Poetry

Information Desk

Robyn Schiff

…. There was a cart
      we used to transport brochures
from a storage closet
      to the Desk. You had to steer it
back through the Renaissance
      into a passage that

opened in a dark medieval hallway
      through a door without a handle
you backed into after opening
      one-handed with a key called
the Number Two that was
      hanging from a

ball link chain around your neck. We
      talk a lot about death,
my husband and I. I want to add to
      the utter absence
of the weight that once seemed everlasting
      of the child asleep

upon me that
      I can feel not feeling,
which is the overtaking void circumscribed exactly,
      the pressure at my nape
of that ball link chain when I
      bent down to insert the key,

turned it, pushed the door open,
      and then the glimmering, insignificant beauty
of the release
      of my neck as I withdrew key from lock,
stood up, and entered.
      My mother swam in

a man-made body called the Delta Reservoir
      near the Mohawk River
outside Rome, New York
      that was the intentional result of
the engineered flooding of
      a village called

Delta
      that had been developed
into something more than just
      acreage by two men named Stark and Prosper.
You are an American Girl. Here you are in
      an American Poem

getting in the American
      water. Let’s go under
together. “I used to get
      nose bleeds from the pressure. I don’t know
that I want to get in the poem—”
      There is a ladder.

Itself a salvage.
      Let’s back down it slowly
deep in the quiet American
      Wing of the Museum
in darkness toward a new closet—not for storage
      but installed for public

viewing, a woman’s
      wardrobe. Private,
folded things, ironed, crisp
      as peeling an orange in sunlight. Lit
like a refrigerator in a dream,
      with almost nothing in it, who can

stand before it and not
      divest?
Stark and Prosper. Starched and Proper. Stiff and Angry. Forced and entered.
      Sorted and counted. Stored and forgotten.
A pull to bottom I
      associate

with dream ending before
      awakening. Not “thoughtless”;
beyond thinking. End-of-recording
      sound of the needle
dragging the void. Why should I, we, be
      afraid? Human consciousness far

predates me
      oiling the mahogany handrail
with my mere presence. Rembrandt/
      Not Rembrandt,
1995, was the first special exhibition
      I attended as museum

employee; paced it with the proprietary edge
      of a paid informant. Submit
everything to the binary.
      It had the stiff, infrared soul
of connoisseurship;
      Rembrandt/

Not Rembrandt, that’s the question;
      posed it like a strobe
with the typesetter’s solidus, the
      forward slash, a force field between
who did and who did not make it,
      without that indecisive

human “Or” Milton imposes
      between the given and the made—
Eve withdrawing from Adam
      with such gardening tools as are yet rude,
guiltless of fire had formed, or angels brought.
      Choose

a side, poet, which is it—Eve or God
      who forged the hoe? Forgery, forgery,
forgery, flash, flash, flash. I said to myself,
      if you have to ask …
but I stood before each
      painting

eating half-shadow, umber, and ocher
      every day for a month
of lunch hours trying to know. “The handling
      of the built-up impasto
is itself a valid argument
      against,”

writes the curator, Walter Leidke in the
      exhibition catalog,
            <FORGERY>
      and yet, a few paintings over—Portrait
of a Man (The Auctioneer)—“it is
      surprising how

successful the unknown
      painter was
at imitating Rembrandt’s manner
      in the light effects on the sitter’s
left cuff….” And so I came to love that
      cuff, its lace and dust, and loved the

wrist that cuff suggests, obscured here in the painting
      by the ledger
the auctioneer is holding
      on which the trembling value of what—some cows?
suggests a field, in mind,
      where a calf moves

in the shadow of a barn.
      The hot smell of manure
and mulch. A bull. How much is it all worth?
      Self portrait of the young artist as
auctioneer with your check list and radiant
      left

cuff that Rembrandt couldn’t have
      better lit, I see you; I think I touched that cuff and more
at a keg party in Slonim Woods
      and sensed
its tragic aptitude,
      counterpart to your dull right

wrist
      lacking the vision of an artist’s truth. Is that
the word? Truth?
      Follower of Rembrandt,
I followed you into the blue woods, but I changed my mind.
      There was a museum guard who would

not leave me alone in the Rembrandt/
      Not Rembrandt
show. Like everyone,
      he used his breaks to flip through
the large black binder of better jobs
      Human Resources left out on a table

for us, and was eventually transferred
      to the department of design to
walk the collection with a power drill
      tightening the Lucite fixtures
that held brochures.
      He was

peculiar, and I was afraid of him.
      When he asked if he could sit beside me
in the employees’ cafeteria,
      situated down a
private-access stairway
      beneath

the small-scale models
      of a prosperous and tedious imagined
hereafter of a Middle Kingdom
      civil servant served by
a labor force of affectless
      miniature

ghosts trapped
      in menial afterlives on boats, in gardens,
slaughterhouses, cattle stables,
      and a cramped granary
divided into two tight rooms separating
      those hoisting sacks

from scribal clerks squatting on the granary floor
      recording each ounce of grain,
I could not find my no. So down he put
      his tray and we talked a while.
He did something
      obscene, I

don’t remember what,
      with a red cherry tomato. Two months later
he was led out
      of the museum on a date
rape charge in cuffs, which seemed so new then,
      but as a phrase was coined in

