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


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


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


…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)…

This final poem – with its imagery 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:”


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.


Art and architecture in Pittsburgh


Jeff and I spent Memorial Day weekend sans kids in Pittsburgh. We decided that since east-bound beach traffic would be heavy, heading west was a good idea, and Pittsburgh is only about four hours from DC. So off we drove, in the stunned silence of burned-out parents of small children, into the real world.

Pittsburgh sits at the point where three rivers meet, and its historic bridges (446 of them!) define the city. We walked four miles the first day, just wandering, stopping for beer and fried oysters at the Original Oyster House, and ending up at the Penn Brewery for cheap, excellent microbrews and pierogi.

The next day, we were excited to visit the museum of Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol, which features not only his iconic artwork, but the many films he made and the TV specials he hosted in the early 1980’s. There was also a duplicate of his “Silver Clouds” installation from the 1960’s; basically, Mylar balloon “pillows” in a room, floating courtesy of wall-mounted fans. I imagine this would be great for kids, but the adults were having a lot of fun too. Most unique were his “oxidization paintings,” which were created by having friends urinate on a canvas coated with metallic paint. The colors varied according to the chemical contents of the urine; Warhol was said to be preferential to one of his assistant’s urine, which created especially vibrant colors.

We also took the short trip up the Monongahela Incline, which is still used for travel up and down Mt. Washington. The view is phenomenal:


We finished the day with friends, enjoying dinner at Soba and fireside hometown brews at Porch.

Here’s a favorite excerpt from Pittsburgh native poet Jack Gilbert’s “It Is Difficult to Speak of the Night,” which honors the new worlds we discover as we get older:

This is not the night of the young:
their simple midnight of fear.
This dark is a major nation.
I turn to it at forty
and find the night in flood.
Find the dark deployed in process.
Clotted in parts, in parts
flowing with lights.
The voices still keen of the divorce
we are born into.
But they are farther off,
and do not interest me.
I am forty, and it is different.
Suddenly in midpassage
I come into myself. I leaf
gigantically. An empire yields
unexpectedly: cities, summer forests,
satrapies, horses.
A solitude: an enormity.
Thank god.

The Basket of Curiosities


I have trouble getting anything done when there is visible clutter. This morning, the house was overrun with scattered toys, cuttings from various papers, books, and game pieces. So I spent twenty minutes getting everything back to its container and shelf. Unfortunately, there are always items that defy classification, don’t really have a place: kid’s meal toys that must be kept until they are forgotten about (for us, about a week); pieces large or small from games that are temporarily missing; “prizes” obtained from school – like decorative erasers – that must be kept but aren’t useful; bottles of soap bubbles. I guess everyone needs a junk drawer for all these things, so that the house doesn’t resemble the Island of Misfit Toys, and I found a deep basket to accommodate all these random shapes and sizes.

In one’s life, there are many such junk drawers. I have a writing binder – containing failed poems, interesting lines I’ve written but never used and probably won’t, heartening letters from mentors – that although I rarely look at it, would never throw away. The kitchen cabinet with rarely-used appliances reminds me on the bleakest days that I can whip up a Margarita in just moments. These stashes are different from the photo boxes or love letter bundles that are irreplaceable; they contain objects of often irrational desire, rather than things we solidly love or need.  Similarly, I find I get antsy when I don’t have enough incoming randomness in my life, whether it is a new friend, book, or image that pops out from nowhere – a junk drawer of the mind, so to speak.

I love Radmilla Lazic’s poem “Anthropomorphic Wardrobe” (translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic) for its interesting take on the objects in our lives. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s no more room. We are full.
Everything we stored, layer by layer
Folded, packed in as if bandaging wounds…

Forgotten. Taken down in a hurry.
Thrown in the corner: Turned inside out.
What is indispensable and what is less so
Thrown on top of each other.
Once made to measure, then grown short,
Grown too tight, faded or shiny — it’s all here.

Adam’s little broken rib.
The plucked angel’s wing.
Venus’s fur and love-stain.
Rings. Combs. Ghosts. Moths.
No one can find anything here.
Where is it? Turn it upside down! Rummage!
Lost, then found again.
Rejected, then cherished again.
Cobwebs sway. The mouse gnaws.
The butterfly spreads its wings.

Kids at poetry readings


Last night, I took an enormous leap of faith and took my first grader to her first poetry reading. This particular reading – part of the Iota Reading Series curated by Miles David Moore and hosted by Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington, Virginia – seemed a good fit. I promised her a brownie sundae, and packed a bag of books, paper/crayons, and other items to keep her entertained while I listened. 

