Fall for the Book lineup: Robyn Schiff’s “Revolver”

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Fall for the Book – a DC-area literary festival – began Sunday and will run through Friday night. On Tuesday night, poet Robyn Schiff will be reading at George Mason University from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. (Grand Tier III, Center for the Arts). I have been reading Schiff’s second book, Revolver, in which she examines the inventions originally displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 through a contemporary lens. Using objects as diverse as a sewing machine, revolver, envelope machine, prefabricated home and eighty-blade knife, Schiff reminds us how the machinery in our lives defines, separates, and coaxes us to evolve in different ways.

As the title image suggests, our creations – regardless of their original intentions – can lead us toward violence and psychological estrangement. In the poem, “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver,” Schiff describes the sugar gun-adorned wedding cake of inventor Samuel Colt and his new wife, suggesting that the fortune that makes their marriage possible comes with a price:

…the cake
was six feet high and how could I resist
pistols winding tier up-

on tier up the icing reverberating in
decoration the prudence of
a revolver’s placement in the holsters
of a row of guards under whose raised arms that
beam a private arbor the
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.

Similarly, in “Silverware, by J.A. Henkels,” Schiff uses the example of a silverware factory to demonstrate how technology slowly invades our lives:

A pettiness in me was honed
in this cutlers’ town, later bombed,
in which Adolf Eichmann, who was born there
alongside my wedding pattern, could hear
the constant sharpening of knives
like some children hear the corn in their hometowns
talking to them through the wind.

 

The book presents a world that is simultaneously being built up and broken down. As demonstrated by the many-bladed knife in “Eighty-blade Sportsman’s Knife, by Joseph Rodgers & Sons,” we cannot predict the complications – “all the ways a point mutates” – that our inventions create:

What catalog
of hot tools. Splayed it is

a bouquet of all the ways a point mutates. It
contains the bayonets piercing
the chain mail at the end of the mind.

 

When something new is invented, an old technology is left behind, to founder or reinvent itself. In “Project Huia,” a city is rebuilt on unstable ground:

Built on the site of a massive earthquake
in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand…
an Art Deco city
with lightning bolts and sun bursts carved
into its white stone walls stylizes
annihilation. Obliteration is an

opportunity.

In “Lustron: The House America Has Been Waiting For,” the speaker leads us through the strange new world of a prefab house:

It’s so safe here, porcelain flowers
live forever in a porcelain-reinforced
saferoom, luster on steel like
living in the barrel of a mythic Glock. Imagine a whole
life that feels like the satisfaction of passing through security with undetectable
weaponry in your carry-on.

 

Anyone who has ever tightened a leaky faucet, built a shelf, or changed a tire knows the unique satisfaction of having a hand in making something work.  Schiff suggests that this feeling of “rightness” can be dangerous, absolving us of responsibility for what we have created:

It is a joy to place the Philips-
head in the Philips-shaped slits
in the world. Twisting it, you can feel the
rotation of the earth, you can feel the
revolution in your

wrist.

…When we use the
tool intended for the job
we are neutral. The right tool for the right
task is objective truth.

 

The book’s final poem, “Project Paperclip,” reminds us that however our inventions enable us, nature and new technologies are constantly unravelling them.  Here, a maid in a garden finds that she can no longer read the assembly directions of folding chairs etched into their wood, as insects have made that impossible:

…lines of poems Chinese woodworkers once
carved into joinery of portable furnishings
to guide reassembly when the

maid charged with dismantling chairs
in the rhododendron garden is called away
before having time to reconstruct
them in the fragrant orchard…

(how will she join the pieces
when Asian Longhorned Beetles
colonize arm rails seatbacks
headrests emendating what’s
written there by chewing a
recess in the bamboo-strip

veneer, a wall-niche in a
beetle cloister, laying eggs
where a stone patron would a-
wait the second coming deep
in the alcove of the word)…

The final poem – with its images of 9/11, the bombings of World War II, and the colonization of America – reminds us that the acts of creation and annihilation are part of a much larger “game:”

…Had

you lost an eye in World War
II you would have been fitted
with a glass ball made in a
marble factory in Lau-
scha, Germany, and seen the
new world from the point of view

of one globe knocked from orbit
in a game of marbles.

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