1973,
      so technically is as old as
me. We grew up together
      in the semi-finished basements
of the suburbs
      listening to the upstairs plumbing rush the

shit of our fathers
      into the earth. Rembrandt/
Not Rembrandt was a show about the audacity of
      no. It either is or it isn’t. Rembrandt
or not. But we both know,
      though I

have to say it, there can
      be truth without vision—call it
competence—you follow it out onto the ice
      with confidence
finding purchase on the surface
      in the boot-ruts left by

others, but it will never
      get me across
a lake this size. My mother, a teenager,
      more than half a century ago
on the telephone with a friend on
      a day like this—

crystalline, indifferent—heard his
      little brother through the black receiver
run panting into the house
      yelling that a littler sister yet
had broken through.
      The ice was a

figure when I started that thought,
      but it transformed to ground,
which is the beginning of disaster,
      as ground gives
way to the natural transitions of
      the states of matter, in this

case, just above the solidus,
      the temperature below which
a given substance—lake water, or my will—
      is solid. As a mark
of punctuation— / —
      solidus descends toward

us from the
      imperial Roman coin of
(nearly) solid gold, also called a solidus,
      on the same downward spiraling staircase
that brings sold to soldier—one who serves
      for pay.

Such coins are on
      display today in gallery three oh one
right outside the gift shop, but a debossed glass weight
      one could use to gauge debasement
is too far away
      to help debate

the worth. Did you
      consent in basements? Yes/no. Circle one.
I didn’t no. And under the Information
      Desk? Did you no? I would
now. But I didn’t how
      so long ago. Rembrandt,

Rembrandt, Rembrandt, not,
      not, not. From slurry to slip
and back we go. Stand up, visitor. This is your hour.
      Here is your map.
Choose your cradle. Ancient Egypt to
      the right. Ancient Greece to

the left as the crow flies, if the crow flew,
      but construction obstructs
its course so you’ll see it
      strutting around, lost, making self-important caws
at the temporary walls
      of empire.

What do I mean: “crow”? The boy from SVA?
      The tourist? The teacher? The dramaturg?
School girl to whom the world has given such
      a small skirt and such a tall
cold stool? Who
      converges

in the Great Hall with me today? Sometimes
      I worked the lines
handing out floor plans
      just to get out from inside
the fact, but Information is a moveable
      Desk. John F. Kennedy

Jr. asked me late one afternoon, “What time is it?”
      and I had to tell him, “not much left
now”; we were
      closing soon. He stood
there throbbing
      like a metaphor. Son of the 20th

century whose vehicle
      was powered by props.
The Great Poet once admonished me,
      “You are reducing history to anecdote.”
“That’s more than you ever did!
      Stop raising it

up to myth!” I would have liked to have stood in front
      of Washington Crossing the Delaware
holding John-John by the hand
      and told him
I once saw it carved
      in a grain of rice.

Afterward I’d tuck the Stoic
      in 80 yards of wine-dark imported
European textile in the low,
      down bed in Gallery seven
oh nine, salute good night Medieval

America, and close the high-post
      night curtain. In this/ lucid/ state of/
poem, /I ad/mit I’m/ having/ trouble/
      envi/sioning/ the age/ of
John-John. Mother or
      liaison; boy

or man. Thomas Hart whose bed we’re
      in arrived on this land on a ship named
Desire. Who would identify
      with the mother country or
dour country mother
      variety of

Massachusetts witch, living
      apron she who used her hands to wipe her
hands on, practical Ipswich wife to whom
      this bed was left,
in this home,
      willed father-to-son, out from under her?

Lying on the bed
      I can feel the room’s dependency, its depth,
a percussive
      loyalty stomping out a fire. And with
a little reach I can use my foot
      to twitch the awful

oaken four-centuries-old cradle situated
      beside me. Imagine
the oak tree overcoming the acorn-tragic
      hunger hoarded by
a rodent.
      Every tree is an

exception. The sturdy wood
      has the self-regarding gloss
of old cabinetry turned
      in anger,
contrived squarely in defiance, in the proportions
      of a coffin; worse, this so-called

cradle
      has a hood that leans a shadow
on the empty.
      Every child thrives at the expense of someone
else’s. Though this is just a poem on the
      subject of exhibition—a

double-blind
      protection from statistics—here
I sing to John-John inside the cradle
      inside this primary Period inside
the Period Rooms inside
      the American

Wing inside this Museum. I am mothering a small man/
      wifing a tremendous potential
child/ ovulating in the period room
      and full of it:
Lust. Avarice.
      Spite.

