) with a nod to the 20th in a poem on the Lustron house.
I happen to have actually seen a Lustron house; there's one in my brother's neighborhood in Des Moines. Not as creepy as the house in Schiff's poem, I would say, but certainly had the aura of a tomorrow one is glad never arrived.
I happen to have heard a few of these poems, too; I attended a reading by Schiff in, I think, 2007, somewhat before this book appeared, and I am 95% sure she read "Project Paperclip," one of the two 10+-page poems that anchor the volume ("Project Huia" at midpoint, "Project Paperclip" at the end).
Schiff's poetry is complex of syntax but sparing of punctuation, so much so that I am not sure they are not better heard than read. Anyone who imitates Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in writing a poem about the bird flu ("H5N1") is A-OK in my book, though.
Schiff's customary procedure is to start down a path, go off on a tangent, then take another tangent, then another...and just when you think she is being charmingly inconsequent, you find you are back on the same path that the poem started out on, although it looks a little different now, scarier perhaps, the light a little more ominous, and there is more at stake in this little walk than you had guessed. What seemed like whimsical departures wind up making a tight braid, a Gordian knot.
Schiff often starts on a light, charming note--a Schiaparelli gown, a tote bag, a fork, buoyant cork furniture--but beware. She is setting you up. The trap is being laid.
Sometimes she does not even bother to start out by being charming. In "Iron Door Knocker the Shape of a Man's Face, by Feetham," the chill has already set in with the opening lines, "Has no fly laid a sac of eggs / in the wet hole in the house finch / dead on the back porch / a week [...]". There is worse to come. Remember the last line of Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station," "Someone loves us all"? Here Schiff considers the mayflies on her screen door:
A swarm of mayflies clutching
the wire mesh on their only night on earth.
They defile it until they
die, though it's not exactly
true they live their whole
lives in one humid day.
They were larvae first, that takes years,
then they emerge starving with no
mouth. Someone hates us very
Like the six-shooter on the book's cover, Schiff's poems look ornate and fanciful, but that doesn't mean they can't send a bullet through you.