Information Desk: An Epic
reviewed on June 19, 2023
It would be erroneous, I think, to suggest that the book-length “long-poem” has enjoyed a resurgence in the past few years—as if, among other practitioners of the form, the A. R. Ammons of the 1990s, the Anne Carson of the 2000s, or the Etal Adnan of the 2010s had never existed.
Nonetheless, a number of writers have returned, of late, to a form which in the U.S. traces its lineage to Longfellow’s “Evangeline” and Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” drawing at the same time, more or less explicitly, on the long-poem’s modernist and post-modernist inheritances: on Brook’s “A Street in Bronzeville,” on H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, on Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. Foremost among these very contemporary long-poems, it seems to me, have been Rachel Mannheimer’s Earth Room (Changes, 2022), Rosalie Moffett’s Nervous System (Harper Collins, 2019), and Srikanth Reddy’s Underworld Lit (Wave, 2020), all of which invest themselves in dilatory, meandering, slowly accumulating thought, the 60-hour HBO series as opposed to the two-season Netflix dregs—to which one might, if one were so inclined, compare many other contemporary collections.
Robyn Schiff’s Information Desk marks the latest in this laudable roster of long-poems.
Almost a kind of memoir-in-verse, the book details a time in its speaker’s life when, post-college, she worked at the Information Desk in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, moving deftly, across its several sections, among the architecture of the museum itself, the artwork it houses, and the halls of memory through which its speaker wanders. In Information Desk, that is, the Met becomes a memory palace, with the book’s staggered six-line stanzas—along with its short lines—allowing for a lissomness in and mobility of thought akin to the Gregerson tercet or Graham hitch. Like those two writers, Schiff’s style in Information Desk constitutes peak “associative” mode, cross-cut as it is by subterranean connections, nigh Proustian call-backs, and whiplash reorientations in time and place.
More than one-note ekphrasis, Information Desk uses something like Rembrandt’s Young Girl Leaning on a Window Sill to meditate on the implication of fine art with various orders of violence, including the economic and material violence underlying that painting’s composition. “Much is made of the allure / of the young girl,” Schiff writes, but
don’t call that background nothing.
From the vacancy comes tromping
lowing frequency of the hand-ground,
hoof-mouth pigment ‘bone black.’
There’s a slaughterhouse behind
Reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Information Desk brings to the foreground what Schiff calls, in her “Notes and Acknowledgments, “the laborers responsible for harvesting the material [of artistic composition], often in brutal circumstances.” At the same time, Schiff situates Met holdings within various economic and cultural markets, revealing its collection as a “maze of grift, the gifts // of steel magnates, drug lords, / refiners of sugar, and oil men.” Like the culture-washing, of late, of Saudi oil money through LIV Golf and MDLBEAST—or like the Nobel Prize, detergent for a fortune earned in mining and explosives—the Rembrandts of the Met were “purchased and made gifts of,” Schiff writes, “by a third-generation / sugar refining fortune of a New York // family who refined their slaughtercash / in giddy buying trips / to Europe.” Like Nelson, Schiff reveals the invisible violences behind the surface of color, an exposé she situates in dialogue with her speaker’s own relatively menial labor as a museum receptionist.
It is while working at the Met that Schiff’s speaker is herself subjected, in turn, to the slow or otherwise unacknowledged violence of sexual harassment at the hands of her colleagues, men who “asked me if I was wearing / a push-up bra […] and who / assisted our boss in pulling / Betsy’s skirt down inside the Desk // on the other side of which visitors were / grabbing our brochures.” Such harassment is depicted in Information Desk as the acute form of a misogyny pervasive in western art, so that Schiff’s speaker—“[s]choolgirl to whom the world has given such / a small skirt and such a tall / cold stool”—echoes visually Rodin’s study for Monument to Balzac, in which the latter appears
steadied by his
which is the negative space between his legs
and reaches all the way down to the
circular base he stands on as if
straddling a sundial.
One sees in the juxtaposition of these two images how Information Desk operates, in part, through the patterning of visual imagery, pursuing through-line intellectual threads through a kind of ekphrastic formalism; the “microscope that stands / on a tripod that stands // on the desk of Louis XV,” then, recalls in its verticality the more explicit “instrument[s]” that stand behind western art.
Information Desk is less critically adroit—and less subtle—when one can feel it reaching to make a point, leading at times to almost syllogistic ellipses in argument. Winslow Homer’s depiction of a game of “snap the whip,” for instance, is for Schiff a “[f]amiliar interaction
between the sons of men who meet
in orders whose members are said
to proudly perpetuate
a myth that each will tie the brick he has been
carrying around to symbolize
the weight of tradition
to his own penis
with a length of twine cut a few feet longer
than the height of the house
he’ll be standing on
when asked to drop the brick off.
This is a curious anecdote, linked to the world of art only by the forced assumption that snap the whip would be “familiar” to present-day fraternity brothers, themselves, one would think, a somewhat belabored bête noire. The anecdote comes to readers doubly mediated, moreover: as a rumor of a myth which has itself probably retained its currency owing to Will Ferrell’s Old School. All of which is to say—at moments, the divagations of argument and memory in Information Desk stray to the point of the tendentious.
These moments are few, however, and Schiff’s attention to class and cultural formation—the point of that brick-dropping anecdote is an economic critique of East Coast elites—is part of a welcome return of class-based discourses to the world of American poetry. I fear that this kind of book—ranging in intellect, gorgeously slow in its development of thought and feeling—may struggle to gain major-prize recognition, as other recent long-poems have struggled. It deserves that recognition, though, in part because it is so faithful to itself, so admirably assured in how it presents us its information.