Destiny. Dynasty. Lice.
      John-John John Kennedy Jr. wants to know
what time it is!
      That’s the 20th century behind you, child man.
You can hide inside my skirt,
      but it’s

a mini. What’s coming’s coming for you
      from the sky.
There’s a luminous noonday shine
      on the Information Desk
but it’s artifice: the Trustee’s Dining Room,
      glows above like an

expensive, minor afterlife.
      This morning I awoke to pounding deluge—
a furious heavenly manual type-
      type-typing
outside my window that turned out
      to be just

ice on the roof thawing
      but I still call that rain, if from a lower
ceiling than I thought, and I can lower
      my thinking yet,
to the museum subbasement
      where rats mount a

rotating permanent exhibition
      of excrement
among the white marble B-side nudes and
      dated marble satyrs
that may or may not
      ever see restoration or be

seen above again.
      On the same topic of being,
“Wash me”
      in the dust on the back fender of a moving car
is a traveling exhibition,
      and of the several ways a tree
disperses seed

including: by wind-drift as an arrow or parachute or powder;
      germinating afloat
upon water
      in pockets of air
like naturally occurring
      versions of the

pontoons that land the De Havilland Otter,
      ready to root
riverside
      where
the river takes them; clinging in infested feathers and matted
      or glossy or soft or not soft fur

with the sad, dignified,
      free-loading no-regret
barbs that inspired
      the marvels of Velcro; ground under the hooves and paws
of anything that charges,
      burrows, claws, herds, stampedes, is

led, leaps, or wanders
      alone across or through or around rivers and ponds,
woods, fields and yellow acreage;
      Dickensian or like
wired-martyrs, self-
      detonating “in circumstances

beyond
      the limits of acceptable fiction,”1
and then dispersed further, as in the case
      of common dog violet, whose small shrapnel
gets scavenged by ants who spread it
      incredible

relative distances
      away from the places the seed pods exploded
by dropping a few here and here en route
      to their hills, blazing
the earth
      in inadvertent pathways of dog

violet further
      inadvertently on-goingly dividing
through I don’t know how many ages
      of home-going delegates of I don’t know
how many
      ants; by the hoarding,

aforementioned, of acorns
      by rodents or jays who are hunted
by predators, or by the scattering
      of acorns
by my son and his friends
      in circumstances that sometimes shock

me, send me running outside to ask them
      to calm down, play gently, respect
one another as girls seem to—
      though my sister and I were certainly
cruel to
      each other and sometimes

strategic, when we played with acorns
      play had to do with dolls serving
dolls from beautiful earthenware
      art nouveau game dishes
fabricated in the acorn shape
      of acorns, and

was never just
      play with acorns themselves; some birds
in the thrush family
      eat a kind of vivid berry
encapsulating a tiny adamantine
      seedcase requiring

a hard-grinding gizzard
      to wear it down and passes through
the mill of the thrush
      as through history
belittled, belittled, and belittled
      until belittlement is the freedom

awakening each seed in shit
      in the alert procreative natural state
of revenge by which we will
      outnumber you;
time is the best maneuver.
      No better craftsman than

the clock inside heather,
      a seeding that insinuates into the future
by investing in soil
      and being turned on
by the temperature
      of fire rolling above the moors

like a hell bent
      plow. Overwhelming
undergoing, what infrastructure shifts
      under this one?
When I slowly crossed the park after work at the
      Information Desk my compass was

the Dakota where Polansky shot
      the exteriors of Rosemary’s
Baby, but the interiors were shot brightly
      inside my head.
Confused
      museum goers sometimes asked, “Where

are the dinosaurs?” Depending on my mood:
      “Across the park not
far away” or “That’s a good question,
      they used to be
right here.”


1 George Lewes

Robyn Schiff is the author of three volumes of poetry, including A Woman of Property and Desk: An Epic. She is a co-editor of Canarium Books, and a professor at Emory University, in Atlanta.
Originally published:
January 1, 2020

Featured

Essays

Race Off

The fantasy of race transformation
Namwali Serpell

Essays

Suicide in Fiction, Reconsidered

Why we need stories about living after a suicide attempt
Morgan Thomas

Conversations

Discipline and Abolish

Writing, power, and mass incarceration
Rachel Kushner,
Caleb Smith

You Might Also Like


Interviews

Robyn Schiff on Going Long

Precise poems in challenging times
Maggie Millner

Poetry

The Hell Test (Seven Springs)

Daniel Poppick