Poetry readings can be a wild card: profanity happens, and just about any subject can come up in a poem. When that happened last night (and it was possible to see it coming) I whispered in her ear about what she was writing/drawing/reading to distract her. I suppose at those times we could have taken a bathroom break as well. We hear “adult content” in public places anyway (just take a ride on the Metro to hear plenty of choice words, not redeemed by any possible artistic value). Explanations must be given at some point; she knows that adults sometimes drink different drinks than kids (alcohol, soda with caffeine), and make different choices (in behavior, language), so I felt I could handle whatever questions might emerge.

She loved it, and amazingly, asked when we could go to another one. Part of it was probably the brownie sundae and being out after her usual bedtime, but she also seemed to view other poets as exotic creatures (“Is she a poet? Is he a poet?”) and liked the lit-up stage and the bar stools. She paid more attention to the poetry than I’d anticipated, quoting lines back to me later, and citing particular poems (“I loved the pirate poem where they walked the plank.”). I did miss the usual moments of reflection afterwards; when my mind would normally be buzzing with the energy of the evening, I was bombarded with questions on the way home: “How did they get those lights to work? Can I get some for my room? Can I read up on the stage next time?”

She came out of the reading with a book she had written and illustrated, “Humphrey Saves the Cow,” about a heroic hamster who has to use advanced engineering skills (and tissues, string and rubber bands) to create a parachute for a cow falling from an airplane during a tornado. (Now, there’s a poem.) 🙂

One of my favorite poems by Sylvia Plath is “Child,” which illustrates the perfect vision that we all begin with:

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose name you meditate —
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.



As I write this, I’m on hold with a Verizon representative, who has left me on hold for six minutes as he investigates why our internet connection keeps dropping every five minutes. For every minute that goes by without hearing his voice, I know (from prior experience, unfortunately) my chances increase for being hung up on. I’m now up to minute 26 on this call. When will he return?

I participated in a poetry reading on Saturday which – in the way that good readings do – renewed my interest in my own work and in others’, gave me a surge of energy and made me remember why I write poetry even when most of the world gives it a thumbs-down and a broad yawn. Sometimes at a reading, you feel that the writers are connected, that they are all heading for the same place, though stylistically getting there in different vehicles. This was such a reading, when humor, image, feeling came together into a wondrous whole that echoed the newborn spring weather.

One poem that particularly affected me was Michael Gushue’s “Poem Beginning Inappropriately With A Line By Marianne Moore,” which invokes the image of a lava lamp. I still use my lava lamp from college; when I come downstairs in the morning, it’s often the first thing I turn on. I was sick a number of times this winter, and watching the teal globes pinging the glass, and each other, as the bulb heated somehow helped me through the dreary winter days. A reminder of heat, of connection?

Here’s an excerpt from my favorite “lava lamp poem,” from Gushue’s new chapbook, Pachinko Mouth:

…It’s a banana peel
cosmos out there–you can’t controlfreak
how to slip, but, you know, when I fall,

I want to fall for you. Why? Because lava
lamps tell time, and there’s a lot of beauty
in chaos.

… What is it time tells us?
To rise towards each other. If we pull
apart, break up, it’s the heat building
inside. If we hunker down, we’re one.

My top five love poems

I’ve selected my top five love poems – one romantic, one intellectual, one humorous, one passionate, and one familial – in the hope that these will fill your Valentine’s Day needs. Here they are:

1) Romantic – “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” by E.E. Cummings

I first heard this poem in the 1980’s Woody Allen movie “Hannah and Her Sisters,” in which a man gives this poem to a woman he hopes to seduce. It works. 🙂 The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose…


(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

2) Intellectual – “Variations on the Word Love” by Margaret Atwood

Love poems that are a bit more intellectual appeal to me since I’m more of a realist, less of a romantic. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

This is a word we use to plug
holes with. It’s the right size for those warm
blanks in speech, for those red heart-
shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing
like real hearts.

Then there’s the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It’s not love we don’t wish
to fall into, but that fear.
this word is not enough but it will
have to do. It’s a single
vowel in this metallic
silence, a mouth that says
O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.

3) Humorous – Bob Hicok’s “Mortal Shower”

This is a funny poem that reminds us how everyday moments add up into love. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

… I’m

in Pittsburgh tonight
and with her,
mirrors don’t scare me,
room service is a gas
because she’s alive, I’m a giant,
a tight-assed
titan because she’s alive
and says

come home, the Honda needs
new brakes, a robin flew
into the window today
but shook it off, just
dizzy, stunned
by reflection.

