The first suite of poems in Robyn Schiff's collection Worth is a bit of a haute couture surprise. Marie Antoinette's white dresses, a cleverly constructed onyx-and-pearl bracelet, enormous pear-shaped diamonds, the secrets of Parisian seamstresses and the rigorous joys of pleats glimmer through these pages, reminding the reader of a time when dressing was so much more than throwing on a cardigan over a skirt.
"I am such a girl," laughs Schiff. "I've always been interested in fashion. In fact, when I lived in New York, I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Costume Institute for a while."
The early poems in the book might have titles like "House of Dior," "Tiffany & amp; Co." or "Maison Cartier," but through them Schiff explores history, culture, literature and film. In later poems, she does a similar thing with birds both real and imagined, gardens, and even Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.
"I always wanted to write a collection of poems concerned with history, but I wasn't able to get into it through the events themselves," she says. "I wanted to do it through objects. I think that's how memory works. We remember things in terms of objects -- what we were wearing, what was in the room."
Not surprisingly, Schiff is fascinated with forms. It's especially evident in the poem "House of Versace," which runs down the center of each page in ribbons of text no more than three-quarters of an inch wide. The visual tension of following the narrative in such a way, tracking words broken and hyphenated all down the page, adds to the sense of psychological tension in no way dispersed by the fact that the poem references the 19th-century murder of a prostitute.
"This might sound kind of silly, but do you remember that dress that Elizabeth Hurley wore to the Oscars a few years ago, the one that had the safety pins holding it together?" she says. "I just thought that was the most amazing dress. It was just held on but also falling off. I wanted to capture that tension in the form -- that visual sense of coming apart but not. I also tend to cling to the left margin, so there was also this sense of being out on a catwalk myself."
Schiff, who graduated from Sarah Lawrence before moving on to get her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and an MA in medieval studies from the University of Bristol, is in her first year of teaching undergraduate poetry at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Her work is informed by a voracious curiosity, resulting in poems that refuse to be read passively. There are so many references -- to the Civil War, Darwin, avian behavior, Marilyn Monroe and 18th-century fashion -- that it's tempting to stop and do periodic Google searches just to keep up.
"I think of my work sometimes as building a curio cabinet," Schiff says. "I go and get things that speak and resonate and the juxtaposition of them is expressive."
Publication date: 02/06/03