The poems in Robin Schiff’s A Woman of Property are precise, like fine fabric—looping, threaded, and textured, each stitch and knot pulled to just the right tension. They aren’t formal in a traditional sense, but in reality they are nothing but form: internal rhyme darting furtively from line to line, repetition, tone-shifts, and wordplay that rivals the cleverest:
_____________The brooding lettuces
in their falcon hoods. The coppice gate
wound shut by weeds, the jaws of life
trying to keep it closed tight…
Schiff knows that as long as she commits to the loom of her design, with motifs returning throughout the collection, allusions woven deep in the language (“The pure spores of anthrax / go forward”), she can say anything.
But the one word Schiff says more than almost any other is “mouth.” If not “mouth,” then references to it: lips, drool, biting, eating, digesting. From the “jaws of life” to “Where’s your mouth?” (same poem) to blowing a rabbit-call through reeds (also same poem) to a disease “I will not transmit / as Legion transcribed from the mouth // of Error into his body” (next poem) to “I pushed the // game, equilateral public mouth / the tri-lipped angel of post- / traumatic repetition…” (third poem), Schiff continues to regard the mouth from just about every angle.
Maybe it’s the primal, mythic power of the mouth that captivates Schiff. Maybe it’s the mother-child connection, brokered by the mouth. In “Nursery Furniture,” as in other poems, she begins with an allusion to Eliot: “Guests / come and go and,” then moves back to the mouth: “I rest my rest on the baby’s head which / has an opening… .” The mouth, both life-sustaining and life-sucking, turns Jungian near the end of the poem when a furniture delivery man advises, “Bury this screw with / haste,” and adds, “deeper than you think… / An earthworm digs with its mouth.”
What odd advice, but fitting for a speaker whose memory of childhood is:
I was reared
in a thicket of
sorrow with a beautiful
string of drool
hanging out the side of my
mouth like a loose
And then the speaker’s mother draws such a deep breath—“as the drawing back of the ocean / before a tsunami”—that she is inhaled by it and deposited on the beach of adulthood: breathless, disoriented. “What a blow to mankind.”
In the next poem “A Hearing,” one of the collection’s fine longer works, the speaker pulls a piece of foam from the zippered side of her couch cushion and “[feeds] / it to its chewing face with / such tenderness.” This opens up again a line of orally-fixated images including “Jaws 3-D, the / abysmal surfacing of / mother love; the most powerful jaw in the / world is the one that sucks,” and, “a shark pup in / captivity // that was nursed with a garden hose,” and then an evil nurse who, inserting “the feeding / tube and the spinal tap, said she / practiced on herself.”
Another poem, “Dyed Carnations,” includes the lines, “I opened the toxic sachet of flower food / with my canine and rinsed my mouth.” It’s as though no matter what the subject or recollection or realm of high-concept discourse Schiff embarks on, she comes around again to the mouth—her own mouth, the ideal mouth, a Jungian mouth, a mother mouth. A baby’s suckling lips.
And it can’t be accidental, because deeper in the collection the references become more absurdly explicit. “Siren Test,” after some relatively indecipherable lupine imagery, moves to the fragment, “Called / to the porch to picture its mouth”; and begins the second stanza with “Pitch modulates / mouth” and continues:
It alters you to
make a sound like this; your face
takes an upstream mien like the
kype of an experienced fish whose muzzle
transforms into a monkey wrench.
How wide will he open his? How I admire an
animal who hunts with his face.
wolves plunging their grins in the salmon falls.
And right at the book’s center, in the poem “Gardening,” is the most wonderfully gripping and disgusting image of a wolf snail, “rewinding / common snail up its trembling spool, // the wheeling / of the whelk / inside the whelk,” which Schiff modulates to “the wheel inside the / wheel inside the meal inside the meal… .” Which she then echoes with a “steep enclosed spiral / staircase,” and finally expands to God’s promise to Jacob:
I am with you Jacob heard God
whisper, and will keep you
wherever you go, and will bring you
back to this land;
for I will not leave you
until I have done
what I have promised
This movement from wolf snail, to staircase, to God’s covenantal enclosure of Jacob shows the powerful ramifications of the mouth, the degustation of life as if it were morsels.
Gardening is, of course, a central metaphor of Puritan metaphysical poets and pastors; and the fruit of the garden, the edible result of one’s work, implies the cycle of life from birth, to work, to being devoured. In staying with her singular focus on the mouth, Schiff reveals the promise, fruitfulness, and mortal threat of human existence.
On the other hand, to read A Woman of Property exclusively through the lens of its oral fixation is to exclude much of its goodness, which lies in Schiff’s diction and her lines themselves. It is to ignore the repetition of nearly an entire poem, which appears first on page seventeen and then again on page forty-seven, the whelk within the whelk of an austerely trained poetics. It is also to ignore the thread of pop and literary references woven through the book’s eleven-page finale, “The Houselights.”
In the end, A Woman of Property is not about balance or symmetry, the cycle of life, or even property. It’s about pressure. The pressure of one being enveloping another being, of one mother hugging her child, of a greater force subsuming and defining a lesser. This can be seen best in “Lion Felling a Bull” in which a lion “rises out of the gridded pit having / nothing to do with symmetry.” Two lions “made of the same // material as me will come / upon me and the pressure that / made them makes more of them than it makes of / me…”:
…I feel a great pressure positioning
_______me. It has no regard.
This is Yeats’s “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” slouching not toward a grand apocalypse but toward the daily life of a woman, a mother. It may feel like fatalism, but its beauty of expression implies hope at least in this: that we continue pressing back against the pressure. May we not be wholly swallowed.
Author photograph © Nick Twemlow.