4) Passionate – Anne Sexton’s “Us”
This one speaks for itself! Read the whole text here, or this excerpt:

I stood up in my gold skin
and I beat down the psalms
and I beat down the clothes
and you undid the bridle
and you undid the reins
and I undid the buttons,
the bones, the confusions,
the New England postcards,
the January ten o’clock night,
and we rose up like wheat,
acre after acre of gold,
and we harvested,
we harvested.

5) Parental love – “Santa Barbara Road” by Robert Hass
I love Hass’s idea of being defined by the people who love us. Here’s an excerpt:

Household verses: “Who are you?”

the rubber duck in my hand asked Kristin

once, while she was bathing, three years old.

“Kristin,” she said, laughing, her delicious

name, delicious self. “That’s just your name,”

the duck said. “Who are you?” “Kristin,”

she said. “Kristin’s a name. Who are you?”

the duck asked. She said, shrugging,

“Mommy, Daddy, Leif.”

Midsummer nights

Today I’m letting Adrienne Rich say something inspiring about this sweltering night, which has me camped in front of the A/C register.  I love the coolness of her images here: the blue stones in the moonlight, and her solitude “half-blotted by darkness.” Here is an excerpt from the final poem of her “Twenty-One Love Poems:”


The dark lintels, the blue and foreign stones
of the great round rippled by stone implements
the midsummer night light rising form beneath
the horizon… And this is not Stonehenge
simply nor any place but the mind
casting back to where her solitude,
shared, could be chosen without loneliness…
I choose to be a figure in that light,
half-blotted by darkness, something moving
across that space, the color of stone
greeting the moon, yet more than stone:
a woman. I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.

Debris of a derecho

On June 29, many residents of the D.C. area learned a new word: “derecho,” which is an intense windstorm. We were traveling in California when it hit, but were able to see the devastating results all over the internet and Facebook. During a time of record heat, the power outages throughout the area – which silenced air conditioning units, computers, refrigerators, ATMs, gas stations, and traffic lights – revealed how dependent our modern lives are upon electricity.

For most, the electricity is back, and the record heat is a memory, but the East Coast humidity is thick, exacerbated by a light morning rain. I thought today of J.D. Smith’s poem “Humid Continental” (from his book Settling for Beauty), which beautifully conveys the metamorphosis that such weather makes possible. Here’s an excerpt:

It is better to let moisture

work its way into things,

sheets of paper that curl

at the corners and revert

to ancestral scrolls,

a wooden door swelling

in its swollen doorjamb.

To open that door and walk out

would take a hard pull,

an act of will.

But it is better

to let unfurl from the wood

small, then greater fungi

shaped like trumpets and like drums.

Someone should attend their still recital.

Poems on Travel

Every summer, we head to California to visit family. Although our six-hour plane trip – with little kids in tow – is decidedly unromantic, that moment of lift-off, of anything-can-happen, is marvelous.

On the subject of plane travel, I love David Brendan Hopes’ poem “A Jet Flying Over Oxford.” Here’s an excerpt from the poem, from his book A Dream of Adonis:

Strange tenderness I feel for you,

little fishbones of a jet…

a crack in the Wedgewood blue,

bird-like and spirit-like, swiftly passing.

Strange tenderness–

As if you were small as you look

and I’d catch you if you fell–


As if you were a spirit like my spirit,

thin bone, blown fluff, smoke,

nowhere alighting–

as if you were the one who comes in thunder

when he will, and all are summoned home.

The Artists’ Salon

On Saturday night, I attended the first meeting of Steve and Katy May’s “salon,” with a number of other writers and visual artists. Steve and Katy run Plan B Press, which specializes in poetry chapbooks of astonishing, handmade detail. We passed the chapbooks around, admiring the hand-stamped letters on covers, pressed-flower linings, and of course, the stunning poetry within. It is rare to find books that celebrate both the visual and literary arts.

The writers in attendance read samples of their work, the artists presented work from their portfolios, and many questions were asked. I’ve written a number of ekphrastic poems based on paintings, and it was fascinating to discover the mental processes and physical techniques behind creating a drawing or painting. We all came away from the meeting flush with the discovery of new colors, words, perspectives.

On the mystery of creation, I love this excerpt from “Poetry” by the Spanish poet Luis Garcia Montero (translated by Katie King):

Perhaps [poetry] serves also,

if water is death,

to part the water with a dream.

And if time grants us its unique matter,

it serves possibly as a blade,

because a clean cut is better

when we open memory’s skin.

With broken glass


leaves ragged wounds.